The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
My first few days in the city of Chiang Rai were not what I would call fun. My adventures in Thailand were almost at an end, so I had a whole bunch of stuff to sort out. Thus, for 48 hours, sightseeing went out the window as I arranged my train back down to Bangkok. Then sorted out a hotel there for a few nights. Next, I booked up my flight to London and had a second interview on Skype for an English teaching job in the Spanish town of Castro Urdiales.
There were a dozen other admin tasks on top of all that. To make my chores more enjoyable, I went to a local cafe for coffee and bites. The daily walk took me past the kitschy goldenness of the Chiang Rai Clock Tower. Constructed in 2005, it stands in tribute to Sirikit, The Queen Mother of Thailand. Each evening, at 19:00, 20:00 and 21:00, the tower comes alive with a light and sound show.
Nangnon Coffee definitely made my tasks easier to bear. My cappuccinos were fantastic, while their fruit bowls, pancakes and toasties always hit the spot. I see they’re still going, and that reviews are consistently good.
Eventually, I was done with everything and ready to set off for an afternoon at one of Thailand’s most fascinating and surreal sights. I had seen dozens of temples throughout my Thai travels. However, it’s safe to say that I had never seen a temple even remotely similar to this.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
“Oh wow!” I remember saying, out loud to myself, as I cast my eyes across Chiang Rai’s weird and wonderful White Temple. Wow because it’s strangely beautiful. But mostly a “this is nuts” kinda wow, if you know what I mean. Better known among Thais as Wat Rong Khun, this Buddhist temple is one of Asia’s most ambitious and outlandish art projects.
It all sprang from the mind, hand and bank balance of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai artist. He made his fortune primarily as a painter, with much of his work featuring Buddhist imagery.
Moreover, his increasingly contemporary approach to Buddhist art soon garnered him a reputation as a bold and controversial artist. How controversial? I’m talking ninja turtles and an image of a punk rocker Ronald Reagan painted into a scene of Buddhist enlightenment. Seriously.
As a result, it was perhaps no surprise that the millionaire artist decided to buy an old dilapidated Buddhist temple and transform it into his own artistic vision. That vision, although bonkers, is actually pretty simple. To create a temple complex that combines traditional Thai and Buddhist architecture with uncompromising injections of surrealist art and modern culture. In addition to a few fun cardboard cutouts of himself, of course.
According to Kositpipat, improving and expanding The White Temple has become his life’s work. His offering to Lord Buddha and a project that he believes will grant him immortality.
Furthermore, he has predicted that the temple “should be finished by 2070”. The year, don’t you know, that would see him turn 115 years old. Chuckling to myself as I paid the entrance fee (50 Baht/$1.50), I made my way into the complex to check out his grand masterpiece for myself.
From a distance the temple looks like an exercise in absolute simplicity. Its singularly white exterior symbolises the purity of Buddha’s teachings and the idea of always being kind to others. Yet it doesn’t take too long to realise that all is not what it seems. Especially when you come face to face with the wholly bizarre Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
The bridge, spanning a small lake, leads visitors deeper into the compound. As you go, it is impossible not to stop in delight/horror/confusion as you absorb the numerous pits of outstretched hands.
They symbolise humanity’s “unrestrained desire”, reaching out for anything they can get their hands on. A fatter bank balance, for example. A better car… a bigger home… more sexual partners. Or maybe they’re just trying to snatch the souls of anyone who dares to cross. Err…
Happily, I made it past the hands and onto the bridge with my soul very much intact.
The bridge railings are lined with sculpted images of Buddhist mythology. Halfway along I stopped for a moment to gaze out across the lake. On the other side, right where the water meets the lawn, stand two elegant kinnaree. Half-human, half-bird, these Buddhist creatures apparently protect humans in times of danger. Who knows, maybe it was these two who granted me safe passage over the bridge.
I’m not sure what I had expected to see on the other side. But it certainly wasn’t this grisly death skull sculpture with a bottle of whisky balanced on his head. There are no explanations to accompany any of the art, hence one is left to draw their own conclusions. Indeed I have read a few things online that suggest this is a statement on excess and the constant consumption of crap that is bad for us. Booze… nicotine… hard drugs and so on.
