Superman flies through the paintings on a temple wall. A towering demon rises above you wielding a sword. Hands reach out from the depths below you on a bridge to a heavenly temple. Shrunken heads sprouting Spanish moss hang from tree branches. Thai angels and mystical creatures cavort through the temple grounds and on the masterpiece sanctuary at the temple’s heart. Wander through the magical world of Wat Rong Khun, often referred to in English as the White Temple.
Perhaps the most unique temple in the Kingdom of Thailand, the White Temple was born from the devotion of National Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. A deeply devout Buddhist famed primarily for his religious-themed paintings, Chalermchai began the White Temple in 1997. Wat Rong Khun however is no traditional temple. Chalermchai re-imagines Thai art for the modern world. As you move through the temple grounds, you find yourself in the artist’s surreal vision of Buddhist teachings. Superheroes, movie stars and cartoons make their entrance into temple murals depicting traditional Buddhist motifs. Fantastical sculptures and architecture cover the landscape.
The esteemed artist’s imaginative touch makes its presence known even from outside the temple itself. Red skulls top traffic cones on the street. Light gleams brightly from the central temple hall.
Every detail of Wat Rong Khun carries deep religious symbolism – though admittedly most Thais will be unaware of most of the meaning as well unless they have studied up on its mysteries. Departing from the expected gold, Chalermchai chose to construct the temple in white, symbolizing the purity of Lord Buddha. The mirrors embedded in the structure reflect light, representing the Buddha’s wisdom shining out across the Earth and the Universe.
Much of the temple’s messages refer to escaping desire, greed and passion and moving towards the sublime through Buddhist teachings. To reach the main temple hall, you cross a threshold guarded by demons and traverse a bridge over an ocean of ghostly hands reaching up from the cycle of death and rebirth. The temple building symbolizes the realm of the Buddha and rising to a state of nirvana.
What Is There to See?
Wat Rong Khun is a work in progress. All details of the white ubosot, the main temple hall, have been recently completed. A number of other buildings are in various stages of construction and decoration. The masterplan is expected to take decades to complete.
Definitely visit the shimmering white temple hall.
Wander the temple grounds to see its sculptures.
Have a look at the golden toilet. Remember how Chalermchai felt white was a more appropriate colour for a temple? He specifically chose gold for the restroom to indicate worldiness. An extremely opulent building — the most luxurious toilet in the kingdom — it’s apparently a comment on how people worship worldly desires and what the real value in these things is.
Visit the art gallery. This relatively small building houses a number of the artist’s masterpieces. You can also buy high quality reproductions or books and postcards if you’d like.
Visiting the White Temple
The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is located 13 km outside the city of Chiang Rai.
If travelling from Chiang Rai, you can go by songthaew (the covered pick-up trucks you find throughout much of Thailand) or take the public bus from platforms 7 and 8 of the old bus station. (Chiang Rai has two main stations – old and new). Ask the bus driver or conductor to drop you off at Wat Rong Khun. The bus is only 20 baht each way.
The busses and songthaews back to Chiang Rai depart from the front of the police station. Flag them down as they pass. Most will be on their way to the city.
You can also go by tuk-tuk; the driver may wait for you for the return trip.
Wat Rong Khun is open every day from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm.
The art gallery is open Mon – Fri 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. On Sat – Sun and national holidays the gallery is open 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.
How Long Should We Spend There?
Plan on approximately 1 hour of visiting time. Visitors typically spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours at the temple, depending on how quickly they explore, how much lounging they do in the grounds, and how much time they spend in the art gallery, shopping stalls and dining area.
Visiting the White Temple with Children
Because of the white surface, reflective materials and mostly open unshaded layout of the temple, on warm sunny days the temple can feel quite hot and bright. To beat the heat, you may want to visit early morning or at least take your typical sunny weather precautions in terms of clothing, hats, sunscreen, water, etc.
Wondering if it’s too scary for children? While there is a lot of creepy imagery, the temple complex is bright and cheery and you’ll be surrounded by lots of other visitors in good spirits. It doesn’t at all have a dark and spooky haunted house feel. Countless numbers of children visit. While some small children may find certain details scary, the overall vibe of the temple is upbeat and full of beauty.
Wat Rong Khun is a place of worship. While it may be unconventional for a temple, Wat Rong Khun still an honoured sacred site for Thais and a place for prayer and ritual. Many Thai tourists visit the temple to see its creativity as well; at the same time, they respect it for its religious significance and act accordingly.
Be respectful of Buddha images and particularly mindful of your behaviour at the main temple hall. Photography is allowed throughout the grounds but not within the walls of the White Temple.
Please do not touch the sculptures and artwork – and remind your children not to do so.
Casual dress is absolutely fine. As with all temples, avoid revealing clothing such as short skirts or shorts on women. Short sleeves are fine but but tank tops on men or women are not appropriate.
Entrance to the temple is free for all.
Due to the disrespectful behaviour of some foreign tourists, Wat Rong Khun has recently instituted a policy requiring guides for foreign tourists visiting the the main temple building. The policy however is not always enforced. Should you wish to have a guide or be required to hire one, there are a number available at the temple itself. The fee for a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide is in the several-hundred baht range. If you do enter without a guide, please do act respectfully and refrain from taking photos inside.