Chiang Rai certainly doesn't have the frenetic vibe of Bangkok nor the allure of Chiang Mai but what it does have is the most fascinating temple in Thailand: Wat Rong Khun. At the same time Buddhist temple and art exhibit, a visit to Wat Rong Khun, colloquially known as the White Temple, is a must. You'll be in awe even if you think you're all templed-out (a common condition while traveling in Thailand, haha) because this temple is like no other anywhere in the country (or in the world).
It's hard to believe the design and concept of the temple is the brainchild of only one man. Chalermchai Kositpipat is an unconventional Thai multi-disciplinary artist who came up with the eccentric design of Wat Rong Khun. He began construction in 1997 but works on the temple are ongoing and aren't expected to be finished for another few decades. The temple/art exhibit was opened to the public shortly after its initial construction and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors since. Thanks to his wild and wacky creativity, Chalermchai takes visitors on a surreal voyage through his fantastical world of demons and spirits, of good and evil. At times I was left speechless, other times I was scratching my head at all the oddities (more on that later).
A VISIT TO THE FASCINATING WHITE TEMPLE OF CHIANG RAI
While most temples in Thailand are adorned in gold, Wat Rong Khun is plastered in pristine white signifying the purity of Buddha. The exterior of the temple is embedded with millions of broken pieces of mirror symbolizing Buddha's wisdom reflecting back at visitors. This ingenious concept comes to life as tiny glass particles glisten blindingly in the sun (making it very difficult to photograph the temple, haha). The effect is almost hypnotical! Maybe that's exactly what Chalermchai intended. In reality, a visit to the White Temple is meant to be more of an experience than anything else. The goal is for visitors to be taken through different stages of life and death in order to reach Nirvana/Heaven.
CYCLE OF REBIRTH
The first stage of the ethereal experience at Wat Rong Khun is to cross a small bridge called the Cycle of Rebirth. The bridge is flanked on both sides by dug-outs filled with creepy, skeletal hands of those suffering in Hell. Passing through the Cycle of Rebirth symbolizes overcoming worldly desires to eventually attain an unsurpassed state of happiness.
The narrow bridge tends to get really crowded but keep an eye out for distinctive details such as skulls, gargoyles and the odd fingers painted in red nail polish (signifying vanity). Once you've crossed the bridge unscathed (symbolically-speaking, of course), you're ready for the next stage.
GATE OF HEAVEN
After your symbolic rebirth, you'll be deemed worthy to continue your journey through the Gate of Heaven. Two rival mythical creatures stand stoically on each side of the gate, one represents Rahu and the other Death. Both eagerly await to pass judgement on whoever comes through the gate. Rahu, serene and welcoming, protects his followers from all evil. Death needs no explanation. His accusing finger seemingly points out sinners unworthy of eternal happiness. I guess this is where visitors are meant to clear their conscience of any wrongdoings if they want to make it to the final stage, Heaven.
THE LAST STAGE
It's forbidden to take photos inside the temple so I'll try to describe Chalermchai's unorthodox design as best as I can.
Imagine this: the palette drastically changes from pristine white to an onslaught of vivid, eye-popping colors. As you enter, you're greeted by two floating Buddha images painted on a gold background. So far, nothing unusual. Then you turn your head sideways, up, down, and you realize you've entered a lair of surrealism. The interior is a hodgepodge of colours and characters.The walls and ceiling are all covered in drawings of mighty dragons, mystical spiritual beings, horned demons and mythical ghouls engulfed in blood-red flames.
In a bizarre twist, pop culture icons, celebrities, politicians and cartoons appear amidst the images of the sacred Buddha. References to science-fiction movies such as The Matrix and Avatar, spaceships and a scene from 911 are also painted on the walls. If that isn't strange enough, Michael Jackson, Superman and the Transformers (yes, you read that right) are added on as extras. The whole scene is utterly otherworldly. You'll be left scrambling for words as you find yourself entangled in Chalermchai's visionary, phantasmagorical universe. You really have to see it to believe it!
In case you need more convincing, here are a few more photos of Wat Rong Khun, the fascinating White Temple of Chiang Rai.
Read also: Visiting Shri Karni Mata - The Rat Temple of Deshnoke
Entrance fee:100 baht ($3.25 USD / $4.00 CAD) (Free for Thai nationals)
Dress code: Cover knees and shoulders (men and women)
Opening hours: 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM (closed one hour at noon)
Distance from Chiang Rai: 13 km
Getting there: Public bus (20 baht) at Central Bus Station (look for banner written White Temple)
Have you been to the White Temple of Chiang Rai?
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