White Temple, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay image

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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.

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