Approaching Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai’s so-called White Temple, is a surreal experience. It looks like a massive sculpture of ice and snow shimmering through Thailand’s tropical heat. But that effect barely scratches the surface of the weird at this Buddhist wat, where Doraemon hangs out with the Buddha, bushes are decorated with the decapitated heads of Freddie Kruger and Pinhead, and the penalty for smoking is eternal damnation.

Wat Rong Khun is the creation of Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who apparently has as strong an interest in pop culture as he does in Buddhism. Although the wat has become a booming tourist attraction since it was started in 1997, it is in fact a functioning temple and you will see monks in orange robes puttering about and signs asking bemused tourists to be respectful of the site’s religious purpose. You may also see the artist himself, as he is often working on site and says he doesn’t expect the wat to be completed in his lifetime.

▼ Monks outside the main hall


While most wats in Thailand are gold, Kositpipat opted for white to symbolize the purity of Buddha. The structure is also covered with bits of mirrors that reflect the light and add texture to the buildings and sculptures. The structure is surrounded by a reflecting pond that adds to the shimmery, surreal feeling.


In approaching the main hall, you must first pass through a sea of grasping hands and tortured faces called “The Beauty of Anguish.” The bridge over the pond, which is filled with matching white carp, is guarded by fierce Thai-style demons.

▼ Somebody down there is throwing up peace signs?


▼ “You there! Are you pure enough to enter?” IMG_5418

 The attention to detail is quite astounding, and I’m told that every aspect draws heavily on Thai and Buddhist art history.

Just based on this incredible exterior, the temple would have become a draw for tourists, but the most mind-bending aspect is still to come. In the interior of the main hall, the customary gold Buddha statue is surrounded on all sides by a mural in which pop culture figures like Harry Potter, Neo from the Matrix, Star Wars characters, the Navii, and more share wall space with Buddhist iconography and images from the real world like Michael Jackson mid crotch grab and the burning Twin Towers. Photography is no longer permitted inside the hall, but the travel blog Travel Photo Report has captured some of the weirdest bits.

▼How many movie references can you spot?


▼ Yes, that is Doraemon flying around the burning World Trade Center. Also notice the Angry Bird to the left, just below an incoming plane. IMG_6920-700x525

▼ Not sure if this means the king of pop is in heaven or hell… IMG_6932-700x933

▼ There’s a movie mash-up you never expected to see. IMG_6931-700x525



There’s no denying the talent of the artist, who seems equally comfortable with oil paints, sculpture and metalwork, but the overall effect is sensory overload and, from a Western perspective, it’s hard to feel devout or pious with Spiderman looking over your shoulder. I left both impressed and bemused, but a bit unsure if I had just visited a cultural site or a theme park.

If you make it to Chiang Rai, I recommend taking a tour to get some background on the artist and Buddhist iconography and then coming back by yourself to explore at your own pace, as there is no fee to enter. Then you can decide for yourself if Wat Rong Khun is a brilliant blend of modern and traditional or just attention-grabbing sensationalism.

▼ Lots of familiar faces there.


▼ This one looks a lot like Japanese tengu spirits. IMG_5424


▼Put money in mouth = escape eternal torment?IMG_5417


▼ No joke, this is the bathroom. IMG_1658

 ▼Like ema at Japanese temples, you can buy these little charms and write a message or wish on them and they will be hung on the grounds of the temple.


▼Free entry to the temple, but this adds up to a lot of money.


▼Not sure if this just means no smoking here, or that smoking will earn you a place in hell. Either way, disgusting habit.


▼ No drinking either?! Aw, come on! IMG_5412

▼Hello, little fella! I almost didn’t see you there. (Get it? Didn’t see the Predator!)



Source: RocketNews24
Images: Wat Rong Khun (top), RocketNews 24, Travel Photo Report (interiors)