A lot of travelers bypass Chiang Rai in their mad rush between Thailand and Laos. Indeed Chiang Rai doesn’t have any spectacular sights to offer but its charm lies in it being a relaxed and workaday place that doesn’t rely on tourism to survive. So it’s the best place to meet locals and unwind from a busy traveling schedule.
Chiang Rai has a lively market that bustles with life in the morning as well as in the evening. Then there’s the quite interesting and informative Hilltribe Museum. And my favourite night market in Thailand – just because it’s so “local”.
But one of the highlight in Chiang Rai for me was visiting 2 very distinctive places just outside of the city centre.
Wat Rong Khun (aka White Temple) is a contemporary temple built in white, as in everything white including the windows. Not unlike an extravagant wedding cake where the design got out of hand. This temple, the work of the local artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, has been in construction since 1997. It is indeed a sight to behold; but whether you like it or loath it is a matter of personal taste. Under the bright light of a noon day and without sunglasses I could not look at it directly without hurting my eyes. It’s that bright. Trying to look at it I felt like a person with a bad case of the squint.
To get to the main temple, you have to cross a white bridge where hundreds of hands reach up as if imploring you to pull them out of hell. It’s a bit unsettling to say the least. And there’s a guy with a loudspeaker shouting order for people not to turn back; it’s as if once you cross the bridge you’ve crossed the point of no return. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me.
Once inside, at first glance it’s like any other normal Buddhist temple with a golden Buddha in the centre. Then you quickly realised that the 3 walls are painted in predominantly red-orange colours with very contemporary images: There are among others, the bombing of the Twin Tower, Kunfu Panda, Spiderman, Predator, Doraemon, etc. My first thought was “what the hell are these images doing inside a Buddhist temple?” I racked my brain but couldn’t think of a plausible answer.
It was a hot day. And the whiteness of the place reflects the heat and brightness to a degree that I felt like I was burning in hell. If this is heaven, I’m not sure I’ll be making a beeline for it.
Baan Dam (aka Black House) lies exactly in the opposite direction. As the name implies, everything here is black; black houses, black huts, black chairs, black totems and other things that represent the ‘dark side’, bones, animal skulls, horns, evil looking faces, live snakes etc.
The work of artist Thawan Duchanee, the Black House is not an easy place to like, unless you like black and goth. The 40-odd houses are all built in Thai style with multi-layer roofs and intricate designs such as can be found in temples. But the generous amount of black and then some can be a bit hard to swallow. Moreoever the horned chairs and animal skull decorations may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The colour black, the scary statues and horn skulls that decorate the lawn and inside of the houses make me think that the artist is trying to create a total opposite to the White Temple. In a way, he has succeeded.
However what it got going for is its idyllic setting. The estate is a peaceful place to wander around, the many trees provide much needed shade in the stifling heat of northern Thailand. In contrast to the White Temple where there are constant flow of tourists and countless souvenir shops, the Black House has a modest trickle of tourists, mostly locals and a lady selling drinks by the entrance. If this is hell, give me more of it.
Media’s portrayal and people’s general perception is that Wat Rong Khun represents heaven and Baan Dam represents hell, but I think both belies some elements of heaven and hell. Nothing is what it seems…
(check out more photos)
Wat Rong Khun lies 13km south of the city centre and can be reached by tuk-tuk or songthaew from the old bus station or centre market. It should not cost more than 20 baht one way and takes about 30 minutes. Just ask the driver to stop you at Wat Rong Khun.
Baan Dam is situated about 16km to the north of Chiang Rai on the road to Mae Chan. A mini bus from the old bus station will take around 30 minutes and cost 15-18 bath one way. It’s not easy to find, tell the driver you are going to Baan Dam and he’ll let you off at the entrance of a small road. Follow it for 400m and you’ll see the soaring black roof of one of the houses.