Chiang Rai is much overlooked compared to popular Chiang Mai with all its temples. If you’re traveling around Thailand, a day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai should definitely be on your itinerary. If only because of the beautiful White Temple of Chiang Rai, or by its official name: the Wat Rong Khun.
An artist project
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is different from other temples in the area or even Thailand, as it is privately built and owned. Its local name is Wat Rong Khun, but from the photos you can see why it is better known as the White Temple.
This extravagant white building was in bad shape when it was bought by its private owner, Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist. He dedicated his life to rebuilding and restoring his tribute to Buddhism. That cost him millions of baht and many years. The temple is still not really finished.
Wat Rong Khun
The result of the rebuilding and restoration is astonishingly beautiful. The temple is all white and when the white walls catch the sunlight, it’s like the temple is radiating. The white temple symbolizes the Buddhist way to heaven, or rather enlightenment. From the pure white color to the mirrors that represent reflection, every detail has a symbolic meaning.
The most beautiful – or most ominous, really – is perhaps the bridge to the central temple itself. The bridge leads over a sea of grasping hands, which in turn symbolize earthly desires. The hands are a bit scary, but it is a grand entrance to the temple.
Wat Rong Khun is a bit less spectacular on the inside than you would expect. Or maybe it is? The interior walls have been decorated with murals. Often with a very modern touch, such as with cartoon characters and cartoon heroes.
But it’s not just the White Temple itself that dazzles. There is more to see in the temple grounds, such as a toilet block designed like a golden temple. I especially liked the ‘tree’ with wishing leaves. You can buy a metal leaf for a minimal contribution, after which you write down your wish on it. Wishing leaves are hanged in the tree, but also in other places on the temple grounds. There is even a gallery with a ceiling consisting only of the metal leaves.
Also visit the Black Temple and Blue Temple
Close to Chiang Rai is also a counterpart of the white temple: the Black Temple, also called Black House or Baan Dam. It’s a work of art by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee as well. The black temple is beautiful to see, but also somewhat ominous. The temple area is a green oasis, but the Black House and other structures have some strange and sinister details if you look closely.
You can easily visit the Black Temple by public transport. The buses leave from the bus station. There is an entrance fee.
Oh, and do you want to visit another temple in this series? Then add the Blue Temple – or Wat Rong Suea Ten – to your list. It’s not difficult to guess the color of this temple from its name. On the outside the temple design is gold with blue, but the inside is nothing but blue. This temple is an artist project and a mix of modern art with traditional temples as well.
The blue temple is not that easy to visit by public transport. Arrange a tuk tuk, tour, taxi or Uber. Admission is free.
Practical tips for Chiang Rai’s White Temple
The White Temple is located just outside of Chiang Rai. You can get there with a guided tour, but also easily by yourself with the public bus. Several local buses go that way from the central bus station. That is of course much cheaper, but also more adventurous.
For years, the entrance to the white temple was free, but foreign visitors now pay an entrance fee.
Wat Rong Khun may be privately owned, but you are expected to dress as you would in all Thai temples. So wear appropriate clothing: knees and shoulders must be covered.