Since the highly respected but controversial visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat began building Wat Rong Khun in 1997, the White Temple of Chiang Rai has evoked much debate over the years. Placing traditional Buddhist imagery alongside modern pop culture continues to spark criticism amongst traditionalists. However, step into the quirky world of Wat Rong Khun and you can’t help but admire its celestial beauty.
The first sight of Wat Rong Khun will take your breath away. An ethereal architectural wonder that radiates a frosty, luminescence against the canvas of a deep blue sky. Landscaped gardens with sweeping lines frame its exquisite facades while the surrounding lake reflects a perfect mirror image of the purity of Buddha.
Heavily steeped in symbolism, a walk through the grounds of this temple reveals a surreal and non-conformist journey into the evils of desire and the trappings of a modern world. Demonic faces and a sea of twisted hands rise up from the grounds. Mystical creatures frolic in the gardens whilst characters from movies adorn walls normally reserved for the divine. Strangely sculptured heads hang from trees and demons wielding swords point accusingly. Chalermchai Kositpipat cleverly combines the weird and bizarre with Buddhist teachings chiselled into every detail of this exquisite structure. It blows away any expectation of a typically Thai temple experience. Provocative and controversial it may be, but one thing for sure is that it absolutely succeeds in its message of delivering a Buddhist architectural nirvana.
Getting to Wat Rong Khun
We hired a motorbike in Chiang Mai and took Highway 118 all the way to Chiang Rai. It was a great ride – all 185km of it! Once you escape the traffic of Chiang Mai, you’ll ride through winding roads with great views of rolling hilltops. There are many cafes in scenic spots to stop off for breaks, some with quirky giant rubber ducks floating in a lake and outdoor seating straight out of a children’s book!
Songthaew or Bus
Songthaews or covered pick-up trucks are easily available near the bus station in the centre of town. In Chiang Rai the Songthaews are blue. As a rule, the more people in a Songthaew, the cheaper the fare but the cost is still reasonable if there are only a few of you.
Alternatively head to the old bus station and take the bus to Wat Rong Khun.
Wat Rong Khun is open from 6.30am to 6.00pm.
Entrance is free.
Location: 13km outside Chiang Rai city, Highway 1
Things to do in Chiang Rai
We only spent two nights in Chiang Rai, with most of day one riding there. To be honest we didn’t find Chiang Rai that interesting. I can understand now why it’s considered as living in the shadow of Chiang Mai. You just can’t compare the two! For me it lacked personality. Still, we managed to visit Chiang Rai Night Bazaar where we browsed the small market stalls and had some amazing food at the food court.
After that we walked to the Golden Clock Tower built to honour the King of Thailand by none other than Chalermchai Kositpipat. Every evening at 19.00, 20.00 and 21.00 the clock tower comes to life in a light and sound display. Frankly it was a little bit bonkers but hey this is Thailand! I actually filmed the event which only lasted a few minutes and it still makes me laugh to this day! I wouldn’t go out of your way to see the Clock Tower, but if you’re passing, it’s worth watching this strangely amusing phenomenon!
Location of Clock Tower: At the junction of Phaholyothin, Jet Yod and Banpaprakan Roads
Chiang Rai Night Bazaar: Located between the bus station and Phaholyothin Rd in the centre of town.