Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun aka the White Temple definitely a must visit!

Wat Rong Khun aka the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

If you are ever in Chiang Rai or even Chiang Mai, Wat Rong Khun aka the White Temple (in Chiang Rai) is a must visit if you’re into art and or wats/Buddhism in general.  If you’re interested in getting to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, I’ve made a post about my experience with that HERE. After being inspired by Chiang Mai’s silver temple (post is here), I did a quick online search and found the White Temple and two other spots that looked interesting so I quickly made arrangements to go as I only had a few days left in Chiang Mai.

Not having any time to spare (I planned to visit 3 places in Chiang Rai), I used the Grab app and booked a ride to the white temple (at a cost of $200 TBH) immediately after stepping off the bus because I didn’t have time to mess around with the tuk tuk drivers or songthaew drivers. They are all at the back of the terminal, I didn’t see any at the front, it’ll probably be cheaper (highly dependent on your negotiating skills) to go via tuk tuk and songthaew. By the time I got to the front of the building, maybe 30 meters away, I got a message on the Grab app from the driver asking where I was and I replied with “in front of the building” to which I got a reply “me too”. So I looked around and didn’t see any car idling or coming down the street. Then someone came up to me and said, “Taxi?” to which I said “No, thanks” but he showed me the Grap app so I went with him. He was parked on the other side of the street. This was a first for me. Anyways, away we go! (Can you tell I’m excited?!)

If you’re expecting your usual wat, you are in for a huge surprise, as I was. Just to prep you a bit, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia  “It is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple.  It is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997.” I didn’t find monks praying/chanting inside the “white temple” nor “monk chat” sessions (at the time of this post) but I did find monks taking selfies outside and around the premises.  The décor is definitely not the norm for wats, here’s some examples of what you can find:

When I saw those statues/figures, I was like “what the @$#! Is this?! Is this even a legit wat?” but I did find it kind of cool in the way that those Hell themed parks are (like the one in Singapore that I posted about HERE). Definitely not what I was expecting to see but I liked it.

I guess a bit of historic reference is needed. Wat Rong Khun was a wat at one point in time but for whatever reason had no funds for repairs so Mr. Chalemchai Kositpipat,an artist, had taken it upon himself to completely fund and rebuild the temple to what you see today and he’s not done yet. The original plans for the entire compound is to have 9 buildings that include the “white temple” (which is the ubosot), a meditation and learning center, housing for monks, an art gallery, a hall of relics and others to be completed by 2070. I’d guess there will be a prayer hall and such for monks and the followers of Buddhism to practice their faith, it is a wat after all, right?

I wasn’t prepared for just how stunning it was and it just kept getting better and better the closer I got to it. Nor did I know exactly how big the compound was.  All the statues and buildings were well maintained and intricately detailed as was the rather large pond and water ways around the temple. Even the “under construction” buildings and areas that were off limits to the public looked neat and tidy unlike any construction site I’ve ever seen.

So the white structure that is being referred to as the White Temple is actually the ubosot but inside the ubosot you won’t find the usual things you would find in an ordination hall. Instead you’ll find murals of more modern day things like depictions of the World Trade Center attacks, Michael Jackson, Superman, fiery murals with demon faces and others. It was quite shocking to me as I didn’t expect to see that and frankly my mind is having problems coming to terms with it (I guess I was expecting all the usual religious statues and relics but done up in the same style as the exterior). Don’t get me wrong though, the artwork is stunning and that’s an understatement.  I can also understand the message that the artist is relaying but my mind is just so conflicted(?) …I don’t know, I don’t have the words. I would have loved to have taken photos to reflect upon and further contemplate what I saw and to show you but sadly no photos allowed inside and there are ushers reminding you as you walk in.  You won’t find any of the usual donation boxes or incense pots or the offerings of food and drinks at the altars inside, to be honest, I can’t even remember seeing an altar in there.

