I visit the infamous and beautiful white temple in Northern Thailand, as well as Baan Dam, the Black House.
Chiang Rai is in the far northern portion of Thailand, and does not offer much in terms of tourism, nightlife, or historical sites. However, there is one particular facet that draws tourists by the thousands: Wat Rong Khun.
Despite its self-praising name, the white temple is not technically a Buddhist temple at all. Rather, it is a modern art exhibit based off of Thai Buddhist architecture. Chalermchai Kositpiptat, the artist behind this modern marvel, has gotten a lot of controversial backlash about his Thai-inspired religious artwork, but there is no denying the attraction’s success.
Before visiting the main attraction of Chiang Rai, my tour group stopped at Baan Dam, The Black House. Another eleborate Thai-Buddhist inspired art exhibit, Baan Dam was designed by Thawan Duchanee. Bizarre and whimsically dark, this attraction was among the most strange during my trip throughout Southeast Asia. There were various animals in cages, such as an owl with one eye open and a giant snake that was often let out for tourists to pet.
There were also various tribal-looking weapons, giant alligator skins painted black, abstract sculptures, and massive buildings that looked like scenes from a Studio Ghibli movie.
It was all very odd. I didn’t take many pictures, but I found an excellent gallery here if you are interested in seeing more of this abstract, interactive art display.
The Main Attraction
As we pulled up to glittering Wat Rong Khun, an eerie grey sky opened up above, giving the temple a dramatic effect that went above and beyond the already-daunting structure.
The building began construction in 1996, making it an extremely young addition to Thailand’s history. Similar to Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Wat Rong Khun is a landmark that is still under construction, and new elaborate buildings are being added on.
The main building was surrounded by a pond filled with pure white koi.
The bridge leading up to the main building was above a sea of hand-sculptures. Disturbing and sometimes grotesque, the hands dramatically reached up toward the tourists.
On either side of the bridge were two looming Thai demons, guarding the entrance in their sparkling silver splendor.
I went into the main temple twice, because the first time around was absolutely overflooded with tourists.
Depicting “Buddhist hell” or sometimes interpreted as “hell on earth,” the inside of Wat Rong Khun contains the most bizarre murals in all of Thailand. References to 9/11, The Illuminati, and to pop culture images such as Spiderman, The Matrix, and Star Wars are all hidden within the fiery bright red swirls and demonic faces of the temple.
Photos are not permitted inside, but I highly encourage you to take a look at this gallery which depicts just a handful of the eclectic oddball interior. Unless, of course, you are planning on visiting the temple yourself, in which case mabe it’s better to be surprised.
We explored the grounds for quite some time and still kept discovering details.
Even the traffic cones and the no-smoking signs had character.
One really cool thing for tourists to do was leave a little prayer ornament. Thousands and thousands of these little silver hangings were jingling on chandeliers and overhangs around the temple. I normally don’t waste my money on this type of thing, but it was only 20 baht to write whatever you wanted. Similar to love-locks in European bridges, this was a great way to leave behind a little piece of evidence of your adventure.
We definitely came to the temple at the wrong hour, because it was packed. Chinese tourists swarmed out of buses and pushed their way through the hoard. Because of cultural differences and language barriers, it is common knowledge that Thai locals are less than eager to put up with Chinese tourists. This trip showed me examples of exactly why. Getting lunch at a food court across the street was an absolute nightmare, and multiple students on my trip had horrible experiences with some rude tourists.
Bucket list item: success! The White Temple was an absolutly unforgettable masterpiece, but I would be lying if I said we weren’t all eager to pile back into the bus to head back to Chiang Mai.