White Temple, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay

Our recent moped border run to Burma was at times exhausting and freezing, but it was made totally worth it when we stopped off in Chiang Rai and paid a visit to Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.

The White Temple is a contemporary Buddhist and Hindu temple designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997, although construction is still ongoing in the extensive complex. It is one of the most extraordinary temples we have ever see – extravagant, ornate and blindingly white.

We loved the attention to detail and the small gothic elements you find around the site. Even before we approached the main temple we noticed small details like heads hanging from the trees.

Red head on tree, White Temple, Chiang Rai

And the kind of monstrous statues you don’t usually expect to see in a temple…

Statue, White Temple

The approach to the main temple goes past a large pond, with the temple reflected in the water.

White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand

It feels like a fantastical, fairy world.

Statues at pond, White Temple

Our favourite part of the White Temple is the bridge that leads to the main building. To reach the Abode of the Buddha you have to cross the bridge representing the cycle of rebirth with the pits of hell below.

Pit of hell, White Temple

The hands begging desperately to escape from hell are rather disturbing.

Hands in hell, White Temple

There are all kinds of ghoulish creatures and disembodied heads of people who haven’t managed yet to overcome cravings and obtain entrance to the Abode of Buddha.

Pit of hell, White temple

Woman, pit of hell, White Temple

Once you cross the bridge you reach the Gate of Heaven, guarded by Death…

Death statue, White Temple, Chiang Rai

Up close the temple is dazzling.

White Temple, Chiang Rai up closeWhite Temple detail

At first the inside of the main temple seems simple and like many Thai temples with a Buddha statue and people praying peacefully before it. But then you turn around and see the incongruous epic mural depicting an apocalyptic end of the world with demons, explosions and strangely, many references to popular culture including the Matrix, Avatar, Michael Jackson, Spiderman and even the Twin Towers. Photos are not allowed inside unfortunately.

From behind the White Temple is just as striking.

And from the side…

Side White Temple

Once you have visited the main temple there is still more to see including a wishing well and the world’s most beautiful public toilets…

Toilets at the White Temple

The temple complex is still incomplete. Chalermchai Kositpipat is training people to continue his ambitious project even after his death.

The White Temple is one of the most unusual temples we have ever visited. Even if you are feeling templed-out don’t miss the White Temple if you are in northern Thailand.

The White Temple is located 13km south of Chiang Rai. We stopped off on the way from Chiang Mai, but you can easily take a local bus from Chiang Rai. Entry to the temple is free. While in Chiang Rai it is also worth visiting the Black House featuring another contemporary Thai artist’s work in a gothic setting – it’s even more astonishing that the White Temple.

Yi Peng T-shirt image

Trail Wallet

Have you ever visited the White Temple? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

114 thoughts on White Temple, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay

  1. Those hands reaching up are fantastic, in an artistic sense…but definitely creepy when set in a religious complex.

    You mention that there are references to popular culture on the inside. I am interested to know how? Was there art inside that looked like the Twin Towers or Neo from the Matrix?

    This is a very interesting Photo Essay, thank you for sharing!

    • I should have explained that better. Yes there were actual paintings of the Twin Towers and Neo etc as part of a huge mural. Very strange in a temple!

      • I’m not sure if they were taken in spite of the requests not to do so, but a search on Google images brings up several of the mural.

  2. This temple reminds me of the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya which is also unfinished but the work is continuing. However, this one is definitely more fascinating.

    • That’s probably part of the attraction for Thais, as there’s no snow here. It really stands out from the usual gold temples that you find all over Thailand.

  3. I went to this temple last year and found it super creepy! Especially the “evil” paintings of Superman & Avatar and stuff on the inside. Definitely different than anything else I’ve seen & worth a visit!

    • Thanks Leigh – I hope you make it there. As a bonus there are lots of outdoor activities available in northern Thailand so it should be a great place for you.

      • Disturbing? Definitely. It is disturbing that so much time and money goes into religious superstition. It’s time that in a modern world we should have art for art’s sake, and discussion of philosophy of life, without all the religious mumbo jumbo.

      • Went today, my 64th birthday – certainly one of the most incredible artistic experiences I’ve had – myriad thoughts spinning through my head – Dante’s Inferno – Salvador Dali – to mention two – but a breathtakingly beautiful Thai Buddhist temple in its own right – what a gift the artist has given to this planet.
        Must add:
        It’s probably fortunate that LSD is now old-hat because a visit to the White Temple under its influence would be extremely dangerous.

  4. I have read about the White Temple before and it is a place I definitely want to visit. I can’t wait to return to Thailand so I am able to see this intricate and beautiful place for myself. These photos are gorgeous!

