My trip to the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is to date, my longest land trip in Thailand. It took me eleven hours on the road from the northeastern province of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) to Chiang Mai city. From Chiang Mai, there’s another two-hour bus journey to get to the city of Chiang Rai. I was running with fever in a First Class bus, coughing in between naps. I should have known better, VIP buses are normally fully-booked during public holidays. I had no advanced booking so no other option but to take the First Class.
While domestic flights are not that costly anymore, buses are still the number one transportation for long distance trips in Thailand. Besides being less expensive, air-conditioned buses offer more comfort and better service nowadays.
From Chiang Mai, it is easy to get to the White Temple using public transport. The Wat Rong Khun is located just off Highway 1 (Phahonyothin road). There are hotels in Chiang Rai but I decided to just stick to the White Temple and head back to Chiang Mai for a couple more days.
Wat Rong Khun draws a large number of visitors all-year round, both local or foreign. Travel books recommend tours to this unconventionally-designed place of worship. In this post, you will see why the White Temple always pops up among the top attractions in Thailand.
1. Unique Design
Wat Rong Khun stands out through its bizarrely designed façade. The whole complex was designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The main hall’s exterior is embedded with glass mirror fragments. Representations of the Buddha and mythical creatures are all around but as a horror flick junkie, I was more mesmerized with the ghoulish sculptures. I didn’t expect to see Superman, Star Wars and Disney characters around the temple but yes, they are on exhibit too.
Wat Rong Khun went through many hurdles. It needed major repairs following a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 2015. Chiang-Rai born visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat used his own money to completely rebuild the temple. It was Kositpipat who started the project 20 years ago. The artist built the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings. To date, renovations are in progress in some areas.
Typically, Buddhist temples across Thailand have similar layout and style. Most are gold, which embodies the sacredness of temples. Wat Rong Khun, however, is all white. White color signifies the purity of the Buddha.
There is, however, a structure that stands out in the whole complex because of its golden color – the restrooms building. The gold represents the body, which symbolizes how people focus on worldly desires and money.
4. Symbolic Elements
Wat Rong Khun is filled with Buddhist elements. Buddhist teachings about heaven, hell, earthly sins, and karma are reflected in the structures.
The ubosot, the main building of the White Temple, is reached by crossing a bridge. It is called the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. The bridge itself is photo-worthy. Little do we know that the bridge signifies the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering.
In front of the bridge is a circular area with hundreds of hands that symbolize desire. This area that represents human suffering and hell is all over the internet. It symbolizes the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things as temptations, greed, and desire.
5. Buddhist culture experience
There are huge trees around the temple with Buddha sculptures. As a non-Buddhist, I was amazed at people kneeling, burning incense sticks, and praying intently before the Buddha.
Several concrete “trees” can also be seen with thousands of medallions hanging down from them. Pay 30 Baht, you can add yours with your name written on it.
Some visitors of the temple make a wish by throwing a few coins into the wishing well.
Right timing and on-point outfit are the keys to a perfect Instagram post from the White Temple. Be sure to check the weather forecast ahead of your trip to the temple so that your sashaying, floral maxi dress is a great fit for the ivory white background. For a better photo shoot, tag along with a friend who is skilled at photography!
Remember to cover your arms and legs. Though its design is contemporary, Wat Rong Khun is still a place of worship and the dress code is strictly enforced.
How to go to Wat Rong Khun:
Daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai take 1.5 hours. Chiang Rai’s airport, Mae Fah Luang-Chiang Rai International Airport is located on Phaholyotin Rd 8km from the center. Metered taxis are waiting at the far end of the airport parking lot. Be sure to negotiate a fixed rate with the driver before hopping onto the taxi. I’ve met travelers who recommend pre-paid taxis than metered ones as their prices are on display at the airport desk. The fare is between 250 and 300 Baht.
Buses to Chiang Rai leave from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit). The trip takes about 11 to 12 hours though it can be close to 10 hours if you take an overnight coach.
Chiang Rai has two bus stations. The Old Bus Station (Bus Terminal 1) is located in the center of town; the New Bus Station (Bus Terminal 2) is 7km south of the city, off the Super Highway. Buses from Chiang Mai arrive and depart from the old station. Buses from other parts of Thailand arrive at the new station.
Both stations have plenty of tuk-tuks and songthaews outside. A songthaew is a minibus but operates until 5:00 p.m. only. Drivers charge more if there are fewer than 10 passengers. The fare is 15 baht per person for a group of 10. The trip to the White Temple takes only around 15-20 minutes.
Some travelers take the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It is actually a better way to see the countryside of Northern Thailand and would give you a real Thai experience – the scenery, the passengers, the food and the commute itself.
Train journey from Bangkok (Hua Lamphong station) to Chiang Mai takes about 14 hours. From Chiang Mai jump on the Green VIP bus to Chiang Rai. You will get dropped at the new bus station, just take a tuk-tuk to the White Temple.
What else you should know:
• Opening hours: 6.30 – 6.00 daily (temple); 8:00 – 5:30 Mon-Fri (museum of paintings)
• Entrance fee: 50 Baht for foreign visitors.
• The art gallery features Kositpipat’s work. Entrance is free but taking photos is forbidden.
• Food shops offer both Thai and foreign dishes. Souvenir shops are also open.
If you want to know more about Wat Rong Khun, you can check out its official website. Drop your comments or questions below and feel free to share this post with your friends!
Sheila, a.k.a. The Solo Tripper. Former news desk editor, full-time traveler, freelance writer.