The White temple, Northern Thailand – Pristine and Bizarre

Read this travelogue written by Jayanthi Chandrasekaran and take a tour of ‘The White Temple’, located in Thailand.

the white temple thailand travelogue
The white temple and the bridge to the gates of heaven

I have seen many Buddhist temples around the world which are physical embodiments of Buddhist principles and provide a serene environment for meditation. The visit to Wat Rong Khun, popularly known as ‘The White Temple’ in Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand was unique in that it is a tourist hotspot and hence serenity is the first casualty. Nevertheless, the glistening white spirals, tiered roof, detailed ornamentation and myriad statues are captivating and baffling all at once as you absorb the eccentric atmosphere around.

The outstretched hands of unbridled desires
The outstretched hands of unbridled desires

For starters, the temple is painted in immaculate white unlike the typical gold used in Buddhist shrines. It’s an art project created by the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who envisioned the temple as heaven on earth that could be experienced by humans. He chose the white colour to symbolize the Buddha’s purity and wisdom ‘which shines over the earth and universe’. All aspects of the temple are symbolic and reflect the path to enlightenment free from greed and desire. Starting from the entrance, it’s a fixed one-way route that leads you to the main shrine via the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”.

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The beautiful Buddhas in Ubosot
The beautiful Buddhas in Ubosot

In order to reach the bridge you walk past an unsettling pit of outstretched hands which symbolises the unbridled desires. Thus, the path to happiness symbolically leaves behind the temptations, greed and worldly desires.  The bridge leads to the “Gates of Heaven” which is the entrance to the main ordination hall, known as Ubosot in Thai. This hall holds several Buddha statues and murals featuring pop culture icons and cartoon characters. What’s striking is that this hall stands in total contrast to the pristine white of the outer walls, with its colourful, confusing and weird decorations – burning twin towers, Michael Jackson, Freddy Krueger, Batman, demons, and flames.


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Odd looking fountain
Odd-looking fountain

The beautiful garden outside the building boasts of a koi pond whose clear waters reflect the serene sky above. The stunning white statues and decorative fences scattered around the garden, hanging silver decorations, a wishing well and odd-looking rock fountains sprinkled with small statues, and a vintage bell hanging on a decorative golden arch are some of the other attractions on the ground.

The Golden Restroom block
The Golden Restroom block

But wait… there is a golden building amidst all the sparkling white, whose utility I would not have guessed in a million years. It’s a public restroom! The golden toilet block is one of the absurdly extravagant part of the whole bizarre complex. It’s a must-visit for its cleanliness and for the golden leaves and feathers dripping seductively from the ceiling.

Robot-cyborg King with his crown and

The white temple is located in the Mueang district in Chiang Rai province. Financed solely by the local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the work started in 1997. The whole temple was almost pulled down after a huge earthquake hit the area in 2014 but fortunately, the damage was found to be only superficial so it was fixed quickly with a lot of hard work and effort.

Buddha at serene-niche

As I turned back to view this mystifying place one last time before leaving, there it stood like a fairy tale castle seemingly frozen and shimmering in the sunlight. Some of the artwork by Kositpipat adorning the entrance of the temple, like the creative traffic cone, no smoking sign, the robot-cyborg King with a crown on his head chilling out on a bench and masks hanging from the trees are also captivating. Despite all its weirdness, the temple complex has combined traditional Thai and Buddhist architecture with surreal modern art and stands out as an outlandish art project.


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