History of Wat Rong Khun

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Learn about the history of this outstanding religious building and also explore the main architectural and artistic characteristics of this unique and amazing place.

The Wat Rong Khun

The Wat Rong Khun
The Wat Rong Khun

When exploring Buddhist temples, people are often amazed by the abundance of color found in the architecture and decoration of such places. The Wat Rong Khun breaks with the traditional concepts, and the first characteristic that stands out is the almost absolute whiteness of the complex.

The Wat Rong Khun is a Buddhist temple located at the southern end of the city of Chiang Rai in northwestern Thailand. This temple is privately owned and its construction began only twenty years ago. However, it quickly became famous for its unique style and distinctive white color and is commonly known as the White Temple.

Temple History

The word wat means school in Thai, and it is used to refer to Buddhist temples in Thailand and other countries of Southeast Asia.

Until the end of the 20th century, the previous structure of Wat Rong Khun was almost in ruins and needed large repairs. There are not many records of the old temple, and even though restoration work started, it could not be completed due to lack of funding.

An artist from Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat, decided to completely rebuild the temple and personally fund the project. Construction started in 1997 and is still going on. The temple was damaged by a 2014 earthquake, after which it was closed until it was declared safe by a team of engineers.

The date of conclusion of the project is unsure. However, a pagoda, a monastery and several other halls are part of the design of what will be a much larger complex. A small museum dedicated to Kositpipat's work is located next to the temple.

Temple Architecture

Ornamentation of Wat Rong Khun
Ornamentation of Wat Rong Khun

The Wat Rong Khun breaks with the traditional colorful decoration of Buddhist temples. Its design can be described as eclectic, since its creator deliberately combined elements from different styles and times, including traditional Thai and Hindi architecture and a very elaborate ornamentation for the facades and exterior elements. The architecture of the temple gives a sense of surrealism and creates a very dramatic atmosphere to enhance the spiritual experience of the visitor.

At the entrance to the temple, there is a pond and a narrow white bridge that goes to the main building. It is a very ornate structure, featuring plenty of religious images. It is guarded by two statues of kinnaras, the half-man and half-bird creatures of Thai mythology that are believed to protect people.

The exteriors use white plaster with glass inserts.
Glass and White Plaster

The main building of the temple is a simple concrete framed structure with a wooden roof. However, all the exteriors were covered in white plaster with glass inserts. The glass was used as a symbol of the wisdom of Buddha, and the white color represents the purity of the deity. The roof and walls have plenty of ornaments and embellishments, as well as traditional Thai architectural elements, such as the three-tiered roof and the stylized sneaks on the edges.

There is only one building in the complex that is not white, and it is where the washrooms are located. It was given a golden color as a criticism of the common obsession of people with money and richness.

Temple Art

The art scattered throughout the complex is inspired by Buddhist beliefs and teachings and focus on the problems of modern society; some are the traditional mythological figures of Buddhism, while others have a rather irreverent focus. The art pieces seem to confront the visitor with the mundane and impure aspects of life. The temple focuses more on the experiences to be felt rather than on exhibiting traditional figures of stunning beauty.

There are sculptures of devils in strong red and yellow colors, suggesting not to smoke or drink alcohol. One of them exhibits a bottle of whiskey on top of a head skull, and another one features a non-smoking sign surrounded by flames.

The hands under the bridge are asking for help.
The Hands under the Bridge

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