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Day Trip from Chiang Mai: Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai’s White Temple

Wat Rong KhunIf Gaudi were Buddhist, he might have created something like Wat Rong Khun instead of the Sagrada Familia.

A dazzling white on the outside, this Chiang Rai temple glitters like the brightness of fresh snow on a sunny day. The whitewash paint and embedded mirrors and glass offer a surprising coolness in hot, colorful Thailand, much like India’s Taj Mahal.  Designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the Buddhist wat is still under construction, though it’s difficult to tell and is definitely worth a visit.

As you approach the temple, you realize that something is different about it besides its pure white color: next to the bridge that you cross are hundreds of sculpted hands reaching out of the ground, a symbol of hell and human suffering, while two giant fangs from a sort of gate that you cross through  The almost violent imagery is unexpected and disconcerting in the face of the ornate beauty of the temple from afar, but tips you off to a wider purpose: this ain’t your everyday Buddhist wat.

Once inside you’re greeted with and surrounded by warm colors and murals. But rather than depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, these paintings include depictions of the realm of rebirth and delusion (“samsara”), with representations of September 11, Superman, Spiderman, and even Neo  (Keanu Reeves’ character in the Matrix).

A gallery showcases Kositpipat’s work, and a gift shop sells reproductions of scenes from inside the temple. It’s worth noting that the temple is stunning in the moonlight, so if you can time a trip during a bright moon you’ll be in for a major experience.

The White Temple is a few kilometers south of Chiang Rai just off the highway. Buses going between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai will drop you off there.

A sign outside the entrance informed us that “Foreigners are not allowed inside without their tour guide,” but we had no problem. As with any temple, cover your shoulders and legs and take off your hat. And you will always receive more respect from Thais if you are clean and dressed modestly – whether you’re going to a temple or out to dinner.

Admission to Wat Rong Khun is free.

[Photo credit: Jean Marc / Jhon John / Jo Belo, Flickr]