“Only death can stop my dream, but cannot stop my project,“
– Chalermchai Kositpipa
Wat Rong Khun is a privately owned art installation in the style of a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. It is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997.
And thank God he did! This is one of the structures on my bucket list and to be honest the most important reason for me to visit Thailand. I had seen videos and photos of this temple for years, one more extraordinary than the next as I slowly became more and more enamored with the idea of The White Temple.
That being the case my first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai (I skipped Chiang Mai). I found my lovely little hostel in the center of town and quickly signed up for their “Popular Sightseeing Join Tour” (meaning I get in the car with a bunch of other people who want to see stuff in the surrounding area). It cost me 1000 baht (about $33 // £25), but before you freak out over the price: that was a full day tour (and I mean FULL DAY)! We were taken to
- The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
- The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seur Ten)
- The Black Temple (Baandam Museum)
- The Monkey Temple (and given sticks for defence… interesting)
- Karen Village (long neck people)
- A Tea Plantation
- Some place I can’t remember the name of where there was a Scorpion Statue and a memorial for the soccer boys that got stuck in a cave a while back and a lot of other random stuff
- The Golden Triangle (where I got ANOTHER bucket list item checked: a photo op with the triangle sign and view of the intersection between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos)
THE WHITE TEMPLE (Wat Rong Khun)
Even with all my pre-adoration the White Temple did not disappoint(!) The building itself is so iridescent white I almost couldn’t look at it without sunglasses. It has small glass bits that sparkle and shine everywhere and it just looks so clean, so bright. It’s hard to describe. The architecture looks like many other Asian temples I have seen, just cranked up to 11. All the small details take forever to take in (if you have that long) and I was so happy this tour didn’t rush us. I had made sure before signing up that we wouldn’t be taken to the temple, given 20 minutes and then ushered off somewhere else and thankfully they kept their end of that bargain, I felt I had loads of time.
This was especially good because I had only been tipped off about the toilet the day before. Wat Rong Khun has its own building serving as a toilet for visitors (of course), but this is its own little temple-ish building, just all in gold(!)
It was completely over the top and the cleanest, most comfortable toilet I have ever been to at a tourist attraction this popular.
This is a phenomenon, there’s not other way to describe it, if you go to Thailand (north) you should definitely see this. If you are a bit “templed out”, go see it anyway because it’s not traditional in any way and will give you a whole new experience.
Unfortunately it’s not allowed for tourists to take pictures of the inside of Wat Rong Khun, but it was so insane I had to google some pics to show people. I was blown away by the interior, Meghan and I spent quite some time trying to find everything we could in the murials, but no matter how long we scouted we just kept finding more and more popular references, characters, situations… Harry Potter, Spiderman, 9/11, Terminator, KUNG FU FREAKIN’ PANDA!… It was mindblowing.
THE BLUE TEMPLE (Wat Rong Seut Ten // House of the Dancing Tiger)
The Blue Temple is a Buddhist temple that differs from others because of its intense blue color. It is not an active temple, meaning no monks live there.
At the start of the 21st century it had fallen into a bad state and it was decided it had to be completely rebuilt. Completed in 2016 it was designed by Putha Kabkaew, a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat (the influence is visible).
The main building is the “viharn”, the assembly hall with awesome Naga snakes guarding its entrance. In the hall you can find the huge, white statue of Buddha. He looks like he has a bluish hue because of the walls. They are covered in murials that depict scenes from his life. The ceiling is similarly decorated in blues, gold and severral bright colours.
I didn’t know this temple existed before I was brought there by the tour company, but I was pretty much in awe the whole time I was there. It is absolutely beautiful, there’s no other way to describe it. It feels cheap to use such easy words, but that’s just what it was beautiful.
The Black Temple (Baandam Museum)
I didn’t know what this was before going here either (I’m pretty hopeless, ok. I just wanted to see the White Temple, guys, everything else was bonus)
I’m still not entirely sure what the hell this place was, but it was huge. Like a whole park with various structures/houses, some open, some not. All of them looked like the weird homestead of a very rich, artsy-farsy hoarder. Some old dude made statues, sculptures and furniture(!) of various shit and decorated a whole place with it. Whether he ever lived there or not, I am not sure, but… I looked pretty cool. Even when I looked in the door of a little round structure in the garden and found myself face to “face” with an enormous wooden penis… (It was attached to a carved out humanoid figure). The floor was littered with shells, a dead alligator and some bones and skulls… I don’t know if this was a metaphore for how guys feel when they can’t get it up or what, but it was… an experience.