Wat Rong Khun.
Equally baffling was this life-size robot-cyborg-king dude chilling out on a bench. Is this a statement about our relentless drive for technological advancement? Or was the artist simply a Terminator fan and having a bit of fun?
Further on, I came upon a tree decorated with sculpted heads. These guys didn’t look too friendly either and appeared to be demons of some kind. Or so I thought, until my friend Wonderboy later pointed out that they are actually famous movie characters. Yup, that’s Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (left), Angelina Jolie as Maleficent (lower)and Andy Serkis’ Golem from Lord of the Rings.
Luckily, there are plenty of good guys around to keep us on the right path. This is one of numerous guardians, seemingly ready to do battle with the forces of darkness. Like many of the temple’s white sculptures, it features tiny mirror fragments that make him twinkle and glitter.
The centrepiece hall is known as Ubosot. Inside, there are several traditional Buddhist murals. In contrast though, and completely stealing the show the moment you see it, is a massive painting depicting the end of the world.
The scene that unfolds, inside a demon’s mouth, is terrifying…. confusing… amusing. It features numerous representations of society’s ills. There are swirling serpents and.. um… Michael Jackson, in addition to Freddy Krueger and a plane about to hit one of the World Trade Center Towers. Also present, much to my bewilderment, are images of Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, Neo from The Matrix and Kung Fu Panda.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
Back outside in a spotless stone courtyard, I was relieved to return to an altogether calmer and more hopeful environment. Because this is where I found the temple’s elegant silver Bodhi prayer trees.
A traditional feature of just about every Buddhist temple I’ve ever seen, visitors purchase a leaf (a silver plate at The White Temple) before scrawling a personal message or wish on it. As always it was touching to browse some of the (one hundred thousand!) messages that sit here across the various trees.
Another jaw-dropping structure is the so-called Golden Building. Ornately sculpted from top to bottom, I had to laugh when I realised that this giant building houses… drum roll.. the toilets.
Despite not needing to go, I knew I had to head inside for a look. Based on the facade, I had high hopes that I was about to experience the fanciest restroom in Thailand. Or at least the swankiest loo I had seen during my two months across the country.
The Golden Building.
Yes, the interior delivered. The biggest bog I’d seen in the country for sure. Maybe even the cleanest, and most definitely the only one where golden leaves and feathers dripped seductively from the ceiling.
On my way out I was amused to see two female visitors being told they needed to cover up their legs. But they needn’t have worried, white sarongs were available, for a small fee. This reminded me that the place is still a Buddhist temple of sorts, in spite of all the weirdness.
It was only later that I read about how The White Temple had nearly closed down the previous year following an earthquake. Devastated by the damage throughout the complex, Kositpipat swiftly announced that he would abandon the temple and demolish all the buildings.
However, a few weeks later an engineering team carried out an inspection and declared that structurally the compound was in better shape than initially feared. Consequently, repairs took place and, ta-da, The White Temple was back in business.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai.
Eight years on from my visit, I’ve been interested to read how the place has changed and expanded. I see that new depictions of movie and music icons have been added to the mix. There are several new buildings too, one of which is a large meditation hall.
When the temple first opened there was no entry fee, just the possibility to leave a donation. In the years since my visit, the ticket price has gone up to $3 from $1.50.
Several reviews, meanwhile, have spoken of the temple being positively overrun with visitors from opening to closing time. Some people are calling it a “circus”, where large, selfie-stick-wielding tour groups make it difficult for you to line up decent photographs. Looking at what The White Temple has become, others have suggested that Kositpipat should perhaps take a second look at his own preaching.
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Just bonkers! Lol! Everything about it is just loud and crazy… those toilets! Not sure about this place… interesting yes. But too much!!!
Ha, I am very much looking forward to everyone’s reactions to The White Temple. Thanks for kicking off the comment thread, Anna.
Just wow indeed! You’re right that from afar it looks kind of simple and peaceful, but the more you see the more there is to see. Some people sure have interesting ways to interpret things. I am glad you could visit before it was overrun with tourists.
