Two of Thailand’s most famous temples aren’t actually temples at all, but permanent art exhibits created by a couple of the country’s most esteemed contemporary artists—Chalermchai Kositpipat and Thawan Duchanee.
Both originally from Chiang Rai, in the northern part of the country, the artists created spaces that combine traditional Thai design aesthetics with Buddhist concepts, challenging people to think differently and question their understanding about modern Thai Buddhism.
Originally an operating temple, the ‘White Temple’ has been transformed into an interactive work of art while the ‘Black House’ may look like a temple at first, but is actually a former home and large-scale exhibition.
The White Temple
Walk into the grounds of Wat Rong Khun, commonly known as the White Temple among foreigners, and you’ll immediately be dazzled by the temple’s glittering façade. All white and covered with what must be millions of tiny mirrors, the building looks like it was iced from the heavens. Take a closer look however and you’ll start to question whether this structure is from heaven, hell or some other planet entirely: monster heads hang from the trees, hands come up from below and unexpected pop culture icons appear.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Chiang Rai continues to develop similar exhibits and displays, completely differentiating itself from the rest of the country with its local creative flair’
The creation of esteemed visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat began in 1997 and is a continuing work in progress. By the time the site is complete the temple will consist of nine buildings, with monthly costs for ongoing construction and utilities listed as upward of 6 million Thai baht. Despite the costs, there’s just a 50 baht entrance fee for foreign visitors and Kositpipat only accepts donations up to 10,000 baht (about $285 USD)—he’s never influenced by big donors, however he’s spent more than 40 million of his own baht to make his vision a reality.
To enter the main temple building, you first walk over a sea of arms reaching up to the sky seemingly from the pits of hell—signifying the grasp of human desire—before crossing over the bridge from earthly existence and into the shrine to nirvana.
Inside, instead of the usual temple scenes of Buddha’s life or the Ramayana you see a dizzying mural of hell, complete with painted contemporary and pop culture icons such as a plane smashing into the Twin Towers, Elvis, Osama bin Laden, Superman and Hello Kitty among other characters. Moving from the back of the room to the front where the Buddha statue sits, the images change from hell to heaven or nirvana.
‘Though many may find some of the mural’s parodies comical today, in 100 years they will encapsulate the current state of the world, entertainment, and things we hold of value,’ said Ian Ord, Founder and Creative Director of Where Sidewalks End, a travel company with an emphasis on responsible and sustainable travel. ‘It’s certainly raised some eyebrows and put Chiang Rai on the map for many tourists who may have otherwise just skipped through!’
Along with the temple building, guests can stroll the grounds and wander through the art gallery showcasing Kositpipat’s other painting and sculpture work. Note his signature style that combines otherworldly colors and themes with traditional Thai motifs.
Wat Rong Khun: San Sai, Mueang Chiang Rai District. Open: Daily, 6:30am-6pm (main temple closed during lunch)
Entrance Fee: 50 THB for foreign visitors, free for Thai nationals
The Black House
The yin to Wat Rong Khun’s yang, Baan Dam—or Black House—is more off the beaten path but just as worthy of a visit. While it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Black Temple’ due to the temple-like structure of the buildings, Baan Dam is actually the former home of renowned Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee (1939-2014) and is part residence, part gallery, art studio and walk-through exhibit. Guests can meander the grounds through dark, aged teakwood buildings adorned with animal bones, along with displays of found and created objects.
Ord explains: ‘With a similar edginess and history of pushing boundaries as the White Temple, the Black House is decorated with countless bones and skins from animals that died of natural causes, giving it a very primitive and almost tribal feel. The atmosphere feels like a heavy combination of Buddhism and animism, and maybe even reminiscent to life in the Lanna Kingdom (which covered northern Thailand) centuries ago when Buddhism first started integrating into the culture.’
With no captions or titles explaining the displays, visitors are left to their own interpretations of what the artist tried to convey. However many believe the site symbolizes human suffering, desire or even hell, though always with a certain sense of dark beauty. Thought provoking indeed.
‘Both sites are very special,’ believes Ord, ‘and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chiang Rai continues to develop similar exhibits and displays, completely differentiating itself from the rest of the country with its local creative flair.’
Baan Dam: Nang Lae, Mueang Chiang Rai District. Open: Daily, 9am-12pm; 1pm-5pm
Entrance Fee: Free
Visiting the White Temple and Black House
Both sites are included as a stop in many package or day tours of Chiang Rai. You can also hire a car, motorbike or private driver whilst staying in town to head out to the locations.
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