It Looked Like Hell – The White Temple of Chiang Rai

IMG 877It looked like Heaven. Then it looked like Hell. I was confused. I was impressed. I was disturbed. I was amazed. Extravagant, ornate, and blindingly white. Sculpted grotesque heads hanging in the trees. I didn’t know what to think or feel. Where am I? What is this place?

Nothing compares with the first breathtaking view of this temple designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997. It is as if sculpted intricately from one gigantic block of ice, yet it sits there twinkling and glimmering in the sunshine, and it grows rather than shrinks. The glittering mirrors that cover the temple represent the wisdom of Buddhism shining all over the Earth. The white colour of the temple symbolizes Buddhism’s purity.

But in the midst of all the purity, there are glimpses of grotesque and Hellish features.

The White Temple encourages its visitors to think. Many of the temple’s themes refer to escaping desire, greed and passion and moving towards the sublime through Buddhist teachings. To reach the main temple hall, you must first cross a threshold guarded by demons and cross a bridge over a sea of ghostly hands reaching up from the cycle of death and rebirth. Some of the fingernails even had nail polish I noticed . . . a simple, subtle, yet creepy detail.

After you cross the bridge, you arrive at the central hall with its unique, potentially shocking, murals. Such a stark difference from any temple I had ever seen. Again, I didn’t know what to think. A skull is in place over the entrance where you might expect a peaceful Buddha. New York’s Twin Towers are illustrated – one on fire, one with a plane approaching. There is Spiderman, George W. Bush, Star Wars characters, and cartoons. I was feeling so confused that I got out of there quicker than I should have. I felt my curiosity kick in after I had left, and had time to absorb and soak in all the images and themes of the temple.

I highly recommend a visit to this temple when traveling from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. It certainly is a temple like no other. The many questions it raises from the head-scratching yet powerful imagery is worth pondering, much like putting together a mental puzzle that looks unique to each and every visitor.

13 thoughts on “It Looked Like Hell – The White Temple of Chiang Rai

  1. The artist really put a lot of time and effort into creating this. It is kind of creepy. Especially all the hands. I wish you would have snapped some photos of the murals. They sound bizarre.

      • Looking at the photos; I am amazed that this is an operating temple. Allowing an artist to create something beyond the traditional view of a place of worship was a huge leap of faith. It would be interesting to see this take place in our western churches.

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