Travel: White Temple Shines through Distinction, Absurdity in Chiang Rai Thailand
Vibrant oranges and yellows, naga statues bejeweled with colored glass prisms, shining gold-laden trims and buddhas – these are motifs typical of a Thai temple one might expect. Temples of this nature are ubiquitous in many of Thailand’s northern areas, even at the smaller or less famous sites. After a while, though, even the most temple-hungry tourist might find the same beautiful themes a bit monotonous.
Enter Wat Rong Khun, or as it is better known to tourists, the White Temple. Located about 13 kilometers south of the northern city of Chiang Rai, this relatively new and highly unconventional temple is a sure visual standout from others. Rather than the typical golds and oranges, visitors are greeted by blindingly bright white and silver on the backdrop of deep blue Thai sky. But the differences in color scheme are truly only the beginning.
Built in 1997 by painter Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple could perhaps be seen as a Buddhist parallel to Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The site maintains much of the architectural structure of traditional temples; beyond that, though, the White Temple abounds with elements of the surreal or even absurd.
A journey to the temple’s heart begins by crossing a bridge surrounded by a pool of hands. Piles of stark white fingers and arms thrust upward rather grotesquely – some with claws, others with the occasional painted fingernail, all meant to symbolize desire. Around them one can also spy a variety of distorted faces and monsters melting into and out of the ground, often adorned with mirrored prisms to catch the light. For much of the day, tourist herders with whistles will rush visitors over the bridge and out of this particularly bottlenecked area, toward the main sanctuary.
Inside the main building, things get more colorful and exponentially stranger. Murals display samsara (the cycle of rebirth) through an image of the cosmos, but rather than being dotted with typical pictures of the Buddha, one will notice that they instead depict Matrix-style Keanu Reeves, Kung fu Panda, Michael Jackson, and Superman. Many of the temple’s paintings and features are still being modified, so even more pop-culture absurdity is likely to pop up here in the future. A gallery on the ground also sells reproductions for those who appreciate the style and clash of cultures.
Outside of the fenced-in main area to the temple, a range of other interesting attractions and photo-ops surround the site. In one spot, a statue of an alien from the Predator movie bursts forth from the grass on the temple grounds. In another, plaster heads hang from trees, some of which appear to be “vomiting” plants. Again, many of these figures are somewhat grotesque, and some are rather familiar: among the severed hanging heads visitors can see Freddy Krueger, Pinhead from Hellraiser, and even Batman. Other displays use studded skulls and demons to remind visitors of the evils of smoking and whiskey. Even the bathroom building is a lavish, photo-worthy construction covered in shimmering gold.
Unlike with Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, Chalermchai had to fund much of his work himself in the beginning. He is said to have created the site to honor the purity of the Buddha, but was also quoted as saying that he thought the artwork would bring him “immortal life” as well.
Wat Rong Khun is a sure stop on many package tour circuits in the far north of Thailand, so busloads of visitors are blasting through at warp speed during many of the peak hours. As with many sites, the best times for visiting would be early morning or closer to the evening close time. The temple complex rests just off the main highway that cuts through the north. To get there solo, visitors can take a moto taxi or shared truck from Chiang Rai’s city center for a modest price, or they can board a bus going between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
The White Temple is said to still be under construction, and new buildings and elements may continue to open there for quite some time in the future. As it stands, though, the site is already an amusing and visually stimulating beacon (though a quite crowded one) among the neverending sea of Thai temples.