When you’re done with the ubosot and pond area, there are other areas to check out such as the washroom. Wait, what?! Yup, you should check it out. This building is at least 2 levels, done up in gold with intricate statues all around. Just looking at it you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s the toilets. Lucky, I didn’t need to use the facilities because standing in front of the building, I couldn’t tell where the “Mens room” was because both paths leading  into the building had signs in Thai with the English word “women” on it. However, there are images of both male and female on both sides of the building! Being really short on time, I didn’t go any closer but judging from the people buzzing about maybe I should have.

Toilets at Wat Rong Khun aka the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Beside the toilet building is the gift shop with the usual gift shop items as well smaller prints and art cards of the artist’s work. On the other side there is a mural/display depicting a scene with the Monkey King/God, Sun Wukong, complete with bells you can ring. A bit further down the path is an area where you can offer incense and fruits and prayers in front of a Buddha statue in a jungle themed alcove.

There is a rather large, open air pavilion type structure which has a large floor area for praying as well as chairs. I”m guessing this where the monks would chant/pray. Within this pavilion are the more traditional Buddhist  statues and artwork. Right outside is a booth selling thin metallic leaves you can write your name and message on then hang them on the tree like structures, which when full, the leaves get moved to create the roof of the covered walkway, pretty clever right?

Behind all of this is an area with another  temple, I think, all done up in gold. I didn’t have enough time to check it out. It was around this time that I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see the other two if I spent any more time at the White Temple so I rushed past this area, reluctantly.

As I was rushing by things, I saw the Mr. Chalermchai Kositpipat’s art gallery/museum and I had to go in.  I’m really, really impressed with his style of art. The gallery doesn’t look big from the outside but it’s pretty big and has a decent sized gift shop area. Yup, I bought some art cards I just couldn’t resist. Lucky, I had time and space constraints or I would have bought more and bigger pieces too. Now, at this point, I had to make a choice. It was clear now that I couldn’t see all three of the places I had planned and if I didn’t leave now I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy the second spot so completely finish this awesome place or hit the next spot? There is an entrance fee of $50 TBH for foreigners but free for Thai people and even with the bus fare I found Wat Rong Khun, the white temple, well worth the trip and so I left with the promise of . . . I’ll Be Back.

Oh almost forgot, there are eateries, snacks and gift shops in a plaza like area right beside the wat so you can plan to have a meal or two there. I hadn’t eaten anything yet so I just grabbed a couple of Gatorades and croissant like things from a shop and off I went to the next stop. Again the Grab driver was already there, in the parking lot of the plaza, lucky me.

NOTE: Even on an overcast day such as it was the day I was there, the buildings are really, really bright and glittery. I lowered the brightness of the images (a fair bit) in this post to better define the details, so bring a pair of sunglasses just in case it gets too bright.

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Chiang Mai’s silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan

Chiang Mai’s silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan

Honorable mention on my top 5 list of must visit wats in Chiang Mai is Wat Sri Suphan.  Once you reach the premises, which is located slightly off a main road (you won’t be able to see it from the main road), you’ll immediately see the uniqueness of Wat Sri Suphan. The Ubusot, both interior and exterior is all silver. Maybe not pure/real silver but I’m pretty sure it’s not paint because it gets really bright when the sun hits it. I think it’s silver gilding but don’t quote me on that.

I rode the Songthaew from just outside the Tha Phae Gate at a cost of $80 TBH and paid an entrance fee of $50 TBH. The entrance fee comes with a sticker you have to put on your shirt and a small bottle of water. After paying the entrance fee I proceeded to walk towards the front of the silver temple (I didn’t know it was the ubusot at the time). Then I walked around it and ended up outside the “barricade.” Yup, the premises is that small! I didn’t even get inside or the other side of the outside. So I went back to the entrance and was stopped by a ticket guy, I pointed to my sticker, of course, my sticker wasn’t there. Luckily the lady I had paid my entrance fee to, recognized me (there weren’t many people there, like less than  10) and I was able to go back in.  So the entrance fee is just to check out the silver ubusot and the other silver statues and the odd gold one here and there.  Both the interior and exterior are very intricately detailed, much more so than the other wats I’ve seen in Chiang Mai, thus far. I can’t imagine having to polish all that. The interior of the ubosot is pretty incredible, all silver except the one big, gold Buddha statue. Even the floor is silver, metallish but not slippery. As customary, no shoes allowed and women aren’t allowed in either. There aren’t many donation boxes around, less that the other wats (that I’ve noticed) but they do have a lot of things you can buy and leave as offerings.

