Most visitors to Chiang Rai are there for one thing, and one thing only, that of course being the stunning white temple, Wat Rong Khun which is virtually synonymous with the city.
Of all the temples we saw during our visit to Thailand (and there were quite a few!), the white temple was by far and away the most spectacular. Even if you’ve visited more temples than you can shake an incense stick at and are suffering a severe bout of temple fatigue, this one you simply cannot miss!
Our kids were certainly sitting at the ‘templed out’ end of the scale when we hit Chiang Rai, but they were completely blown away by Wat Rong Khun.
As spiritual as it is surreal, as controversial as it is beautiful, this intriguing landmark is full of surprises and is definitely worth the trip if you are staying in Chiang Mai or elsewhere in Northern Thailand.
A little history and some spiritual insights…
Although the spectacular masterpiece of Wat Rong Khun as it stands today is relatively new with restorations having only started in 1997, the original temple had stood in this spot for many years prior. By the end of the 20th century, however, the temple had fallen into a state of disrepair with no funding available for renovation.
Thanks to the imagination and investment of the award winning artist, Chalermhai Khositpipat who grew up in Rong Khun village, the temple received a much needed makeover which saw it become the most visited temple in Chiang Rai, and indeed one of the most visited temples in all of Thailand.
Although the building retains the structure of a temple and is frequented by monks, it is more work of art than religious building these days. The constant stream of excited visitors passing through the small hall would make it difficult for any peaceful reflections, prayers or meditation, although the site will eventually have a designated area for this outside of the main attraction. Nevertheless, the temple is well worth a visit to marvel at the spectacle.
As the nickname ‘white temple’ suggests, the temple is indeed painted completely white on the outside, the colour intended to symbolise the purity of Buddha. As it glistens in the bright Thai sunlight, a closer inspection reveals that the temple is inlaid with multiple silver mirrored mosaic tiles. These are said to represent the wisdom of Buddha shining out into the world.
To reach the main hall, you must cross the bridge of the cycle of re-birth. Many disembodied hands will reach up from the depths of hell in a representation of unbridled desire, symbolising that in order to reach nirvana (the final destination in the Buddhist faith where the spirit is released from the cycle of re-birth), one must resist desire, greed and temptation.
From here, you will be met at the gates of heaven by two guards symbolising death and Rahu who determines the fate of the dead in Buddhism.
Marvel at the intricate details of the walkway as you make your way to the main temple hall; it really is unbelievably beautiful.
For those not aware of the unusual nature of the artwork within the temple, it will come as a surprise. In place of the usual depictions of Buddha on his journey to enlightenment, modern day hero’s and villans grace the walls in a representation of good versus evil.
Harry Potter, Spiderman, Yoda, Piccachu and Michael Jackson are amongst the characters to greet you along with image of the planes hitting the twin towers and futuristic scenes of intergalactic warfare.
Aside from the immense surprise and delight of our boys in spotting familiar faces in such an unexpected place, it was interesting how relatable the portrayed message was to our non Buddhist family.
As you leave through the back of the temple, take a moment to look back at the building from this angle too.
One point to note is that your progress through the temple is one way; once you’ve passed through, there’s no returning to walk through again without a new ticket so be sure to take your time and drink it all in as you go.
Once you’re back outside the main temple, fear not, there is plenty more to explore.
Along the walkways, look up to spot the hundreds of silver leaves hanging from the roofs, with more hung from ‘trees’ near the front of the complex. Visitors and worshipers can buy their own to add to the masses.
The leaves symbolise those of the sacred fig tree in Bodhgaya, India under which Prince Siddhartha sat to meditate and gained enlightenment. He became ‘Buddha’, ‘the awakened one’ and the tree became known as the Bodhi tree, Bodhi meaning ‘awakened’.
These leaves and images of the Bodhi tree are a common site at many Buddhist temples around Thailand and the rest of the world.
Behind the temple, you will find a waterfall wall where will spot more familiar characters including the ninja turtles.
Look out for the disembodied and deformed heads hung from the trees around the site. Aside from their intriguing nature, their questionable presence at a place of worship is apparently explained by the Buddhist belief that suffering must precede salvation.
A gallery of Kositpipats work can be found by crossing a golden bridge to a golden building at the back of the site.
There is a wishing well where you can throw a coin and make a wish; it is said that if it lands in the middle, your wish will come true. You will also find an enormous bell in the area behind the temple.
Perhaps the second most spectacular building on the site after the temple itself is the toilet block; located towards the entrance, the building is entirely gold in colour both inside and out and is almost as impressive as the temple!
Again, there is symbolism in the spectacle, gold representing man-kinds obsession with wealth and material possessions, something the Buddhist faith suggests belongs down the toilet!
