Officially known as Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Chiang Rai has been luring tourists north from Chiang Mai since 1997 to enjoy what is considered a one-of-a-kind piece of epic artwork. Local artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, designed and constructed the temple with his own funds -- he even refuses to charge for admission!
Although the stunning temple strongly depicts Buddhist themes, the eclectic artist doesn’t really take himself too seriously. A life-size cardboard image of Mr. Kositpipat greets visitors who are then treated to artwork that includes references to comic-book heroes, science-fiction movies, and other modern themes.
About the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
The color white was chosen for Wat Rong Khun because the artist felt that gold -- the usual color of other temples in Thailand -- “was suitable to people who lust for evil deeds.” The Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth leads to the Gate of Heaven; two fierce guardians protect the way. The outstretched hands reaching upward represent worldly desires such as greed, lust, alcohol, smoking, and other temptations. In short, those people were refused entry.
The White Temple was damaged by an earthquake in 2014; the artist actually claimed that he was going to demolish the entire structure -- his life’s work -- for safety reasons. After close inspection, the temple was deemed safe for visitors and restoration is still a work in progress. Tourists can only photograph the White Temple from outside; the main building, known as the ubosot, remains off limits. Unfortunately now inaccessible, the ubosot contains murals depicting characters ranging from Harry Potter and Hello Kitty to Michael Jackson and Neo from the Matrix movies!
Visiting Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai
- The White Temple is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 5:30 p.m. on weekends.
- Despite being Chiang Rai’s primary tourist attraction, entrance -- and the toilets -- are free at the White Temple. The artist didn’t want money to be a factor in the project, and he even set restrictions on the amount that organizations can donate!
- Although the quirky décor includes Batman, Kung Fu Panda, and other characters from Hollywood, the White Temple is still considered a religious site. Women are given sarongs at the entrance to cover their knees; men are allowed to wear shorts. Shoulders should be covered, and shirts with offensive themes shouldn’t be worn. See the dos and don’ts for visiting temples in Thailand.
What to See Around the White Temple
The White Temple is set in a compound of beautiful structures -- even the golden building housing the restrooms is intricately decorated! You certainly won't have to worry about using the dirty squat toilets often found in other temples.
A wishing well is located in the temple area along with many other pagodas and artistic structures. An easy-to-miss building behind the White Temple houses religious art by Chalermchai Kositpipat. The hall of relics is interesting, and even the gift shop is reasonably priced and worth a look.
Be on the lookout for hidden themes and characters among the damned who weren’t allowed into heaven by the two guardians. You’ll see one hand with a bad attitude, a Wolverine hand, aliens, peace signs, guns, and lots of other interesting innuendos.
About the Artist
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is the magnum opus of famed artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, the same brilliant mind behind the Black House and the colorful clock tower in the center of Chiang Rai. He constructed the White Temple with the help of over 60 followers at a personal cost of over US $1.2 million dollars. Kositpipat is incredibly dedicated to his work and once produced more than 200 paintings per year. In one interview, he stated that he begins each day at 2 a.m. with meditation.
Chiang Rai’s famous clock tower was completed over a period of three years, and as with all of the artist’s work, it was done so at his own expense out of love for his home province. Light shows are at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m. nightly.
Kositpipat’s eclectic work ranges from beautiful pieces of religious artwork to quirky, kitsch pieces with strong messages, such as George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding a nuclear missile through space together. Even King Bhumibol Adulyadej was one of Kositpipat’s clients!
Directions to the White Temple in Chiang Rai
The White Temple is a little over six miles (around 13 kilometers) south of town at the intersection of Highway 1 and 1208.
The laziest option for getting to the White Temple is to join a sightseeing tour (available from most guesthouses and hotels) that includes the White Temple, Black House, and other sights. Otherwise, you can rent a scooter and drive yourself; just get on the superhighway and head south – you can’t miss the brilliantly glowing White Temple on your right. Traffic on Highway 1 between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai can be fast and intense; stay to the left side and drive carefully!
Another easy option for reaching the White Temple is to take a southbound public bus from the bus station in town. Tell the driver that you want to stop off at Wat Rong Khun. To get back, you’ll need to either hire a tuk-tuk or flag down a northbound bus.
After the White Temple
The logical follow-up to visiting the White Temple is to drive 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) north on Highway 1 to see its counterpart: the Black House -- known locally as Baan Dam. While the White Temple represents heaven, the Black House -- incorrectly referred to as the “Black Temple” -- represents hell. The Black House is much more difficult to find. Drive north on Highway 1 and look for a small turnoff on the left side. Follow the signs or ask for Baan Dam.
A visit to the White Temple can also be combined with a hike to the stunning, 70-meter-tall Khun Kon waterfall in the national park. Take a left onto 1208 when exiting the White Temple, then another left onto 1211 when the road ends. Follow the signs to the falls. Stop off on your way back to town at Singha Park for a quick photo with the giant golden lion.