Thanks for reading about The White Temple, Lyssy. I have never seen anything quite like it, although to be fair the same could be said for the focus of my next article 😉
What a fantastic place to visit. This guy must be Thailand’s version of Gaudi. He difinitely had a vision and seems to be achieving it. Well worth a look and something you can contemplate for the rest of your life. And the golden toilet block, I mean, Holy Crap….. literally. Thanks for sharing this fantastic place Leighton. Allan
Ah Allan, it’s good to see the first categoric thumbs up for The White Temple. I think this is going to polarise opinion and I’m curious to see how that balance between “fantastic” and “no thanks” plays out over the coming days.
What a bizarre place. Weird that they would ask female visitors to cover their legs as if it were a proper Buddhist temple. The kinnaree statues are really lovely. Other than that it is quite an insane building.
Hey Anoush, sounds like you are somewhere in the middle with how you feel about The White Temple. I also liked the kinnaree, they’re very elegant. Thanks for your comment!
Definitely one of a kind. The type of place you could spend an entire day wandering and examining details. Kind of Buddhist surrealism. Is it white stone or white paint? I could see the mirror shards embedded in the one close up photo but other pics make the entire surface appear reflective – almost metallic. Would I be correct that there is no overriding authority in Buddhism for consecrating structures, thus if the builder calls it a temple then it’s a temple?
Hey Memo, glad you found the White Temple interesting, it definitely is one of a kind. It was quite tricky to find out, but it seems that the artist used plain old concrete covered in white plaster. As for its temple status, I think anyone can call such a creation a temple. However, interestingly it hasn’t been endorsed by the Thai government who, over the years, have been generally unimpressed with much of Kositpipat’s work. Many high tanking politicians, officials and Buddhist scholars have described some of the artwork as “sacrilegious”.
But of course, why wouldn’t there be a ninja turtle and punk rocker Ronald Reagan on a Buddhist temple. This place is incredible, and a little like emotional whiplash, between such beautiful detailed depictions and slightly disturbing scenes. The Bridge seems a little creepy to me like those hands could reach out and pull you into their sadness. And the picture of red with all the movie icons and the Twin Towers feels a little nightmarish. But the intricate detail of the white and gold buildings and the figures are stunning and the messages written on the silver leaves would be a tender and moving thing to see. And maybe that was the idea of it, to take you through all the feels and back again on the path to enlightenment about what it all means.
Hey Meg, thanks so much for your comment. What a character Chalermchai Kositpipat is eh? Emotional whiplash is a brilliant way to describe it I think, wish I’d thought of that.
Thanks for all the great pics of the white temple. Had not heard of it before. Will have to go.
Cheers David, I’m glad this piece caught your attention. Hope you make it to The White Temple one day. I have a feeling that my next article (out on Sunday) will also be up your street.
Ah, Leighton…. the ridiculous (is it?) White (it definitely is) Temple (is it?). We too visited here on THAT trip, the COVID truncated one, and posted about this very place. It’s insane! I think I made the comment on our blog that I wasn’t sure whether I was in a temple or a theme park. Whatever, it’s a highly amusing place to visit…we were told that the locals were absolutely divided between lovers and loathers of the place, and I get that, because I can’t imagine there would be too many people who see the place and don’t have a reaction and/or opinion one way or the other. And back in town, that clock tower is hardly an understatement either, is it. I reckon we probably used the same coffee bar, too…I seem to remember there was a pretty decent restaurant close enough to watch the changing colours whilst eating your meal. Good to read your account and re-live that daftest of temples!
Another shared location! Seems like we have similar feelings about the place. Not in love with it per se, but definitely not in the “what a waste of time” camp either. It is well worth seeing in my book, simply for an experience quite like any other. Amazing to think we could’ve been drinking coffee in the same joint.
I’m amazed you didn’t come out with a headache. Absolutely tacky—and a waste of both money and time which could have been spent on any number of projects the country desperately needed. But obviously there’s a lot of people who don’t agree if there are now an overload of tourists.
Ha ha, brilliant. I think that, over time, I usually get a feeling for who my readers are and I just knew you’d passionately hate this place Mallee. Even this early on in the comment thread it’s been fun to see just how different people’s reactions are. Curious to see how Sunday’s companion piece will go down too.
