Officially known as Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Chiang Rai has been luring tourists north from Chiang Mai since 1997. The one-of-a-kind example of epic artwork was created by eccentric local artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat. He designed and constructed the White Temple with his own funds.
Although the pure-white temple strongly depicts themes and symbolism from Theravada Buddhism, the artist doesn’t take himself too seriously. Mr. Kositpipat treats visitors to artwork crammed with references to comic-book heroes, science-fiction movies, and other modern themes.
Yes, Wat Rong Khun is very much a tourist attraction. Don't compare it to the ancient temples found elsewhere in Thailand. Instead, think of the White Temple as a stunning example of art and architecture constructed by a local artist to draw more visitors to his hometown.
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 chosen for other temples in Thailand — "was suitable to people who lust for evil deeds." The toilet building actually is gold in color.
The Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth leads to the Gate of Heaven; two fierce guardians protect the way. The outstretched hands in a lake of damned souls reaching upward represent worldly desires such as greed, lust, alcohol, smoking, and other temptations. Look closely for small details such as what the hands may be holding. People must cross the bridge, bypassing temptation, to enter heaven.
The White Temple was damaged by an earthquake in 2014. Kositpipat 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 again for visitors. Restoration continued for years, and the popularity of Chiang Rai's most famous attraction grew.
The main building, known as the ubosot, isn't large enough to accommodate the crowds that come to see it. But this isn't the usual temple ubosot: Murals inside depict characters ranging from Harry Potter and Hello Kitty to Michael Jackson and Neo from the Matrix movies!
For decades, Kositpipat claimed he didn’t want money to be a factor in the project. The anti-greed message can be seen in works around the grounds. He even set restrictions on the amount of money that organizations could donate! An entrance fee of 50 baht (less than US $2) for foreign visitors was finally added in 2016 to cover maintenance costs.
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 Highway 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.
Visiting Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai
- Hours: The White Temple is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 5:30 p.m. on weekends.
- Entrance: 50 baht for foreign visitors; free for Thai nationals.
- Dress Code: Although the quirky decor includes Batman, Kung Fu Panda, and other characters from Hollywood, the White Temple is still considered a religious site. Shoulders and knees should be covered; sarongs are available for rent. Shirts with religious or offensive themes shouldn’t be worn.
The Temple Grounds
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 a dirty squat toilets as is often found at other attractions.
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 Kositpipat. The Hall of Relics is interesting as well. Yes, there are several gift shops, selling artwork and souvenirs to keep entrance costs low.
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 hidden finds.
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 to help fund the project. 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 Kositpipat's work, it was done so at his own expense out of love for Chiang Rai. Light shows are at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m. nightly.
Kositpipat’s eccentric work ranges from beautiful pieces of religious artwork to quirky, kitsch pieces with strong messages. One depicts George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding a nuclear missile through space together. Even the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was one of Kositpipat’s clients!
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 — often incorrectly referred to as the "Black Temple" — represents hell. The Black House is 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.