    • You could spend hours and hours exploring all the small details. We had just spent five hours on a motorbike to get there but still managed to spend a long time wandering around.

  5. We were just in Chiang Mai, and could have taken a day trip to see the White Temple and the hill tribes in Chiang Rai but we didn’t because we only had one day and it seemed like an awfully long trip, but now seeing your photos I really wish we had. I loved the macabre statues and the hands of those who have not yet reached enlightenment.

    Next time I am in Thailand I will make sure to budget more time for a trip to Chiang Rai!

  6. I can’t believe we didn’t go there when we were in Chiang Rai, so bummed we missed it. We were doing trekking, cycling, motorbiking so it was a totally different trip, but we should have done our research better to check this temple out. I didn’t even know it existed. All the more reason to go back though! Great images.

  7. Wow, that’s pretty crazy! It’s amazingly ornate, I really didn’t think people made buildings like this any more… I’ll be adding that to our list of things to see in Thailand!

    Are you still in Thailand? Where’s your next destination?

      • That sounds great :) We’re landing in Bali in about 1.5 weeks and are really looking forward to spending some time in SE Asia. What has been your favorite place so far?

        • Probably Chiang Dao, although we loved the beaches on Koh Mak and Chiang Mai has been a great base for working. Enjoy your time here!

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  10. Wow this looks AMAZING!

    I’ll be in Chiang Mai for 2.5 days- is it feasible/worth it to do a day trip up to see the White Temple from Chiang Mai? Or should I spend more time seeing things closer to the Chiang Mai area?

    Thank you so much! Love you blog, photographs, and life style. Let me know if you are ever in Hong Kong!

    Cheers,

    Katherine

    • People do visit the White Temple on a day trip but it’s 3 hours each way on the bus so it would be a long day and would limit what else you can see in Chiang Mai. It is an amazing place though and if you combined it with the Black House would be a worthwhile day.

      We were in Hong Kong last August and loved it. Hopefully we’ll make it back there.

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  17. This is currently still my favourite temple in Chiang Mai, but in a few weeks we will be doing this visa run journey again so i think a trip to the black one is in order.. Everyone says its great. J

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  19. We loved the White Temple so much. Amazing to think that it is far from finished, apparently the artist and creator Ajarn Chalermchai recons it’ll be done 60-90 years after his death. We’ll definately go back in a few years and see how it has changed. Also loved the Black Temple. So dark and such a contrast to Wat Roong Khun. Thank you for sharing your photos! Would really appreciate it if you could take a look at ours and let us know what you think! http://www.travelingandthat.com/black-and-white.html

  20. Breathtakingly beautiful and disturbing. I’d love to return and spend more time to appreciate it fully.

  21. Now that is a reason to go to Thailand! it’s part of our lesson in architecture. Ànd I made use of this article too. Thank you Mr. Erin!

    PS. I must check that toilet :D

  22. I’ve just visited the white temple yesterday on the way from Chiang Mai to the Myanmar border and I had the urge to read something about it. What you have wrote here is same with the 90% of my impressions so glad not to be the only one to think that it was a bit unusual! Yes, it’s whiteness and the it’s reflection on the pond is fascinating however the hands from the well were a bit irritating to me! It’s definitely worth to see because once you’re there you get this strange feeling which you can not get just from looking at the photo of it!

  23. Oh wait a minute, The Sanctuary of Truth is a true work of art. This thing is only a tourist trap. Yes it’s free, but there is nothing sacred here. The fruit stands across the highway are more spiritual.

  24. I really enjoyed my visit to Wat Rong Khun last week, but I was bummed that the toilet building was closed.

    I find your journey inspiring. Thanks so much for doing what you do!

  25. Just returned from Thailand. What a special journey . Went to Bangkok to Chang Rai to Chang Mai. Saw many Temples, However, the white temple was sur real. I experienced a whole range of emotions. Also, I am still in awe of the architecture & the attention to detail that was presented in all aspects of this incredible work of art. I took many photographs which I keep sharing with many people. WoW–words can not describe seeing this in person. Thank you for sharing your info so other people can partake in this enchanting experience.

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  28. Visited the White Temple during its construction stage. Our guide was the only guide to take their guests to visit this amazing building, other guests staying at the Anantara had never heard of it from their guides, so make sure you get to visit. I bought a print of a Lotus Bud, which is so peaceful and serene, and reminds me of what a inspiring religion buddhisim is. I would love to see the temple if it is now finished, as I visited 6 or 7 years ago.

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  31. Gorgeous photos. What time of day did you land at the White Wat? I’ve been twice and both times weren’t optimal. One was a flat grey day so it didn’t matter – the other was past 4pm (the front of the building was in shadow).

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