Wow, Leighton. At first glance I was thinking the temple would be like something out of a fairytale! Then the hands and demons – now I’m thinking they’ve been conjured from the depths of hell. The end of the world painting – hell? Well, let’s just say, that’s not my idea of what it would look like, though I would love to meet Michael Jackson in the afterlife. Nevertheless, as someone who appreciates art, I actually find the painting very interesting. It’s as if we’re getting glimpse of what’s actually going on in the artist’s head. I’ve got to say that I’ve never seen such elaborate bathrooms.
Hey Kellye, really appreciate your observations on this odd place. I’m curious, what would you ask Michael Jackson if you only got one afterlife question? It’s funny you should mention ‘hell’ because Sunday’s piece (another Chiang Rai art exhibit) deals more directly with the darker side of human nature than The White Temple does.
While I love all of his music, I would ask him to sing “I’ll be There” which is a favorite of mine by the Jackson 5, back in the day. I look forward to checking out your next post – sounds intriguing.
Good choice. I’m a bit of a fan too. I love the family stuff the most when they transitioned into being ‘The Jacksons’ in 1976. That self-titled album is my favorite, particularly ‘Good Times’ and ‘Blues Away’, just gorgeous.
First there is the VERY golden tower and then the VERY white White Temple … safe to say the buildings are definitely in a different class here! And the White Temple is just plain weird – seriously, the skull with a bottle of whiskey, the toilet – I mean, the toilet… did I say ‘weird’! And it survived an earthquake … to say the least, I am lost for words!
It seems Chiang Rai’s sights and attractions don’t have much use for subtlety ha ha. Despite being lost for words I think you are very diplomatic Corna. Sunday’s post shows an equally weird Chiang Rai art exhibit. I have a sneaky suspicion you might be lost for words again. Thanks for the catchup!
Ha 😄 … I was in customer service for 11 years and diplomacy is the one thing I practiced every day! Hmm, looking forward to your next post then …
seems i am late to the party on this one. what an unusual place, i can see why it has brought out such disparate emotions. i think i get it from both sides, yes its tacky and gruesome but it also has beauty and is thought provoking. think i would chance a few dollars on having a look around and making my mind up. yet another great post leighton i feel sad that these thai chronicles are almost at an end.
Very balanced Stan, I must say. Which I had kinda expected, knowing you as I do. Thanks for reading this piece and sharing your thoughts, as always. I’m also sad that Sunday’s post will be my last Thai travel report (for now).
It is uniquely stunning in a ‘what?’ kind of way. Did you get to the Blue Temple and Black House as well? It’s like a competition in bizarre in Chiang Rai! Maggie
Hey Maggie, thanks for checking in. I did make it to The Black House, that’s next on these pages this Sunday. Sadly I just missed out on the Blue Temple as my flight home was calling me down in Bangkok. How did that one compare?
It was much stranger than white temple because it’s blue, but not nearly as elaborate.
Wow, the White Temple is one of the most artistic temples I have ever seen!
Thanks Allie, glad you enjoyed the article.
Okay…wow. I am at a bit of a loss for words with this place. I have never seen anything even remotely close to this before and find it beautiful in many regards, but definitely overwhelming in its details and symbolism. I would visit, without a doubt, just to experience the vast spectrum of emotions and reactions that I know would arise in me! I’m excited to read the follow-up post to this on Sunday 😊
Cheers Laura, it’s definitely not your typical temple setup, or even art exhibit. I am so glad I got to it this before the crowds started pouring in, because I’m sure that only heightens any negative feelings one might get when taking in certain aspects of the symbolism.
This is not what one expects to see when visiting a Buddhist temple, quite the opposite in fact; so bizarre! Money talks, as they say, and the millionaire has certainly spoken loud and clear.
Ha, indeed! Thanks for reading Tricia, as always, and for leaving your thoughts on The White Temple.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the cardboard cutout of the artist. Classy. The inside of the White Temple was not quite what I was expecting with all those outstretched hands, interesting sculptures and some life-size robot king.