A note on photography
Whether you are a professional photographer, an avid amateur or just a regular visitor with a mobile phone, one thing you will certainly want to do when you visit Wat Rung Khun is to get snap happy and record your visit.
The beauty of the temple (apart from just the beauty of the temple!) is that it has been designed very well from a photography point of view.
Just inside the security gates there is a spot where you can photograph the temple free of tourists obscuring your view owing to the layout of the lawns, high walls over the walkway and the directed flow of tourists keeping them away from this side of the building.
As you move along the bridges and walkways on your way to Nirvana, there are a couple of spots lending themselves to a picture and although you will hear a recording asking you politely to ‘keep moving’, you can nevertheless stop a moment to capture your image after others have moved on, unless of course you want the whole battery of poses favoured by some aspiring Instagram stars.
We visited the temple at around 9am when, although busy, it wasn’t heaving with tourists. Visiting during busier times may well impede your ability to capture those ‘place to myself’ images, so bear this in mind when you plan your visit. It is best to arrive before the day trippers from Chiang Mai, or otherwise in the hour or two before the temple closes when it is less busy.
Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed inside the main hall, probably for preservation as well as copyright purposes, so you will just have to enjoy the moment and imprint it on your heart.
At the time of writing, entry to the temple is TBH 100 for international adult visitors; children are free.
How long to spend there
If you want to take the temple at a relaxed pace with time to enjoy the details and take photographs, expect to spend one to two hours at the site.
To reach the temple, you will walk down an alleyway of small but beautiful tourist shops with reasonably priced wares which are worth a look, so be sure to factor this in to your visit if you’re keen to explore.
How to get there
If you’re staying in Chiang Rai, the cheapest option by far is to use the public bus from Chiang Rai bus station, which is how we travelled. Cast aside any visions you have of a large air-conditioned coach; the tiny rickety old blue bus waiting to take you will make you think you’ve stepped back in time. Rest assured though, that what it lacks in modern comfort, it more than makes up for in personality and will deliver you to the white temple in around 30 minutes.
We were keen to get there early to avoid the rush of day trippers from Chiang Mai and found there was plenty of space on the 08:10 bus, even though we arrived at about 08:09! There were a couple of ‘White temple’ buses available at that time. I’m not sure how busy the bus service is later in the day.
At the time of writing, buses run approximately hourly from 06:15 and approximately half hourly from 10am onwards. The fare is TBH 20 per person.
Hop aboard bus numbers 1241, 1244 or 1246 which have a ‘White temple’ sign in their widscreens, from bus terminal 1 off Prasopsook Road, behind the night bazaar.
The White temple stop is on the main road and you will need to take a short walk past a cockerel seller and down a passageway lined with small souvenir shops to reach the temple. These are actually well worth a poke around in once you’ve explored the temple.
To travel back to Chiang Rai by bus, the bus stop is on the opposite side of the road to the temple; look out for a small roofed wooden circular bus shelter.
The returning buses apparently run half hourly, although we never did find out; although we had every intention of returning by bus and found the bus shelter, along with another tourist, a passing songthaew stopped and offered us the ride for the same price as the bus fare so we hopped on board!
We visited the Blue Temple and Black House later in the day and did try to find transport from the white temple rather than going via Chiang Rai since they are along the same road separated by about 35Km, however, were unable to find a bus route and the songthaew driver wasn’t keen to go that way. You will instead need to travel back to the centre of town and take a separate bus or alternative transport from here.
If you’d rather travel independently, you can hail a songthaew to take you there or book a private tour in a car. Private taxi’s are considerably more expensive but you can arrange to visit more than one attraction which does take the hassle out of it.
Go for the day or stay a little longer?
Many tourists visit Chiang Rai as a day trip from Chiang Mai, and certainly, there are plenty of tour operators offering this trip, frequently in conjunction with a visit to the Blue Temple, Black House and even the golden triangle (where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Minamer (formerly Burma) meet).
It takes between 3 to 3.5 hours to travel between Chinag Rai and Chiang Mai, and that’s before you travel between the different attractions and spend some time exploring them.
Certainly, if you’re pushed for time and visiting Chiang Rai for the day will be the difference between you getting to visit the white temple and missing out altogether then my vote would be to do the trip, but prepare yourself for a very long day and potentially a rushed visit.
If you have a little more time to spend, however, I would definitely recommend staying at least overnight in Chiang Rai so that you can see the sights at a slower and more relaxed pace, take in the night markets and enjoy Chiang Rai’s laid back vibe. 2 nights would give you enough time to see the main sights without feeling too rushed.
Although the white temple is the undoubted highlight of any trip to Chiang Rai, there are plenty of other things to see and do in this laid back city. Be sure to read our post on the Top things to do in Chiang Rai to plan a great itinerary for your visit.