While visiting Chiang Rai, the relatively small town that borders Myanmar and Laos, a visit to the White Temple is a must. The White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, is a 20 year old building that was constructed by a local artist. While the artist claims that his temple is a tribute to Buddha, opinions are sure to be divided on this privately owned, modern art project. Hopping on the blue bus from Chiang Rai bus station 1 will take you the 13km to the White Temple, and costs 20 baht per person.
Foreign visitors will be greeted by a Predator sculpture reaching from the ground and what looks like a transformer sitting on a bench before they make their way to the ticket booth. Entry costs 50 baht per person, with locals getting in free.
The temple is beautiful from afar, and visitors flock to the corner of the pond nearest the ticket booth to get the best angle for a picture. Once you begin to walk toward the temple, a bridge greets you which you’ll need to cross. Looking at the area under the bridge, you’ll notice that instead of there being water, there are hundreds of hands grasping upward. A feeling of walking over hell toward the bright white temple is unavoidable, and just a few steps away is the doorway to enter.
There are no pictures allowed inside of the temple, which may be for the best since it looks quite different inside than out. The beautiful architecture and solid white color scheme give way to an odd, modern art mural (see this blogger’s images of the interior for an idea). Placed in the center of the far side of the temple is a lifelike recreation of the Buddha (made of plaster maybe?), and on the walls around him are some interesting paintings. Faces adorn the two longer walls, and everyone from Michael Jackson, Bumble Bee, Keanu Reeves, and Terminator can be found on the entrance wall interior. The paintings are all on a flat surface, and while they are interesting, they don’t seem to belong in a temple. The artist’s reasoning for including them in his paintings supposedly is to denounce modern distractions among other reasons, but they seem to fit a more self-serving purpose. Possibly because he’s a millionaire and became rich from controversial art, and possibly because another part of the temple is a gallery where you’re encouraged to buy more of his art, these inclusions seemed more there for shock factor to me. While I don’t blame the artist for making money however he can, seeing modern paintings in a place of worship seems to be furthering his agenda of showcasing his art as opposed to sending some deeper message, at least in my eyes.
Outside of the temple is an odd tree with movie characters’ heads hanging from it, and more buildings. The complex is supposed to house nine buildings by the time it’s finished, which is slated for the year 2070. The other buildings nearby were less ornate than the White Temple, and weren’t in use when we visited, minus the art gallery. The gallery is free to visit, and you can see more paintings of controversial images, including George W. Bush flying on a rocket in outer space with Osama Bin Laden riding behind him.
After our visit to the White Temple, we rode the blue bus back to Chiang Mai and caught the green bus north to another odd building, The Black House. The bus dropped us 2km from the entrance since it’s down a side rode, and we walked for 20 minutes or so before reaching the ticket booth. Admission to the Black House is 80 baht, and is nearly as odd inside as the White Temple. The main building is dimly lit and decorated with black wood carvings and dead animal bodies throughout. Three meter long crocodile skins lay on tables, and four meter long snakes lay under them, with horned animal skulls laying about.
Walking through the complex around the Black House are numerous other buildings, mostly closed to the public. Some contain more animal parts, while some have a nice Japanese styled influence and look a bit less gruesome. A few white cement domes were open when we visited, and we sat on the chairs made of horns for a brief and odd moment before moving on. The Black House had more to see than the White Temple, but was even more strange. Our 45 minute visit was plenty long, and we walked along the highway for some time before finding another green bus to get us back to town.
While I don’t think we’d advocate journeying to Chaing Rai only to see the White Temple, if like us, you’re transiting to/from Laos (or for a short stint in Myanmar) it is definitely the thing to see in town. The temple is open from 8am to 5:30pm and an early morning visit will be necessary if you want to avoid the masses that tend to visit as well.