Once you’re done with the silver temple, you can check out the prayer hall and stupa, which is outside the paid section so it’s free. In the vicinity are stalls selling food, drinks and souvenirs too. All in all the premises is quite small so it won’t take up much time and so worth the visit, in my opinion. I spent about an hour there but as usual around closing time so I didn’t get to go into the prayer hall and many of the food stalls were closed. Oh, if you do get a chance to go and it’s really sunny, bring your sunglasses because it can get very bright. If you go around sunset, you can get some pretty cool / weird color reflections on the silver temple and on the silver statues too.

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Wat Umong, an underground temple in the jungle

Main altar in the underground wat

Rounding out my top 5 wats to visit while in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is Wat Umong. Let me start off by saying this wat is the most unique experience I’ve had visiting wat’s in Chiang Mai and I really enjoyed it. This wat is underground within a jungle and has a $20 BHT entrance fee.

Entrance fee table.

When you get to the premises , you’ll be dropped off at a gravel/dirt parking area where there are a few buildings scattered around but they were all closed when I was there. I couldn’t tell what they were for either. Looking around you’ll easily find the sign pointing to the trail to Wat Umong. Along the way you’ll find , scattered here and there, insightful phrases on cards nailed to trees. Yah, I read every one I could find. Anyways, on the way to the wat, you’ll pass a meditation center / retreat of sorts but I didn’t go that way as it went a bit too far off the path to the wat. Continuing on you’ll find a few statues here and there and a library, yup, a library in the jungle. Oh, the walk to the wat is on a slight incline with stairs every now and then giving you access to the next plateau. Not too difficult a hike.

Wise trees

There’s three entry points into the underground temple, two in front and one in the back (that leads to the stupa). It’s not underground as in you have to go down some steps or anything it’s more like walking into cave built into the plateau but with tunnels that don’t open up to a spacious area, they just end with a display of religious artifacts . The tunnels are relatively short, straight and lit well enough to see where you’re going so it wasn’t scary at all but if you’re claustrophobic that may be a different story as the inner tunnels are smaller. I didn’t know until I got there and read some of the plaques that this wat was built somewhere between the 15 and 16th centuries. It does look and feel old but the electric lights inside the tunnels dull the “feel” of it, I think. Don’t worry about having to walk around without your shoes inside the temple as the floor is tiled and as clean as any other wat. You won’t spend much time inside the wat as there’s not much to see and if there’s a tour group, it’ll get cramped really fast.

While walking around outside the wat, I found a trail that lead to an outdoor, makeshift altar with a rather unique looking statue of Buddha, I’m guessing. The statue is black in color and looked weathered, frankly it made me uneasy looking at it. I’ve seen similar looking statues but this is the only one that made me uneasy. Although I was curious as to what the statue was made of, I had no inclination to go any closer to “exam” it. Then I came up to a cordoned off area with signs saying do not enter. It’s because you’d be walking on the roof of the underground temple. Walking the other way, I found the housing area of the monks. Yes I just strolled right through their housing, I didn’t feel right doing so, so I got out of there as quickly as I could and then found myself in an area I’d describe as a relic graveyard. It was a flat area of land with broken parts of statues arranged, for the most part, in rows. Pretty weird, right? It didn’t look as though I should wander through it, so I didn’t but as I walked back towards the entrance to the underground wat, there was a patch of the “graveyard” with paths between the relics so I wandered through there a bit.

 

The Chedi is quite large and in a bit of disrepair. It’s not bad, in my opinion, it’s just enough to keep the air of being centuries old. The vines growing and cracks on the chedi give it a jungle vibe and a stone petal or two from the lotus flower base lends to the age of the structure. Plus you can get right up to it and touch it!

