Black & White. Heaven & Hell. Two architectural masterpieces located in Chiang Rai in the northern Thailand. Weird, beautiful, strange, striking, extraordinary – those are the words best describing these two structures, all except ordinary.
Chiang Rai may appear to be just of the Thai provincial cities but it’s home to two unique architectural masterpieces – Chalermchai Kositpipat’s White Temple and Thawan Duchanee’s Black House.
Wat Rong Khun, known as White Temple
Wat Rong Khun, referred to in English as White Temple, is one of the most unusual, stunning and extraordinary temples in Thailand. It’s a true masterpiece. Despite its wickedness, Wat Rong Khun is a place of worship.
Chiang Rai attracts a large number of visitors, both Thai and foreign, who come to visit mainly one thing – the spectacular Wat Rong Khun. It’s by no means a traditional temple. Wat Rong Khun stands out by its bright white colour, and looks like it came from a fairy tale or heaven.
History of Wat Rong Khun, one of the most unique and unusual temples in Thailand
The Wat Rong Khun was designed by the Thai artist from Chiang Rai Chalermchai Kositpipat. When the original Wat Rong Khun was in a bad condition due to a lack of funds, Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to completely rebuild the temple using his own money. The construction started in 1997.
Chalermchai Kositpipat has become rich and famous artist, with his art works sought after by art collectors from around the world. Feeling a need to give back to his home town, he has decided to build a temple in Chiang Rai. The temple is his offering to the Lord Buddha that, he believes, will ensure him immortal life.
Chalermchai decided to make admission free and accept donations instead. However, he doesn’t accept donations exceeding 10,000 baht in order to keep his freedom and not to be influenced by anyone.
Wat Rong Khun was badly damaged by an earthquake in May 2015. Chalermchai intended to demolish the temple for safety reasons as he thought the damage was irreparable. But after the experts found the buildings structurally safe, he announced that he would restore the temple in two years. Today, the temple has been restored, however, it still bears traces of damage, and access to some buildings is not allowed.
Chalermchai promised to devote his life to the temple. He has started building the temple in 1997, but to date, Wat Rong Khun complex isn’t entirely finished and construction works are still ongoing. Even with 60-plus volunteers, Chalermchai estimates that Wat Rong Khun won’t be complete until the end of the century. As he won’t be able to finish it in his lifetime, he is training volunteers to continue his project after his death.
Symbolism of Wat Rong Khun
Each detail of Wat Rong Khun carries deep meaning and religious symbolism. The messages refer to overcoming temptation, desire and greed, and moving towards the sublime through Buddhist teachings.
Instead of the traditional gold, Chalermchai chose to build the temple in white colour, which is an emblem of enlightenment and represents the purity of Buddha. The numerous pieces of glass mirror, embedded in the walls and twinkling in the sun, symbolise the Buddha’s wisdom shining out in the Universe.
Entering the temple grounds, you immediately immerse yourself into the surreal world born in the artist’s imagination. White Temple is a striking and exquisite construction, which looks like made of lacework in the heaven’s workshop.
Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth
To reach the main temple, the ubosot, you have to cross a bridge over a small lake. But it’s not an ordinary bridge. The bridge, called the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth, passes over a macabre scene – hundreds of outreaching hands symbolising human suffering and hell.
With the pits of hell below, the bridge symbolises the passage from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. One must pass through hell, overcome temptation, desire and greed, in order to reach happiness and the Lord Buddha.
Once cravings have been eliminated, one can proceed to the Gate of Heaven.
Gate of Heaven
Once you crossed the bridge, you arrive at the Gate of Heaven guarded by Death (who decides over human life) and Rahu (who decides over human fate).
The main building is the ubosot, or ordination hall. The elaborately decorated pristine white ubosot incorporates the elements of classic Thai architecture such as the use of Naga (serpent-like creatures from Buddhist mythology) and the three-tiered roof. But inside the decor is completely bewildering.
After removing the shoes and putting the camera into the bag (“No Photo” sign is too big), we entered inside. At first, we saw what we expected from a Thai temple – a painting of the Buddha, Buddha statues and peacefully praying people. But when we turned around, we noticed something completely different and out of place.
Contrary to the murals of Thai temples depicting the scenes from Buddhist mythology, the murals of the ubosot portray an apocalyptic end of the world, demons and explosions, images of burning New York Twin Towers, nuclear war, terrorist attacks, oil pumps etc. According to the temple guidebook, Chalermchai intended to demonstrate the destructive impact of humans on earth. His murals portray the good and the evil, the misery and the distress of today’s world.
Have you ever seen the painting of Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger, Batman, Spiderman, Avatar, and other superheroes in the temples? You find them in Wat Rong Khun. For the artist, the murals of traditional Thai temples provide the glimpse of history, and pop culture references and contemporary idols will be all ancient history too one day.
The only golden building
The most curious building on the temple grounds, which clearly stands out, is … the public toilets. Contrary to the shimmering white colour of other buildings, the opulent, elaborately decorated toilets are gold. They are probably the most luxurious toilets in Asia.
Chalermchai decided to make public toilets grandiose and gold to show how people worship worldly desires and money, material things and possession and what the real value of these things is.
The gold colour symbolizes a focus on worldly desires rather than spiritual enlightenment. The golden structure represents the body, whereas the white ubosot represents the mind.
Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, is both controversial and mesmerising. This striking temple is one of the most unique, the most recognisable and the most unconventional Buddhist temples in Thailand. People may find it bizarre, creepy, dazzling, controversial or disturbing, but the artist’s talent and dedication cannot be denied.
Location: The White Temple is located 13 km south of Chiang Rai city.
Transportation: The White Temple can be reached from Chiang Rai by bus from the old bus station, by tuk-tuk, by car or by motorbike (the most convenient option). It’s 20-25 min drive by motorbike from Chiang Rai and about 30 min drive from the Black House. You can also book a shared tour, which often combines the White Temple with the Black House.
Cost: free admission.
Additional information: The White Temple is closed for lunch from 12 noon to 1pm.