There was also a large, grey bull tied to a tree lazily grazing while totally ignoring the crazy Asians who enthusiastically took selfies with him.
A totally weird place…
KAREN PEOPLE VILLAGE
Visited a village where about 45 refugees of the Kayan people live. They are a sub-group of the Karen people (the sign just said KAREN VILLAGE though and this is what tour groups and local people will call it, if you’re looking for it yourself).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s due to conflict with the military regime in Myanmar, many Kayan tribes fled to the Thai border area. Among the refugee camps set up there was a “Long Neck section”, which became a tourist site, self-sufficient on tourist revenue and not needing financial assistance. Here you can buy various souvenirs, clothing etc (I bought a lot of gifts here, everything from flutes, to scarves to a little, traditional dress my “sister’s” daughter will probably never have an appropriate occasion to wear, but it was cool and very different so… (That’s pretty much the tagline for my whole trip).
We also got a photo op with grandma and her granddaughter (and they were actually super keen for it, so I didn’t have to feel guilty. Usually these things make me feel a bit like a white colonialist with the locals “on display”, but this time it felt more like a fun laugh we had together).
MONKEY TEMPLE AND RANDOM STUFF
So after the Karen Village we went to see a monkey temple. I have been to several monkey temples, but I never got a stick “for self defense” before entering before, so yeah… Nervousness ensued. This is another one of those places where there is a Buddha statue the furthest back i a damp cave and everyone does a pilgrimage to go see it. We piled on to the insanely steep staircase and tried not to slip on our way towards the statue. The guide waited outside with the monkeys (I thought the fact that even the monkeys didn’t go int the cave might be a sign for us to ditch this plan, but oh well). Flavio, one of the Italians in our group, went first, jokingly declared himself the leader and lit up his torch – needless to say we followed him (after all, if he dies horribly he’s the first to go and the rest of us can get the hell out). We didn’t die, we saw another lackluster Buddha statue in te dark before we slowly inched our way back out and tried to survive the insanely steep staircase yet again.
After watching the guide feed the monkeys some bananas and putting coins on a machine that made a paper maché band in a cage(!) perform a totally incoherent “song” for us, we drove on to a tea plantation that looked more like a winery. Here we tasted three different teas and bought none of them. The views were great, we were on top of a hill looking out at all the green-ness of the plantation and it was hotter than a summer vacation in Hell. Beautiful stuff. After this we went to see the Scorpion statue and something that was a mixture of a Buddhist temple, a shrine to the memory of the Tham Luang Cave Rescue and just a generic shrine to the King of Thailand. Not as weird as the Black Temple thing, but still very random… During our time at what I call “The Random Temple” (not a temple at all, mind you, but everything else is The Something Temple), Meghan went on a “visa run”. She crossed the border to Myanmar, bought a fake Louis Vuitton bag and came back, just to be able to say she’d been to 25 countries before turning 25 ;-D
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
“The Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. The name “Golden Triangle”—coined by the CIA—is commonly used more broadly to refer to an area of approximately 950,000 square kilometres that overlaps the mountains of the three adjacent countries. Along with Afghanistan in the Golden Crescent, it has been one of the largest opium-producing areas of the world, since the 1950s. Most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer.”
I didn’t know any of this (ok, I didn’t know hardly ANYTHING befoe I started this tour, stop judging me), I just knew that I had seen a picture on Instagram several years ago showing this guy grinning by a metal signpost-triangle with the names of all three countries on it and a view of the river. I knew I wanted that same picture, just with me in it. Don’t ask me why, I can’t explain it, but it became such a goal in my mind it turned into a heavy bucket list item for me. I think it might be because it represented my wildest dreams, back when I thought a trip like this would be impossible for me. Something that “would be cool to do, but I’ll never do it…”
Now I was here. I was physically right next to the sign and I took my very own picture with it.