Whilst exploring I found more stuff like vendors selling cold desserts and drinks, a path leading to more statues and a big pond. One of my favorite finds was the free literature kiosk with booklets about Buddhism, mediation and the like. The signage says free, donations appreciated. I found an interesting booklet amongst the many different ones made a donation and sat by the pond to read it. Turned out to be not so great an idea. As serene as the pond was, with the diy aerator and the water fowl or two, the flying insects and the not timid pigeons made the moment not fun, at all.

I took a songthaew (ride share, pick up truck taxi) to wat Umong from Tha Phae gate at a cost of $80 TBH and the driver asked if I needed him to wait (for an added cost). I declined his offer because I usually don’t know how long it’ll take me to finish looking around and plus I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to catch a ride back. Boy, was I wrong! Yeah, there aren’t any songthaews cruising around that area. There’s only a few outdoor kiosk restaurants , a coffee shop or two and a few local business and the rest is residential. There may be a tuk tuk or two in the parking lot though. When I arrived, there were 4 with the drivers napping at the wheel or back seat. When I was exiting the compound there was only one tuk tuk and the driver called out and I asked him the price to get back to my hotel and he said $120 TBH which was higher than the songthaew ride there so I declined thinking I could catch a songthaew. When I couldn’t, I went back and the driver jacks the price up…I give a smile and told him he told me $120 TBH 30 minutes ago and he starts his tuk tuk and waves me into the vehicle I restate the price and he says, “ok, ok.” Phew! Lol. In any event, this was before I learned there’s Grab Taxi in Chiang Mai and having used it extensively while I was there, I highly recommend installing the Grab app. It’s “saved” me on more than one occasion.

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Wat Chiang Mun, you had me at oldest…

Wat Chiang Mun Chiang Mai’s first and oldest temple

Wat Chiang Mun Is said to be not only the oldest temple in Chiang Mai but also the very first one! Construction was ordered by King Mang Rai in 1306 after making Chiang Mai his new capital city in 1296. WOW! They had me at “oldest!” I love looking at historic stuff, soaking up the ambiance, touching (if possible) a bit of history, yeah I’m weird that way. Just so you know, if you can’t find it on the map, it may be spelt Wat Chiang Man on your map. I “found” Wat Chiang Mun while doing my usual urban exploring, it was such a treat for me to read all the plaques and learning about this wat and its’ historical significance. YAY explorer me!

The main religious attractions of Wat Chiang Mun is the Buddha statue holding an alms bowl. This statue is reportedly the oldest statue in Thailand and is currently housed in the larger of the two viharns. I couldn’t tell which one of the four “standing buddha holding the alms bowl” statue it was and I couldn’t get close enough to check.  In the smaller viharn is the Crystal Buddha carved from a clear, quartz crystal and has a base and canopy made of gold. An estimated 6 kg of gold! You can catch a glimpse of the 1800 year old Crystal Buddha and a 2500 year old marble Buddha statue through the metal bars that is the vault’s door. Also in this viharn is the stone monument depicting Buddha taming an elephant that dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries ( I guess scholars can’t decide when it was made).  I didn’t see this monument though and later learned that it’s not always on display (neither is the Crystal Buddha). They’re usually only on display during celebratory days or on an occasional Sunday. So I guess I really lucked out having found Wat Chiang Mun and being able to see the Crystal Buddha or maybe the info I got was outdated.

Vault housing the Crystal Buddha and the Marble Buddha

View of the Crystal Buddha

One of the four standing Buddha statues holding an alms bowl is Chiang Mai’s oldest statue

The structural attractions are the Elephant Chedi because the chedi looks like it was built on top of the elephants backs as opposed to just having an elephant statue or two sticking out of the chedi’s foundation. It’s noted on a plaque, that enshrined in the chedi is a Buddha Relic, in this case, a strand of Buddha’s hair. This is a first for me! I’ve been to several buddha tooth relic temples but never a hair one and since it’s enshrined in the circular, gold gilded chedi, I couldn’t see it. The other structure of note is the scripture library and the twist on this rare structure (when it comes to structures on wat premises) is that it’s built on brick stilts, in the middle of a pond! I sat at the entrance looking at the library wondering how the monks got in because there was no bridge and I didn’t see any other means of getting across. Must be some sort of high level ninja skills…just kidding, there seems to be a retractable plank under the library that can be pulled out (if you have a really long pole with a hook on the end), you can see it in one of the images below. Moving on now to the ubosot (ordination hall) which is, as customary, off limits to the public.  On the front porch is the monument with the inscription detailing the exact date and time of the founding of Chiang Mai as well as the premises being the location of the King’s residence at that time. It’s the dark gray thing in the photo below just behind the white fence.

