There are more than 30,000 temples in Thailand, but not many can claim to be as unique as the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Stunningly beautiful, completely white, and featuring sculptures that depict a mix of popular culture and Buddhist beliefs, the White Temple is extremely popular with visitors and locals alike.
The top attraction in Chiang Rai and one of the most popular tourist sites in Thailand, the White Temple is one attraction you must see when visiting the country. This guide will take you through what you can expect when visiting Wat Rong Khun and why you should visit.
the white temple
Facts of Wat Rong Khun
- Year of construction: 1997
- Popularity: one of the top three temples in Thailand
- Popular activities: touring the temple and visiting souvenir shops and cafes
- Suitable for: all visitors, particularly temple and architecture lovers
- Time needed: 1–2 hours
- Location: about 13 km (8 miles) south of the Chiang Rai city center
- How to get there: hire a songthaew (passenger vehicle) or rent a motorcycle
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What Makes It Special
Visitors to the White Temple are initially struck by the beauty of the Wat Rong Khun from the outside. However, once you get inside, things start to get a little weird, crazy, yet beautiful at the same time.
Listed below are just some of the things that make Wat Rung Khun so special.
An All-White Temple
the white temple
If you have visited temples in Thailand before, you would know that white is usually not a color used in them.
Most of them have a gold trim and look lavish, but in this temple, the designer decided to go with something unique and chose the color white. There are no gold trims anywhere — the entire temple is in white.
The designer of the temple, visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat, chose white not only because it symbolizes the purity of the Buddha, but also because in moonlight it can look ghostly.
Special Sculptures and Murals
sculptures in the white temple
A visual masterpiece, you will be amazed at just how beautiful some of the sculptures and murals are at the White Temple. They all symbolically represent "heaven and hell" or "good and evil".
While many have been designed in the traditional Thai Buddhist style, others have been given a modern twist. You will see sculptures of modern-day heroes and villains dotted around the premises: Darth Vader, the Terminator, Batman, and even Angry Birds.
Hidden Buddhist Messages Mixed with Modern Art
The White Temple is unique in that it mixes traditional Buddhist beliefs with modern art. In one place you will see scary-looking mythical creatures and in another, you will see Batman or some other symbol of modern pop culture.
This melding of cultures is part of the vision of the designer and owner of the building, who is a world-famous visual artist.
Almost everything at the White Temple depicts some form of Buddhist message, whether religious or symbolic. The White Temple is all about escaping some of our human flaws such as greed, temptation, and desire.
Most of the mythical creatures, gods, and other statues and decorations depict this. Even the modern creations have a hidden meaning to them.
The Restroom Building Is Ornate
restroom in the white temple
Another standout feature of the White Temple is the restroom. Called the Golden Building, this ornately decorated building houses the restrooms at the temple.
Completely painted gold and featuring ornate decorations, this building represents the body while the ubosot (ordination hall) represents the mind. The Golden Building is probably the most beautiful restroom in Thailand.
Explore Wat Rong Khun
With nine buildings in total, there is just so much beauty to see and admire at the White Temple. As you pass through the main temple, you will be able to start exploring the rest of the complex. The following are some of the main features of Wat Rong Khun.
The Bridge of "The Cycle of Rebirth"
To get to the main building (ubosot) of the White Temple, visitors must cross the bridge of "The Cycle of Rebirth".
The area in front of the bridge is said to represent human suffering, and crossing the bridge from this area to the "Gate of Heaven" represents overcoming our baser traits, such as greed and desire, as we are reborn into a new state that is free of suffering.
When crossing the bridge, you must not stop or obstruct the path of anyone else. If you do so, it would symbolically mean that you are blocking their path into heaven.
Gate of Heaven
On the other side of the bridge is the Gate of Heaven. Either side of the gate is a large statue representing "Ketu" and "Rahu". Mythical Buddhist gods, Rahu is the worldly protector and Ketu is otherwise known as death. Between them, they decide the fate of men.
the white temple
This is the main building at the White Temple. It has been constructed with white plaster that contains tiny pieces of mirrors. This enables the White Temple to emanate and radiate light during the day and give off a spooky glow in moonlight.
Inside, you will find numerous murals that depict Buddhist stories of the fight between good and evil. A golden mural of the Buddha himself can also be found on the back wall inside the ubosot.
Another visually stunning building at the White Temple is the Crematorium. Beautifully ornate, this is where the dead are cremated.
Buddhists believe that once we die, we pass through a cycle of death and rebirth. Depending on the good and bad deeds that a person has performed during their life, they will be born as an animal or human and live in heaven or hell.
Buddhists are taught to remember that their time on earth is temporary, and they must take the right actions during this lifetime, as these will determine the creature they are reborn as upon their death.
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History of Wat Rong Khun
Not much is known about the original temple ruins which were located where the present Wat Rong Khun (or White Temple) stands. It is said that there were efforts to restore the original temple, but this was eventually scrapped due to a lack of funds.
The site became famous after Khositpipat took it upon himself to turn the ruins into what it is today — one of Thailand's most popular temples. Rather than restore the original temple, he decided to rebuild it completely using his own money. To date, he has spent more than USD 30 million on this project.
Hailing from Rong Khun village, Khositpipat is widely regarded as one of Thailand's greatest artists. Decorated and respected at a global level, Khositpipat began work on the site back in 1997 and has been adding to it ever since.
In fact, it is still not finished and may not be for decades. Work has been scheduled for until 2070. At 65 years of age, Khositpipat is proud of the fact that his dreams will continue to be realized long after he has passed.
A 6.3-magnitude earthquake significantly damaged the temple in 2014, and Khositpipat initially claimed it would have to be demolished. It was later revealed that it could be repaired — much to the joy of all the locals and visitors.
Etiquette for Visiting Wat Rong Khun
the white temple
When visiting the White Temple or any other temple in Thailand, you must respect Thai culture and beliefs. Avoid wearing revealing clothes and always remove your shoes before entering any temple or house.
Taking photographs when inside the main building is forbidden, so please abide by that rule and any others that may be in place when visiting. Entry inside many of the buildings may be prohibited on certain days due to the ongoing construction at the White Temple.
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What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Wat Rong Khun
- It will take 20 to 25 minutes to get to Wat Rong Khun by car from the center of Chiang Rai.
- The White Temple is a popular tourist attraction, so expect crowds and queues. Going through a private tour will help a lot with getting tickets prepared in advance and the local guide will lead you through a less-crowded route.
- It is usually open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thai time. It does close for lunch from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. The food court remains open, so you can wait there.
- Depending on whether there is work being carried out at the temple, some buildings may be closed for access.
Places to Visit After the White Temple
Once you have taken in the visual delights of the White Temple, the most logical thing to do would be to visit its counterpart. The White Temple is known to represent heaven, so why not visit the ‘Black House' (Baan Daan), which instead represents hell?
This temple is a 20-km (12-mile) drive from Wat Rong Khun, so you could effectively see them both in a day. Other suggestions include the Golden Triangle, the Blue Temple, and Wat Phra Kaew.