Thailand: A Visit to the White Temple

One of my bucket list destinations in Thailand was visiting the White Temple, the famous Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, up in the northern part of the country. Though the temple itself was wildly impressive, the city and the history of the temple itself were not. My sole purpose for visiting Chiang Rai was to visit this temple, and I was satisfied with my decision to only stay one day to see it.

Wat Rong Kun from across the water

We arrived at the border of Thailand after a long two-day journey on the "Slow Boat" late on Sunday night, and rather than booking a guesthouse or hostel on the Laos side of the Mekong River, our group decided to cross the bridge into Thailand, get our passports and visas stamped, and take a three hour bus ride to Chiang Rai, one of the larger cities in the north of Thailand, for the very cheap price of 250 Baht ($7.15). Chiang Rai was meant to just be a quick stop along the way to Chiang Mai, all of our's eventual destinations in order to witness the famous Lantern Festival later in the wee. 

Since we got in late to Chiang Rai and had no idea where we'd be staying for the night, we had our bus driver drop us "near a cheap hostel". Funny enough, we ended up staying at a hostel called "Cheap Hostel," so I guess he took our request quite literally and is used to these types of demands. It was cheap which was important to all of us, but more importantly it was clean, and that's always something you've got to watch out for in Southeast Asia. Generally speaking the hostel situation in Asia is great with clean rooms, a shower, free coffee/tea, and reasonable prices (generally in the range of $4-6/night). Cheap Hostel offered us rooms for 150 Baht/person (~$4.10) which fit well within all of our price ranges. After settling in to our rooms a few of us ventured out around our hostel to find some late night street food and found a decent Pad Thai place for 40 Baht ($1.10), enough to fill me up for the rest of the night.

The next morning our group of ten planned to visit the White Temple and then make our way to Chiang Mai, the biggest city in the north, for the world famous Loy Krathong Lantern Festival. The White Temple is the most famous destination in Chiang Rai, and other than seeing it in person, I had no plans otherwise to spend much time in the city. It's not that Chiang Rai is a bad city per se to visit, rather I just didn't have enough time to properly spend any considerable amount of time there. And so, during my quick 20-hour visit to this town, I visited the only real attraction I felt was worthy of my quick trip, Wat Rong Khun.

The White Temple, better known in Thailand by its Thai name mentioned above (Wat Rong Khun), was built in the late 20th century, and though technically still under construction, is neither a Buddhist temple nor actually a religious temple at all. Following years of the first Wat Rong Khun falling into disarray, a Chiang Rai artist decided to rebuild the temple and its counterparts as an art exhibit open to the public as tourism began to increase in Thailand. The end product of the temple, once finished, will include several more buildings characterized by their white exteriors and shards of glass surrounding the outsides of the buildings, giving the entire area it's mystical and heavenly look. 

A small fraction of the images on the wall depicting good vs. evil. Shown here are the Twin Towers, gasoline, Spiderman, and others.

Almost all of the main temple includes some type of imagery or reference to heaven and earth. Upon entrance you pass over a bridge signifying the crossing between death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. Surrounding and below the bridge is a pool filled with human hands reaching up out of the water signifying greed and desire, which you are attempting to leave behind while crossing. 

Once crossing the bridge you pass through the Gate to Heaven, signifying your exit from the mortal world into either Heaven or Hell, judged at the entrance by two creatures, Death and Rahu, who determine the dead's fate. As I'm not a Buddhist, I try to take all of the symbolism and design elements of buildings like this as culturally as possible. It's important while traveling to appreciate and respect places like the White Temple, where even if you don't necessarily believe in what's being said or expressed in the design of the building you can still take time to admire the cultural aspects that it represents. I am merely a spiritual person and so places like this are somewhat of a haven for me where I can appreciate the art and design of a building and attempt to apply it to my own daily life. Like I said, I'm not a Buddhist, but if I was I'd imagine this temple would have a profound effect on me spiritually. Instead it left an impression of awe and hope, from the fanciful artwork inside and out to the imagery of life, death, good, evil, heaven, hell, and more.

The inside of this magical building is almost as impressive as the outside, filled with Buddhist images on one side and 20th and 21st century images on the other. The paintings within the building depict a series of pop culture icons and stories representing several aspects of the modern world such as Superman and Batman, George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, the World Trade Center, Harry Potter, Minions, the Joker, Elvis, Neo from The Matrix, Space, Angry Birds, super heroes and super villains from several different comics and movies, and much, much more. Though taking pictures is forbidden within the temple I managed to snap a few quick ones while a friend blocked the guard from view. There was actually still someone inside the temple while we were walking around working on and touching up many of the paintings already on the walls. 

The artwork inside this building, though very random, was absolutely stunning. The images were crisp and colorful and gave a very unique perspective on good vs. evil in the 20th and 21st century. I found it extremely interesting that a big portion of the wall focused around events that occurred within the United States, 9/11. A central portion of the wall even depicted the faces of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden hovering above the Twin Towers while on fire on September 11th. An eery sight to see in a temple in northern Thailand, I couldn't help but appreciate the fact that though many countries dislike the U.S., they still sympathize with us around many events.

The exterior of the bathroom at Wat Rong Kun

As I mentioned before the site of the temple is not just one building, and there are plans for the future to continue building more. Though most of the buildings follow the standard white color with glass on the outside to add some extra "sparkle", there is one building which sticks out from the rest - the bathroom. For whatever reason, the artist decided it would be a good idea for the bathroom to be colored gold rather than white, perhaps a method for making the toilet stand out against the other buildings in case of emergency...

Either way, it was just as attractive as the other buildings on the grounds and may be one of the nicest exteriors to a toilet I've ever seen. 

Following our visit to the temple we boarded a local bus back to downtown Chiang Rai and hopped on another bus taking us to Chiang Mai where we plan to spend a few days enjoying Loy Krathong, the yearly festival celebrating the 12th full moon of the Thai year and the corresponding Lantern Festival.

From Chiang Rai I'm taking everything I wanted away from it. The White Temple has been a bucket list item ever since I saw a picture of it online a few years back, and now that I've seen I can rest easy knowing that it's a much different place than I anticipated (being that it's not actually a temple, but rather a piece of art), though just as beautiful as I'd hoped.