Right? Having spent all that money and time on sculpting this incredible temple and all those sculptures, he then just stuck a cardboard cutout of himself in the middle of it all. Maybe the glittering white sculpture of the artist is still in the works. Weirdly, the cutout approach is something a separate artist also went for in my next piece.
You know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Can’t wait to read about it.
I would think the artist developed this kitschy style with tongue in cheek. Underneath the avalanche of weird and somewhat “shocking” images, there is an underlying message. Think of “The Toilet” by Marcel Duchamp in Centre Pompidou in Paris.
That’s certainly a theory Geoff. Elements of the installation could well be just that, though perhaps not as a whole. From what I’ve read he takes himself pretty seriously and is hell bent on achieving “immortality” through services to Buddhism. At the end of the day though, nobody but the artist can know for sure precisely what’s going on inside his head. And that’s presuming he is actually sound of mind!
Crazy looking place. I thought it would be peaceful and serene but obviously not. Interesting to see though.
Thanks for your comment, Marion. It was fairly peaceful and serene when I visited, not that many people around.
Wow – it’s both beautiful and crazy. That bridge is terrifying and that golden building with the toilets, wow!! I sort of feel like I don’t know what to make of it, it’s all just an overload of crazy
I think that’s very much the vibe as you walk around. Mixed feelings, some chuckles and plenty of “what?!” moments. Thanks for dropping by Han.
Wow, that’s quite a temple! It’s a mindboggling mash up of the exquisitely beautiful, the macabre and the kitsh. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. And those toilets are definitely the most lavish toilets I’ve ever seen, they’re extraordinary.
Nearly eight years later and I’m still unsure what to make of it, ha. So you’re in good company, thanks for reading about The White Temple!
Wow this place looks… pretty awesome I must say! I couldn’t stop giggling while reading and seeing the photos, one unexpected thing after the other, but at least in my opinion there seems to be a caricature of the days we live in and there is some comedic effect to it! I’d love to visit one day, but not looking forward to the tourist crowds, I can see why this place would attract millions.
I think this is one of the most positive comments in the thread! Glad you enjoyed it Nic and hope you get to see The White Temple one day when the crowds aren’t too mad. You may also enjoy today’s post, which is kind of a sister attraction. Cheers!
I have a very tolerant taste 🙂 On my way to read today’s post!
That is some phenomenal art. The clock tower, the white temple, just wow.
Thanks Erik, glad to hear you are on the thumbs up side of debate.
This was such a fun read ahah! I only knew this temple from pictures on social media (and I have no doubts that it is overrun by tourists all day, which is really a shame), and I always thought it was some super-traditional very intricate building with lace-like details. I would never have guessed that you could find there representations of Hello Kitty or a weird cyborg-king ahah! I already wanted to visit it, but now it’s moving up my list!
Hey Juliette, yeah the White Temple is definitely a bit misleading in terms of its facade. I kinda like the idea that people who hadn’t done any research would see it, wander in and then be like “Whaaaaa?” Thanks for reading!
I like this place, it’s unashamedly bonkers. I like places that knock you off kilter a little bit trying to figure it out, and this place would do it.
Bonus points for the slightly extra toilets.
Hey Helen, yes bonkers for sure. In Chiang Rai there are a bunch of bonkers sights. I have also posted an article about ‘The Black House Museum’, which definitely rivals the White Temple in terms of weirdness. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I was travelling with a group at the time and was thrilled to stop at the White Temple – so fantastical and magical! But we didn’t take the time to explore… glad to see what was missed. No wonder I prefer not to take tours. (Sigh)
Oh, bummer. These damn tours, grr. The White Temple is one of a kind, no matter what one thinks of the actual art. Thanks for reading, Ruth.
+1 for people who like this temple! haha. Slightly weird elements here and there (really only the robot thing for me) but this is a place I would love to see 🙂
Hey Amarachi! Glad The White Temple would draw you in despite the fact that you feel it’s not quite as bonkers as people make out. I’m now curious about your reaction to the Black House Museum. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for sharing, I have heard of the white temple, but I have yet to go and Chang Rai, sounds a great place to visit 🙂
Thanks for checking out some of my articles Nic. Hope you get to Chiang Rai someday!