Theravada Buddhism, also known as “the way of the elders,” is often considered the most old-fashioned and conservative form of the religion. But over the past few decades, numerous temples in Thailand have been challenging that stereotype. As evidenced by colorful and surrealist temples like Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and the Erawan Museum, it’s clear that the ancient tradition still allows plenty of room for innovation and creativity. And the most recent temple to follow the trend is Nakhon Ratchasima’s Wat Ban Rai, completed in 2013.
The mastermind behind the project was Luang Phor Khun, a highly revered monk who passed away in 2015, shortly after the project’s completion. Ordained at Wat Ban Rai in his early twenties (then just a regular rural temple), he spent years meditating in the jungles of Laos and Cambodia. Returning to Nakhon Ratchasima, he sought to revitalize the dilapidated and impoverished area, collecting large donations to rebuild hospitals, schools and roads.
Luang Phor Khun was not just well known locally. He became something of a national celebrity due to his reputation for being adept at magic spells. And many Thais from around the country came to him for healing and protection.
But clearly, Luang Phor Khun’s special abilities extended beyond magical healing. His artistic and creative side inspired him to come up with the idea to construct a massive, colorful elephant in the middle of the lake. The structure, which would become known as Hor Thep Wittayakom, also happens to be the largest display or mosaic art in Thailand. Supposedly, it comprises of no less than 20 million mosaic pieces!
The project, of course, was not cheap. It required millions of baht, but Luang Phor Khun’s fame was certainly useful when it came to soliciting donations. Supposedly, former (ousted) prime minister of Thailand Thaksin even donated a few million baht himself.
While English information on Luang Phor Khun’s creative influences are hard to come by, there’s a clear resemblance to some other modern temples in Thailand. The first to come to mind is the Erawan Museum in Bangkok, which is also a giant elephant, albeit one with three heads. And the sculptures and paintings throughout the building clearly remind one of Chiang Rai’s Blue and White temples.
And during my visit, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in setting between Wat Ban Rai and the waterpark of Ho Thuy Thien in Hue, Vietnam. Now abandoned, the center of the park comprises of a giant dragon in the middle of the water. It’s unclear, though, whether Luang Phor Khun would’ve known about it.
While far from being the easiest place to get to, Wat Ban Rai is absolutely worth the trip for fans of the temples mentioned above (not to mention Sala Keoku) who are touring the Isaan region.
Visiting Wat Ban Rai
Wat Ban Rai is basically as “middle of nowhere” as you can get as a tourist in Thailand. As mentioned, it’s located in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, within Thailand’s Isaan region. Despite being the largest and most populated part of the country, Isaan is also the most rural, and few tourists include it in their itineraries (which is a shame, really). Nakhon Ratchasima is, at least, one of the biggest cities in Isaan, though Wat Ban Rai is still roughly a 70-minute drive out of town. Without any public transport options, you’ll need to hire a driver, which could cost as much as 1,000 baht round trip.
On the long drive over, I was beginning to have second thoughts about my decision to visit. ‘There’s no way they’d bother to build anything that cool this far out in the countryside, would they?’ I wondered. But as soon as we arrived, and the giant elephant over the water came into view in the distance, it was clear that I’d made the right choice.
Walking over to the entrance, visitors first pass by the actual Wat Ban Rai temple itself. While a much more traditional structure compared to the elephant, the viharn also seems to have been built with some atypical proportions. Or perhaps it was just my mind playing tricks on me.
'There's no way they'd bother to build anything that cool this far out in the countryside, would they?' I wondered.'
In traditional fashion, the walkway leading up to the elephant structure is a long naga balustrade. But these naga serpents are massive – much bigger than anything you’d find at any normal Thai temple. And looking closely, one can see that they’re entirely covered in mosaics.
'This is about as close you can get to a Buddhism-themed Disney World.'
The structure’s exterior is teeming with color and detail. It’s about as close you can get to a Buddhism-themed Disney World. At first glance, the expressive figures on the walls and pillars seem to be Buddhist or Hindu divinities. But upon closer inspection, they’re more likely original “characters,” possibly straight out of Luang Phor Khun’s imagination. The blue god above the entrance, for example, is jamming out on an electric guitar.
The numerous pillars, meanwhile, are covered in painted tiles depicting colorful and vivid scenes. Some are of a religious nature, while others, well, who knows? One shows giant chimps watering a plant that’s emerging out of a massive skull – even bigger than the monk standing next to it. While Chalermchai Kositpipat’s White Temple still has the most unconventional temple paintings in Thailand, Wat Ban Rai comes in at a close second.
Before stepping inside, I continued walking around the perimeter of the structure. Off to the side was a room completely covered in beautiful murals. In addition to a giant octopus, there were paintings of elephants and scenic landscapes contained within their own two-dimensional ‘frames.’ The ceiling, meanwhile, was entirely painted to make it appear as you were looking up at the sky from within the deep ocean. But somehow it all fit together.
