Wat Rong Khun, the amazing White Temple in Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น) aka the “White Temple” has become the most popular attraction in Chiang Rai. It is not an active Buddhist temple because it has no monks residing. It is prominently in our list of “things to do in Chiang Rai“. In its relatively short existence Wat Rong Khun has become the most famous and popular tourist attraction in Chiang Rai.
Table of Contents
The foundation and development of Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun is the life’s work of Chalermchai Kositpipat (เฉลิมชัย โฆษิตพิพัฒน์), a Chiang Rai-born painter and artist. Allegedly there was a rundown local temple at this location. In the year 1867 (BE 2410) the first people settled in this area. They established a community that was first known as Wat Rong Khun which later changed to Ban Rong Khun. In 1964 villagers constructed the ubosot, which later became the White Temple.
Chalermchai put Chiang Rai single-handedly on the tourist map in the 21st century. Wat Rong Khun is the only world-famous attraction in Chiang Rai province. The only? Wait, maybe the Golden Triangle is the other one. Nevertheless, Chiang Rai owes a lot of gratitude to a hugely talented and influential artist. The White Temple of Chiang Rai has become the symbol of the province.
National Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat
Chalermchai was born on February 15, 1955, at Rongkhun village, Chiang Rai province. He studied at the Poh-Chang Academy of Arts and Silpakorn University in Bangkok and was awarded scholarships in Sri Lanka, Germany, and England. Between 1984 and 1988 he was in charge of a mural painting project at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, London, UK. This was the first traditional Thai Buddhist temple of its kind in the UK.
The Thai government funded the construction of this temple, which started in 1979 and was completed in 1982. In total 26 young Thai artists were involved in the murals, of which Chalermchai is the most famous.
The construction and opening of the White Temple
Chalermchai bought the temple, re-designed it, and oversaw the construction. The reconstructed Wat Rong Khun opened to the public in 1997. Since its opening, it has become a very popular destination. Over the years the complex added many buildings and a huge parking lot for tour buses and other vehicles. Around the complex, there are restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir shops, and other commercial buildings.
On May 5 2014 a devastating earthquake took place in North Thailand. The tremor severely damaged the White Temple. Initially, Chalermchai said that the temple might be closed indefinitely. Alas, they managed to repair the damage, fortunately. In the following years, the temple became a huge destination for Chinese visitors.
The pandemic and the current situation
During the pandemic, the temple has been closed for a long period. It was possible to visit the complex but not the White Temple itself. All the establishments, restaurants, and shops around the temple suffered from the lack of visitors. I have been there several times in this period. My friend Willem made the below selfie during an inspection trip in June 2020.
This year the tourists have come back to the White Temple. All establishments around the temple have opened again. It is great to see visitors again.
The Clock Tower of Chiang Rai
At the roundabout where now the ornate famous clock tower is, once was a small tower known as the Kodak clock tower. Chalermchai persuaded the mayor of Chiang Rai to move the old clock tower to a location opposite the market, to make way for his design. It must be said that the Chiang Rai clock tower is one of a kind. In the evening at 7, 8, and 9 PM there is a kind of sound and light show at the tower. Along the Phaholyothin road there are light poles in the same style.
The ubosot: the White Temple
The central and most well-known building is the ordination hall aka the ubosot. It is a unique and stunning structure that western people call the “White Temple”. You enter this building via a bridge. Before the bridge, you pass through a pond with hands that stretch out to the sky. There is a lot of symbolism and meaning behind the statues, architecture, and exhibits at the White Temple but this eludes the average visitor.
Inside the ubosot there are murals that feature images of Western celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Hollywood movies such as the Matrix. Images of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York seem to symbolize the bad nature of human beings.
The Ganesha Worship Hall
This is one of the more recent buildings which is also set in a pond. A bridge leads to a gilded structure with a central open tower with minor roofed pavilions around it. In Thailand, Ganesha is called Phra Phikanet (พระพิฆเนศ) or Phra Phikanesuan (พระพิฆเนศวร). This Hindu god has an elephant head and multiple arms. People worship him as the god of fortune and success. He paves the way by removing obstacles to success. Moreover, people associate Ganesha with art, education, and trade, which all are good things.
The Ganesha Worship Hall contains Chalermchai Kositpipats’ sculptures and paintings of Phra Phikanet. It is a large exhibition room with a shop that sells reproductions and other merchandise of the White Temple.
The Museums and Galleries
There are several museums on the compound of Wat Rong Khun. First of all, there is the museum that is close to the entrance of the ubosot. The Hall of Masterwork exhibits some of the stunning work of Chalermchai Kositpipat who is a hugely talented painter. A booklet you can buy at the temple mentions that he produced 200 paintings per year in the period before he involved himself in the White Temple.
Entrance to the Hall of Masterwork is free. There are wonderful paintings and sculptures in this museum. The amount of detail in these artworks is immense. I particularly like his black and white paintings. Unfortunately, there are too many gallery attendants or guards in this museum to my liking. It is probably necessary.
The Tankhun Gallery
At the far end of the complex of Wat Rong Khun are two interesting exhibition spaces. On the left is the Tankhun Gallery, where paintings and drawings are exhibited by Chalermchai and his family. His son Tan and daughter Kanokwan are also fantastic artists in their own right.
Opposite this gallery, there is another exhibition space that is now occupied by paintings from different Chiang Rai artists who produced work for the occasion of the Thailand Biennale, which will take place in Chiang Rai in 2023. This is a bi-annual international contemporary art exhibition initiated by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Ministry of Culture, Thailand.