“Wat Rong Khun, that’s what is written there. The true name of the temple” said a grave voice behind me. As I turn, a saffron clad monk stands with a bleary-eyed tourist in front of a baroque white sign with curvy Thai characters.
While Thais might call Chalermchai Kositpipat’s creation by its name, foreigners know it simply as “White Temple”. The contemporary and unconventional Buddhist wat attracting visitors from all corners of the globe to the sleepy northern town of Chiang Rai.
From afar, Kositpipat’s creation appears radiant under the morning sun, the white stucco and shards of glass glimmering in the distance. But as I step into the courtyard, the pristine veneer of a peaceful temple shatters. To my right, moulds of shrunken heads with tusks hang from a tree, a few feet in front red and white construction cones (the temple is still under construction) are topped with white skulls and to my left, a life-size statue of Predator emerges from the manicured lawn.
But the initial surprise is only a bridge crossing away from another. The interior of the ubsot (main temple), hand-painted by the artist, resembles a Roman cathedral. While the use of vivid ochres and warm tones differ much from the renaissance hues, each wall is impregnated with meaning. Decoding it is expected from the visitor, however, from the excited murmurs I hear, people are far too overwhelmed to be able to do that straight away.
According to the artist, the serene white building paired with skulls, monsters and demons, symbolises the path of life before attaining inner peace. The unconventional white colour was a deliberate break from tradition. Gold is suitable for people that lust for evil deeds.
Is that why the only gold building on the complex houses the toilets?
How to get there
Wat Rong Khun, located 13 km outside of Chiang Rai, is a four-hour drive from Chiang Mai, making it possible to do as a day visit. Tours from Chiang Mai are the most straightforward way to get there. However, they often include more stops along the way, making the temple visit feel rushed.
If you want to explore and enjoy the temple at a leisurely pace, take a public bus to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai Old Station, and spend a couple of days in town. It's not only a good base to explore Wat Rong Khun but also the Golden Triangle and the hill tribes. Continue onwards to Laos by slow boat or return to Chiang Mai.