It’s clear that a number of different artists came together to collaborate on the project. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any informational signage (in English, at least) to credit who did what.
Finally stepping inside the lower level of the building, I encountered even more bizarre scenery. It took awhile to remember that I was technically inside of a Buddhist temple. Around a spacious room, large glowing eyeballs appeared to be growing out of the walls. But they were partially obscured by strange white patterns resembling some kind of web. Meanwhile, colorful bulbs of light hung down from the ceiling, bundled up in long cylindrical nets resembling cocoons.
Utilizing the same ‘three world’ theme of the Erawan Museum (not to mention many ancient Hindu temples), this area appeared to be Luang Phor Khun’s vision of the underworld.
Along the walls, I encountered some informational signage which explained the concept. Indeed, this room was meant to symbolize the underworld, but more specifically, the underwater world. Throughout Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, naga serpents are portrayed as dwelling deep within the world’s bodies of water. This underworld of Buddhism is not necessarily a negative place, but a place of learning and development.
The signs also point out underwater guardians from other cultures around the world, such as the turtle, giant fish, crocodile, dragon and seahorse. As such, you’ll be able to find these creatures around the room, including further information on their symbolism.
Stepping back out, I realized that there was still a lot more art to discover outside. In the back of the temple, I found the ends of the same naga serpents who greeted me upon entry. Their tails twisted to form a double helix, inside of which was a large orb. And leading out from under it was another platform containing several lifelike statues.
And there were plenty more tiles, sculptures, paintings and mosaic artwork to appreciate along the periphery of the main structure. One could easily spend hours here examining every detail. And if I didn’t have a driver waiting for me, I probably would’ve spent half the day here.
I went back in to explore the interior, this time checking out the main room. It consisted of an altar and statues of what appeared to be Luang Phor Khun himself. As one would expect, the setup, imagery and colors were not like what one would find in a typical Buddhist viharn or ubosot. The floor was covered in reflective black tile, while a large golden tree containing a glowing white orb towered over the statues. Nevertheless, this was probably the most conventional room of the whole elephant temple.
'This was probably the most conventional room of the whole elephant temple.'
Next to the main hall, I found a spiral staircase to take me all the way to the higher levels. But the entire thing, of course, was decorated with even more surrealist paintings. Presumably, the celestial imagery symbolizes the ascent from the earthly realm to the heavens. But look closely, and you’ll spot a man on a motorcycle, and even a woman on a pug, among many other oddities.
Arriving at the top (what I expected to be ‘heaven’), I was surprised to see the psychedelic temple suddenly transition into a sleek and minimalistic museum. Around the large room, various exhibitions contained comprehensive info on the history of Buddhism, including all of the main sects practiced around the world today. This is also where you’ll find a gift shop.
While somewhat anticlimactic at first, I soon realized the journey wasn’t over yet.
There was indeed another door which led up to the rooftop. At the very top of the structure was a golden walking Buddha image with a statue of the temple’s creator just beneath it. But the real highlight, obviously, was the views.
Looking out over the water, I noticed an even bigger multi-headed naga serpent in the middle of the lake. With all the ’empty’ space in the water, could current management perhaps add more sculpture art in the future?
Descending back down to the main level, I couldn’t resist having one more look around outside. Wat Ban Rai, or the ‘Elephant Temple,’ is truly a sight to behold. And unlike its sister temples in Chiang Rai and Bangkok, its obscure location will likely protect it from getting overrun with large tour groups for some time to come.
Easily combinable with a trip to the ancient ruin of Phimai, Wat Ban Rai is a place for those who feel like they’ve seen it all in Thailand. Yet this temple and its counterparts seem to be part of a larger trend. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more and more temples like this pop up around the country in years to come, sparking creativity and revitalizing local economies at the same time.
'Wat Ban Rai is a place for those who feel like they've seen it all in Thailand.'
Nakhon Ratchasima, while not huge, is one of the largest cities in Thailand. Where you stay should depend on what you plan to do in the area. If you’re in town mainly to see Phimai and Wat Ban Rai, find somewhere relatively close to the bus station. Phimai can be reached by public bus, while Wat Ban Rai can only be accessed via private transport. But you may also use the bus station to arrive or depart from town.
If you plan to do some sightseeing in the city itself, you may want to stay somewhere within the city center. Keep in mind, though, that you’d need to arrange transport each time you want to go to the bus station.
Locally known as Khorat, Nakhon Ratchasima is one of the main transport hubs of the Isaan region. You should be able to find direct buses from just about anywhere in Thailand.
Furthermore, the city is also connected to the national railway line’s North Eastern Train Line. Like all other rail lines in Thailand, you can depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station.
The city also has its own local airport.