Chiang Rai hosts two of the more interesting sites that we’ve visited so far: The Black House (Baan Dam) and White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). These two places have little in common except they are located near the city and both products of highly imaginative visions from two distinct Thai artists. Located 839 kilometers from Bangkok, Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city in Thailand. It was a natural go-to-next city after Chiang Mai (an easy 190 kilometers away) especially after reading and hearing so much about these two unique sites. Much as been written and said about these structures, so after visiting these places over a two-day span (our choice) Carmel and I decided that we would leave the descriptions mostly to the photos that we took. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but after seeing these photos, we hope that you can share some of our experiences. The pictures are not just worth a thousand words, but a million impressions, visions, and wildly creative daydreams that will hopefully leave you as awestruck as we were.
We decided, for no particular reason, to visit The Black House first. Located 10 kilometers from city center, Baan Dam is the brainchild of 74-year-old artist and philosopher Thawan Duchanee. The grounds contain forty structures, each painted and presented in varying degrees of black. Natural light illuminated the ever-changing shadows splattered across the homemade furniture and decor which consisted mainly of animal bones and skins. Yes, dead animals. The main structure welcomed us as a gateway to the sprawling smaller buildings set behind. The building was a solemn, cavernous space occupied by several long tables and chairs made from antlers and various bones. Fans of peacock feathers made natural dividers and ornate decorations. Skinned foxes and crocodiles splayed across the tabletops. It was a macabre vision of a summer camp mess-hall. Strolling across the rest of the estate (Duchanee not only continues to work on the structures, he lives on site as well) the smaller buildings had a similar motif: moody rooms with meticulously constructed tables and chairs made from bones, decorative animal skulls and skins hanging and presented in the doorways like talismans. In some rooms there were Masonic black and white checkerboard floors and neat rows of skulls lined like a science project. Stone gardens were designed and positioned in the yard in triangular and circular patterns. It seemed the type of place the Illumanati would conduct secret meetings.
The second day Carmel and I visited the more visited White Temple, located about 13 kilometers from Chiang Rai. A continuing working project from artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, who began the project in 1998 and reportedly not expected to be finished until the next few decades, the White Temple literally shimmered, despite the cloudy day. The main ordination hall towered over a fish-stocked moat. Ordinarily, you’re supposed to enter the hall through the initial walkway signifying the gates of hell, represented from the dozens of writhing, twisted arms and hands reaching up through the ground, but unfortunately, it was locked the day we visited. The White Temple is a contemporary vision and interpretation of Buddhist beliefs. Hell is represented inside the ordination hall with a colorfully vivid mural of flames engulfing the World Trade Center, (both George W. Bush’s and Osama bin Laden’s faces reflected in the heart of the flames) and various American pop-culture icons scattered about the carnage: a particularly nasty fireball spits out a heroically smirking Superman; Harry Potter flies around a lava pit; Spiderman crouches on a spaceship; Michael Jackson moonwalks across swirling dynamos; Keanu Reeves, as Neo, crouches in fight stance while Freddy Krueger sneers below. And much more. The artist painted himself with presumably his family riding towards Heaven, the Paradise, on a little boat (or spaceship). The mural is fascinating, but unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside the ordination hall and a guard stood nearby, so looking up photos is going to be your best option, if you’re not able to visit yourself.
Intricate glass tiles comprised a majority of the ordination hall’s structure
Hollywood horror greats and other icons greet us around the temple grounds
The other buildings at the White Temple were just as ornate as the main ordination hall
Carmel with a cardboard version of the artist, Chaloemchai Khositphiphat
Mr. Khositphiphat also designed the decadent clock tower in the middle of Chiang Rai, something as unique and extravagant as the temple, something one can’t miss if you’re in town.
Carmel and I decided to take two days to visit these places, not because of time or distance constraints. One could easily visit both places in one day, but we wanted to let each site settle in our psyches, to think about the artists’ visions and projects without feeling like we were on the tourist conveyor belt. If you have the time to do so, I would highly recommend you spread your visit out.
Now, the inevitable question: which place did we like best? When it was all said and done, we liked Baan Dam best. Despite the obvious dark/death motif, the place felt serene. I looked at the site as not a place of death, but more of a homage to the natural world, a celebration of the cyclical narrative of the living as well as the simple, beautiful symmetry of decay. It didn’t hurt that the Black House was less populated by tourists, leaving us plenty of time and space to walk around the grounds and peer into the structures, admiring Mr. Duchanee’s work. There was a definite touristy “must-see” vibe to the White Temple: several souvenir shops, food courts, throngs of tourists vying to take the perfect picture, even a cardboard cut-out of Mr. Khositphiphat set out for photo-ops. It was a great place to visit, but I definitely felt more focused and relaxed at Baan Dam. Both sites are easily accessible by a tuk-tuk (the driver will wait around for the return trip into town and it’s relatively inexpensive). Or, if you wanted to rent a bike, directions to both places are straight forward – just ask around. If you’re thinking of visiting Chiang Rai, make a point and plan to visit both places. They’re a refreshing break in the usual temple tour and unexpectedly inspiring.
Baan Dam has one of the coolest bathrooms around