After the hostel we’d booked in Chiang Rai closed without warning and a disastrous attempt to book a Green Bus months in advance, it seemed that our visit to the White Temple wasn’t going to happen. However, after we exhausted all of Chiang Mai’s sights with a day left to spare, we plucked up the courage to rent a car and simply drove there instead.
The cost of the rental car was ridiculously low. My travel companion and I each laid down £11 (plus £50 as a deposit) to rent a brand new Nissan March (which we dubbed Daisy) from Fin Car Rental which was much cheaper than the cost of the available day trips we considered. Our hostel owner graciously helped us arrange the car as we, of course, speak no Thai whatsoever. The journey – which took us just under three hours each way – was relatively painless once we managed to navigate our way out of busy Chiang Mai as Route 118 heads pretty much as the crow flies most of the way to Chiang Rai. If, like us you are from a country that drives on the left, you will be reassured to know that the Thais also operate in this fashion, making driving a rental that little bit easier. Before returning the car we also paid roughly £13 between us to refill the tank.
We managed to find the temple relatively easily even considering we did so without the use of a navigation system or Google Maps. Shayne had neglected to upgrade his phone plan for foreign travel so we had to plan the journey ahead using wifi before we left the hostel and navigate from memory alone. The trip is simple enough that this was quite sufficient.
As you approach Wat Rong Khun, its resplendent whiteness slowly becomes visible above the top of the nearby trees and buildings making it easy to spot from the road. Entry to the temple is free and there is ample parking available at no additional cost. This came as quite a surprise when compared to other tourist traps we visited in Thailand which charged handsomely for entry but still proceeded to take every available opportunity to squeeze an extra few pennies out of visitors.
The White Temple is an impressive and unusual landmark. It is designed solely for the enjoyment of tourists and has no religious significance. The temple itself is all intricate twists and spires with decorative animals, demons and naga serpents present in great abundance on its exterior. Mirrored glass is used to accentuate the finer details of the design and these fragments glitter and shine prettily in the sunlight. Even the fences that ring the grounds, in keeping with the temple, are complicated in their design and are topped with ominous silver skulls to ward off deviants who might consider a spot of trespassing.
The front of the temple is of particular interest. Pools of water at either side of the entrance necessitate a bridge which is flanked by grasping hands and contorted faces that appear to reach up from the very depths of hell. At the start of the bridge stand two imposing statues representing Death and Rahu who apparently judge the souls of the deceased. The level of detail at the entrance of the temple is astounding and draws large crowds eager to snap pictures. If you want to take your own snaps, be prepared to wait in line for an opportunity and be wary of Chinese tour groups who will think nothing of barging into your shot at the most inopportune of times.
Dotted around the spectacular temple are a number of bizarre displays. These weird features range from a giant bug-eyed cyborg relaxing on a park bench; the torso of a Predator bursting out from the middle of a patch of grass; a ferocious creature leaping from the temple’s moat; and decapitated comic book characters and famous movie creations dangling by nooses from the shade of a large tree. My clear favourite was the bonkers no smoking sign which has to be the most imaginative way of warning people from chuffing on their coffin nails in the world!
There are additional structures that can be enjoyed within the grounds such as the golden building which is built in a similar, though more restrained, style as the temple; a serene well in which coins can be cast and wishes made; and shimmering trees and walkways made up of thousands upon thousands of metallic decorations – you can add your own for a small donation. There is also a gallery displaying the other works of Chalermchai Kositpipat who is responsible for the temple’s design, although this was closed when we made our pilgrimage here. Vast areas of the site remain under construction, promising an even larger and more remarkable temple in the not so distant future, although full completion is not expected until 2070!
Visiting the temple won’t take up a great deal of time (you’ll likely need just over an hour to circle the grounds, line up for photos and grab a souvenir and a bite to eat) but I would still recommend a visit. Wat Rong Khun is spectacular and baffling in equal measure and offers a totally unique experience, the like of which will not be encountered elsewhere in Thailand. One recommendation I will make, having ventured into Chiang Rai afterwards, is doing your visit as a day trip from Chiang Mai and not staying overnight. The nearby town was a bit grim and didn’t offer much else of interest for tourists – we saw four other foreigners out and about and they looked utterly miserable. We left with a subtle undertone of relief that our hostel had ceased operation.