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A unique blend of traditional Thai architecture & the surreal The Wat Rong Khun temple

David Goran

Wat Rong Khun, perhaps better known to foreigners as the White Temple, is an unconventional, contemporary Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai. This bizarre-looking white temple is owned by Chiang Rai-born visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed it. The temple opened to visitors in 1997.

It is one of the most recognizable temples in Thailand and one of Chiang Rai’s most visited attractions. The artist intends for the area adjacent to the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings.

Whereas most of Thailand’s Buddhist temples have centuries of history, Wat Rong Khun’s construction began in 1997. Photo Credit

Whereas most of Thailand’s Buddhist temples have centuries of history, Wat Rong Khun’s construction began in 1997. Photo Credit

The main building is painted white to symbolise Buddha’s purity. Photo Credit

The main building is painted white to symbolize Buddha’s purity. Photo Credit

An unconventional approach to temple architecture. Photo Credit

An unconventional approach to temple architecture. Photo Credit

Seen from a distance, the temple appears to be made of glittering porcelain. Photo Credit

Seen from a distance, the temple appears to be made of glittering porcelain. Photo Credit

The principal building or Ubosot is an all-white building with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in its exterior. The white color signifies the purity of the Buddha, while the sparkling glass symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom and the Dhamma, the Buddhist teachings. All around the complex are intricate sculptures of demons, skulls, severed heads hanging from trees and other bizarre objects.

The original Wat Rong Khun was in a very poor state of preservation, so Kositpipat decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. Photo Credit

The original Wat Rong Khun was in a very poor state of preservation, so Kositpipat decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. Photo Credit

Chalermchai has spent THB40 million of his own money on the project. Photo Credit

Chalermchai has spent THB40 million of his own money on the project. Photo Credit

The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolisms, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. Photo Credit

The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolisms, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. Photo Credit

The bridge of “the cycle of rebirth“. Photo Credit

The bridge of “the cycle of rebirth“. Photo Credit

The “hands of hell“. Photo Credit

The “hands of hell“. Photo Credit

Thus, the temple and its grounds are surprisingly contemporary, focusing on fictional elements of our materialistic world. Instead of paintings of heroes fighting demons, the artist decided to take contemporary manifestations of good and evil and put it into a Buddhist context: the predator struggling to free itself from the ground, aliens, and elaborate murals depicting Neo from The Matrix, Terminator, Superman, and an angry bird smashing into the World Trade Center Towers.

It is not a religious temple, but rather a tourist attraction. Photo Credit

It is not a religious temple, but rather a tourist attraction. Photo Credit

Today the works are ongoing. Photo Credit

Today the works are ongoing. Photo Credit

The predator. Photo Credit

The predator. Photo Credit

For some buildings, specifically, ubosot itself, visitors are only allowed to take pictures outside. Photo Credit

For some buildings, specifically ubosot itself, visitors are only allowed to take pictures outside. Photo Credit

Wall painting inside the temple. Photo Credit

Wall painting inside the temple. Photo Credit

In another wall, there are paintings of spaceships and a scene depicting a cataclysmic event annihilating planet Earth. To date, the temple is not finished. When completed, the white temple compound will have nine buildings, including the existing ubosot, a hall of relics, a meditation hall, an art gallery, and living quarters for monks. The works are ongoing but are not expected to be completed until 2070.