In addition to its lush green landscapes, Chiang Rai has become famous throughout Thailand for its unique and unusual temples. Most notably, the White, Black and Blue Temples, which help put a brand new spin on the traditional Thai wat. But unbeknownst to many visitors to the city, there’s yet another Chiang Rai temple that deviates from the norm. Some 6km northwest of the city is Wat Huai Pla Klang, known for its 9-story high monument of Guan Yin and its pyramid-shaped pagoda.
Visiting Wat Huai Pla Klang
Within the last couple of decades, a series of fresh and exciting new temples have emerged throughout Thailand which are changing the way people think about Buddhist temples. In addition to the ‘colored temples‘ of Chiang Rai, we have Bangkok’s Erawan Museum, Nakhon Ratchasima’s Wat Ban Rai and Chiang Mai’s Silver Temple.
Most of these came into fruition thanks to an ambitious visionary, like an artist, architect or wealthy entrepreneur. In the case of Wat Huai Pla Klang, the elaborate temple is the brainchild of a monk named Phra Ajarn Phob Chok.
Phra Ajarn Phob Chok didn’t decide to become a monk until the age of 38, but he managed to attain something close to celebrity status within a short period of time. Apparently, he’s quite skilled at using ancient Thai astrology for divination purposes, even grabbing the attention of the Thai Royal Family. And in 2001, already in his fifties, he began this ambitious temple construction project in hopes of revitalizing the rural surroundings.
What makes Wat Huai Pla Klang unique is not just its fusion of the ancient and modern, but how it blends together influences from both Thailand and China.
Entering the temple area, visitors pass by a white ubosot, or ordination hall for monks. Out of all the structures at the temple, this is only one that could be considered full-on Thai. And stylistically, it seems to have been at least partially inspired by the nearby White Temple, though its design is relatively conservative in comparison.
One of the main structures of the temple is the towering 9-tier pagoda. It’s an interesting mix of Chinese and Thai styles that ends up unlike anything in either country. It has a pyramidal shape, in contrast to typical tiered pagodas in China that maintain the same width throughout. But take a look at the very tip, which is just like the top part of a bell-shaped Thai chedi.
Meanwhile, as opposed to the standard naga serpents on either side of the staircase, there’s a pair of Chinese dragons.
Stepping inside the structure, visitors encounter something that’s pretty rare to see in Thailand: statues entirely carved out of sandalwood. In the center of the main hall stands a massive image of Guan Yin that reaches all the way up to the second story. Supposedly, this is the single largest carving of the bodhisattva in the entire country.
Spread throughout the pagoda’s 9 levels, there are more Chinese-inspired statues of various divinities and Buddhas also carved from sandalwood.
But the real attraction of Wat Huai Pla Klang is the massive white Guan Yin monument. It’s more than just decoration, however. It’s another sacred space which devotees are able to enter. While access to the temple is free, a modest fee of 50 baht allows visitors to ride the monument’s elevator, taking them straight to the top.
WHO IS GUAN YIN?: Guan Yin is the Buddhist ‘Bodhisattva of Compassion.’ Bodhisattvas are not exactly gods. Rather, they’re beings who were able to attain enlightenment but elected to wait in order to help humanity along the same path.
Bodhisattvas play a major role in Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhist sect that’s most popular in Northeast Asia and Vietnam. Most Thais follow Theravada Buddhism, which hardly places any emphasis on bodhisattvas at all. Nevertheless, shrines to Guan Yin are becoming an increasingly common sight in Thailand nowadays.
Guan Yin is actually considered to be the same divinity as Avalokiteshvara, one of the main beings worshiped at the later temples of Angkor.
The top floor of the Guan Yin monument is entirely decorated with dragons and other mythological beings from Buddhist cosmology. The artwork appears to represent scenes from Buddhism’s heavenly realms.
But the real highlight from the top are the views of the Chiang Rai countryside. From various windows, you can peak out at the distant houses, rice paddies, forests and mountains. Imagine what it must be like for the local villagers, stepping outside each morning to see Guan Yin towering over the horizon!
While unique to Thailand, there are clear parallels between Wat Huai Pla Klang and Linh Ung Pagoda in Da Nang, Vietnam. Most notably, both of them feature massive buildings shaped like Guan Yin, although Linh Ung’s version is standing.
Another major similarity is that they both feature a spacious courtyard in front containing white statues of eighteen arhats. Arhats are enlightened beings, and these ones in particular are believed to be the Buddha’s 18 original followers. Like Guan Yin herself, these arhats statues are more of a staple in the Chinese Mahayana tradition, and depictions of them in Thailand are quite rare.
Fitting in with the Chinese-influenced vibe, one edge of the complex is marked off with a replica of the Great Wall! You can even walk down it if you wish, but it only goes in a straight line.
Like its neighboring White and Blue temples, Wat Huai Pla Klang appears to be a work in progress. Who knows what more may be added in the coming years? Supposedly, there are plans for 108 small chedis to be added around the complex (108 being a lucky number in both Buddhism and Hinduism.)
But when it comes to the temple’s final form, it’s unlikely that anybody but Phra Ajarn Phob Chok can see what the future holds.
BUS: Most people arrive in Chiang Rai via Chiang Mai. The ride is around 3 and a half hours and buses are operated by a company called Greenbus. A couple of buses leave every hour and there are different classes, with the most expensive buses going for just 260 baht. There’s not a major difference between the different classes so just pick whatever bus leaves at the time most convenient for you.
Tickets are technically available online, but the Greenbus web site is confusing and many people have complained that their bookings did not get logged in the system, even after payment. Therefore, you might just want to show up at the Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal (across from Central Festival Mall) and purchase your ticket in person.
There are two bus stations in Chiang Rai. If you’re staying somewhere near the city center, be sure to get off at the second stop, and not the newer bus station in the outskirts of the city.
PLANE: Chiang Rai also has its own airport which is serviced by many of the local and budget airlines in the region, such as Air Asia and Nok Air. A taxi from the airport to the city center costs 200 baht.
Unfortunately, no public transportation to Wat Huai Pla Klang exists.
One option is to hire a Grab car to take you there. Note that Wat Huai Pla Klang is sort of in between the Blue Temple and Baan Dam (the Black House), so you may want to combine it with either one.
Of course, you can always rent your own motorbike and get from place to place at your own leisure. But understand the risks – namely that traffic in Thailand is crazy and it’s highly unlikely that any type of travel insurance would cover you in case of an accident.
Like the Black and White Temples, Wat Huai Pla Klang is also far from the city center. Regardless of where you stay, you’ll need to see a landmark to visit all the quirky temples around the Chiang Rai reigon.
You might as well look for accommodation in the city center, as this will ensure that you’re close to the bus terminal as well as easy walking distance from Chiang Rai’s other attractions. These include the night bazaar, the Clock Tower and the Wat Phra Kaeo, a must-visit temple that was once home to the Emerald Buddha.
There are an abundant amount of options on hotel booking sites like Booking.com and Agoda as well as on apartment rental sites like Airbnb.