Picture a snow queen’s palace. A building as white as sugar icing, with a three-tiered roof spiked with icicle decorations, and a bridge guarded by troll-like creatures. Imagine a surface flecked with mirrors that sends the sun’s rays skittering in all directions. Look closer and you’ll notice a sea of outstretched hands and a fiery mural riddled with demons, Superman and Freddy Krueger. Welcome to the White Temple in Thailand, one of the country’s most beautiful, yet surreal, works of art.
The story of the Chiang Rai White Temple
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is the contemporary creation of a local Thai artist, Chalemchai Kositpipat. When the original Buddhist temple fell into disrepair, the artist made it his life’s mission to rebuild a new one in its place as an offering to Lord Buddha and a way of gaining religious merit. Kositpipat has funnelled over 40 million Thai Baht of his own money into the temple so far, and almost gave up after an earthquake partially destroyed the building in 2014.
The White Temple was opened to visitors in 1997, yet it still isn’t complete. Kositpipat plans for the entire complex to be made up of nine separate buildings, including a meditation hall, art gallery and living space for monks. It’s estimated that construction of the White Temple won’t be complete until 2070 and the artist (pictured above, in the middle) has trained a team of young builders to continue the work after his death, in much the same way that Antoni Gaudi did for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
What’s the meaning behind the White Temple Thailand?
Did you know that Thailand is one of the most Buddhist countries in the world? Over 90 percent of the population are Buddhists, so temples are an essential part of Thai culture. Kositpipat chose the temple’s striking white colour to symbolise the purity of Lord Buddha, while its mirrors reflect Buddha’s wisdom around the world. One of the cornerstone’s of Buddha’s teachings is not to give in to human passions and desires, a lesson that’s symbolised in the design of the White Temple.
To enter the main Ubosot (temple building), you must cross a bridge representing the cycle of rebirth. First, you pass through a sea of outstretched hands belonging to people trapped in the pits of hell because they haven’t yet learned to contain their human desires. Next you reach the Gate to Heaven, which is guarded by statues of death and the mythical Ranu, who controls the passage into heaven. Once granted entry, you can pass over to the Ubosot, the Abode of Buddha.
Upon entering the temple you’re greeted by a wall filled with traditional Buddha statues and images. Turn around and the back wall is a different story. A huge, orange-red, fiery mural has been intricately painted. The bottom half is full of hellish scenes; devils cavorting in flames alongside western icons like Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, Doraemon and Freddy Krueger. Images of oil pumps and the Twin Towers signify the darkest depths of human behaviour.
Exploring the White Temple complex
The fun doesn’t stop once you’ve passed through the main temple, there’s plenty more to explore in the surrounding complex. Walk beneath a pathway lined with hanging prayer medallions and visit the most ornate restrooms you’ll ever find, set in an elaborate golden building which represents the human desire for money.
See how many strange decorative flourishes you can find, from whisky bottles in trees to the hanging heads of superheroes and cartoon characters and the Predator rising from the ground. Pay 30 Thai Baht (THB) to write your message on a prayer medallion, which can be hung from a glittering tree, or toss a coin into the wishing well. We have our favourite temples in Chiang Mai, but the White Temple is definitely the most unique we’ve come across in Thailand so far.
How to visit the White Temple Chiang Rai
The White Temple lies 13 kilometres from the northern Thai city, Chiang Rai, off of Highway 1. We stopped off there on our road trip to Mae Salong, but it’s easiest to visit from Chiang Rai, you can rent a motorbike, car or hire a tuk tuk to get from there to the temple. It’s free to get into the White Temple complex, but foreigners must pay 50 THB to enter the main temple. As always when visiting temples, you should cover up and behave respectfully. You’re not allowed to take photos within the main temple building.
What’s the most unique temple you’ve ever visited?