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by Rick Green, photography by Brian K. Smith

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun is an unconventional Buddhist temple outside Chiang Rai that is being constructed under the direction of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a controversial, award-winning Thai visual artist. Kositpipat considers Wat Rong Khun to be his masterwork, an offering to Lord Buddha that will gain him the immortality of enlightenment. Construction began in 1997 and, similar to Gaudi's Sagrada Família, is not expected to be completed until well after the artist's death (in 60-70 years).

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) Monks, Chiang Rai

Work on the White Temple is largely financed by Kositpipat from commissions and art sales to maintain artistic integrity, although individual donations up to ฿10,000 are accepted. There will be a total of nine buildings on the nearly three-acre site – viharn, chedi, ubosot, ho trai, mondop, phra rabieng, crematorium, art gallery, and restrooms.

Wat Rong Khun "No Alcohol" Sign, Chiang Rai

The attention to detail is extraordinary. Nothing is spared from being imbuded with some significance. Here, a sign notifies visitors that they "cannot bring whisky inside". Abstaining from using intoxicants is one of the five virtues (pañca-śīlāni) that constitute Buddhism's code of ethics.

Meditating Buddha Sculpture, Wat Rong Khun

Meditating Buddha sitting on a lotus, surrounded by the spirits of the world. The grey outlines are small mirrors added to reflect light, symbolizing Lord Buddha's wisdom shining brightly throughout the Earth and the Universe.

Wat Rong Khun Artisans Decorating a Balustrade, Chiang Rai

Artisans attach mirror accents to a balustrade on the ubosot of Wat Rong Khun. Except for the restrooms, the entire temple complex is white (which is why it is also known as the White Temple), representing the purity of Buddha. Wat Rong Khun was designed to be best viewed in strong moonlight. If you visit after dark, be sure to have a tripod for clear, sharp photos.

Wat Rong Khun Parasol Detail, Chiang Rai

The parasol (chattra) is one of Buddhism's eight auspicious symbols (ashtamangala), signifying protection within the Dharma from spiritually-harmful forces. The seven-tier parasol (sawettachatra) represents the seven aspects of enlightenment – awareness, concentration, delight, effort, equanimity, tranquillity, wisdom. Some also believe it symbolizes the seven levels of heaven, the top (nirvana) being for the enlightened. The layers are made from charms in the shape of Bodhi leaves, given to those who make donations.

Wat Rong Khun Restrooms, Chiang Rai

One of the most elegant public restrooms we've ever encountered, they stand in striking in contrast to the surrounding pure white buildings. (The upper storey is the living quarters and office of Chalermchai Kositpipat.) As you can see, even in the midst of construction, the White Temple is a spectacle not to be missed when visiting Chiang Rai. For contrast, you can also see the lesser-known Black House (Baan Daam) of Dr. Thawan Duchanee.

Wat Rong Khun
Baan Rong Khun, Pa O Don Chai Sub-District
Mueang District, Chiang Rai 57000
Tel: +66 (053) 673 579

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