I signed up for the Golden Triangle Day Tour from Chiang Mai, and one of the tour highlights was to visit the White Temple in Chiang Rai. The drive from Chiang Mai to the White Temple took approximately 3 hours. The official name of the temple is Wat Rong Khun but is popularly known as the White Temple because of the all-white exterior of the temple embedded with fragments of mirrored glass.
Interestingly, the White Temple is actually considered as an art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple, privately owned by Thailand’s leading visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat who is also from Chiang Rai. The building was found to be in a neglected state in the 1990s and funds were not available for renovation. Kositpipat, then, took on the responsibility to rebuild the temple with his own money. He constructed and re-designed the site, and opened the temple to the public in 1997.
The architectural design of the White Temple is unlike the typical Buddhist temples of Thailand – it’s unusual, unconventional and to some extent, eccentric.
The main building of the temple is reached by crossing a bridge guarded by demons, over a small lake from which rise hundreds of ghostly hands. This means crossing over the threshold of evil and traversing through the cycle of death and rebirth in order to reach a state of nirvana.
I understood the meaning behind the concept of the bridge and eerie-looking hands but I found the artist’s message a bit odd after crossing the bridge and entering the main hall of the temple.
The exterior of the temple is pristine white but the interior of the main hall is dark red and orange. The murals inside the main hall are depicted with flames and menacing images. My first thought was, if the objective was to cross over the threshold of evil to enter the main hall of the temple which I assumed represents the sublime state of nirvana, then why the dark and hostile images?
What was also strange was the artist had drawn pictures of Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddy Krueger and the destruction of World Trade Centre on the murals. Apparently, these images symbolise the dark side of human nature and its impact on earth. Hmm, OK, good point. However, I couldn’t figure out why images of Hello Kitty, Superman and Harry Porter were also featured on the murals! Good triumphs over evil in the end?
On May 5 2014, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck southwest of Chiang Rai. As a result, some parts of the White Temple were damaged and the heart-broken Kositpipat initially considered having the temple closed and demolished. However, engineers inspected the site and found the temple still structurally sound, therefore safe for the public to visit.
- Admission is free. Donations are welcomed but not more than THB10,000 as the artist does not wish “to be influenced by big donors”.
- Best time to visit is before 10am, after which the temple compound is swarmed by tourists arriving in bus loads, armed with selfie sticks!