Stone elephant foundation for this gold gilded chedi

Ubusot at Wat Chiang Mun

I would rank this wat as fourth on my list of must see wat’s in Chiang Mai. It’s probably about a 15 minute walk from the Tha Phae Gate heading north.  As with most temples in Chiang Mai, there isn’t an entrance fee but unique to Wat Chiang Mun (to the best of my knowledge) are the few but highly noticeable donation boxes which are actually safes. Their hours of operation are 8 am to 5 pm and is definitely worth planning a trip to and since the premises is small, an hour should be enough time to see everything and get some nice photos, I took 2 hours but you know I linger and the timestamp of my last shot was at 6:28, time really flies when you’re having fun and no one to rush you out.

Donation box at Wat Chiang Mun

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Wat Phra Singh and it’s golden stupa

Wat Phra Singh at sunset

Wat Phra Sing is ranked third on my list of awesome wats when I toured Chiang Mai. Why is that you may ask? While it’s somewhat true that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” in the sense that all wat’s have a pagoda/chedi, a viharn, prayer hall and similar buildings, not all are decorated exactly the same, have the same number of structures and statues and not all are the same size in terms of structures and premises. Not to mention the upkeep status of the structures and statues as well. Wat Phra Singh is also just a blocks away from Chedi Luang, which I rank second on my list. You can check out my Chedi Luang post here. Number one on my list is Doi Suthep if you’re interested, the post is here.

For a wat that has been around since the 14th century, it looks really good! Mainly due to the extensive upgrading, renovation and restoration works over the years. Wat Phra Singh is also an active monastery so you can expect to see monks and novices walking around performing upkeep tasks. So you can look forward to some environmental portraits too. From my experience, the monks and novices are ok with having their picture taken. Having said that, I’m never up in anyone’s face taking pictures, I’m usually a good distance away. I usually try to wait for my subject to look my way and when that happens I smile, wave and point to my camera. I’ve never, yet, had anyone say no or display any form of negative body language. Some however won’t look up. In that case I just take a shot or too (if the moment is still there) and move on.

Wat Phra Sing is one of the bigger wats I’ve seen (in terms of building size and premises. It is also one of the most well upkept ones as well. Proof of this is the all gold chedi/stupa in the back, complete with gold elephants. I couldn’t tell if it was gold paint (I doubt it because it was sooo shiny) or gold leaf but that would make it too too expensive to maintain, especially outdoors, no?  If it’s gold leaf it makes this chedi even more impressive as I didn’t see a single scuff or missing patches of gold or any dullness for that matter. The brick paths to the stupa is like a mini maze, kinda fun to walk on, felt like I was in a old video game, lol. Another interesting building that wats seldom have are scripture libraries. You can tell it’s a scripture library by the first story stone foundation and walls (for protection against floods and pests) and the wooden, highly walls and roof for the 2nd story.

Scripture library at Wat Phra Singh

Golden Stupas

I spent only about half an hour here because I got there late, well after closing time (I had just finished Chedi Luang) but could have easily spent 3 hours at Wat Phra Singh.  If only I had done some research prior to going I would have been better prepared. At least I know I can get the last bit of sunset around 8pm, however that time is well past their closing time.  Be prepared to be ushered politely but firmly towards the exit if you try to get a sunset image. Their hours of operation are 8 am to 5 pm. There may have been an entrance fee but I’m not sure. I didn’t see any ticket booth and nobody stopped me either, including the security guard putting up traffic cones, but then again I went in around 7:30 pm so the ticket people were gone for the day? Anyways, here’s a few shots I got. I’ll be sure to get more my next trip out there!

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