White Temple/Black House – Contemporary Architecture in Chiang Rai

After a long, long (~16 hour) overnight journey from Bangkok, we arrived in Chiang Rai, a largeish city in the very nothern most part of Thailand, at about 8am.  Luckily, we had looked up a place to stay and knew where to tell the tuk tuk driver to take us.

Our hotel’s name was Chat House, where we scored a double bed with a fan and private bathroom for only 250Baht, about half the price of our accommodations in the Thai islands.  It also had an attached restaurant in a romantic garden setting.  We liked the north already!

Despite our desperate desire to just collapse in bed and crash, we decided to take advantage of the day and go see one of Chiang Rai’s most famed attractions, Wat Rong Khun, also known as ‘The White Temple.’  We wandered out of our hotel and down the road until we were able to flag down a tuk tuk.  We told him where we wanted to go, and we agreed on 300Baht roundtrip, including wait time at the temple.

The White Temple is a Buddhist temple-styled art exhibit that is owned, designed, and constructed by Chalermchai Kositpipat.  He opened the temple to visitors in 1997 and has devoted his entire life to its construction, to this day.  In fact, the total construction of the White Temple is expected to take 90 years to complete!

It was clear upon arrival that this was no ordinary temple.  Even the traffic cones leading up to the entrance were a bit strange…

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Traffic cones in front of the White Temple

The main structure is called the Ubosot.  It is an all white building trimmed in tiny mirrors, styled in the likeness of traditional Thai architecture.  The building glitters at every angle – it’s pretty magical, and definitely the most unique temple we’ve seen, yet.

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The White Temple!
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Just posing with Chalermchai Kositpipat.

When we arrived, the main temple was closed for lunch, but it was going to reopen in about 20 minutes so we used that time to walk around the grounds.  The first structure we came upon was a sort of demonic shrine with a bottle of whiskey in the center.  Every detail of the temple seemed to be carry religious symbolism, and the grounds around the temple seemed to symbolize the wordly distractions holding us back from what is truly important.  This wasn’t the only anti-alcohol symbol on the grounds, but it was a very intense one!

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A sculpture depicting fiery demons around a bottle of whiskey
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And…Predator emerging out of the ground?
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Is Predator worshipping the whiskey? Did he drink too much whiskey and is now being sucked into Hell? Does drinking whiskey conjur Predator to appear out of the Earth?  ….?

We kept walking further on and came to a line of trees with ghost-like heads hanging from the limbs.  Some of the heads were images from Western pop culture.  It is said that the artist’s aim is to reimagine the teachings of Buddhism for the modern world…perhaps he’s using villain-like characters to drive the point?

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Demon looking heads hanging from the trees
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Some pop culture characters amongst the demons
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…even Batman!

Next we came upon a golden building, the only structure in the entire complex that wasn’t white.  Turns out, it was the bathroom!  Apparently the artist chose this opulent color for the toilets as a comment on worshipping worldly desires and what their actual worth is.  In other words, we tend to associate the color gold with things that are important (because gold is materialistically valuable.)  So when you first see the ornate golden building standing amongst the white ones, a person might think, ‘Oh, that must be a special building because it’s gold and that’s a special color!”  Alas, no, tis the toilet.

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A beautiful golden building…
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…oh, it’s the bathroom!

Next, we came upon a half finished building and some tree looking things next to it.  As we got closer, we realized they were made out of thousands of hanging tin ornaments.  They are sold for 30 Baht and visitors can write a wish or message on it, then hang it one of the ‘trees.’

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Silvery tree-thing
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The trees are actually made out of thousands of tin ornaments
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You can purchase one for about $1 to write a message and hang.

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Right next to the trees was a gazebo, all in white, just like the temple.  Inside was a beautiful golden wishing well.  Not sure if the gold was another symbolic choice like the toilets?  On the inner ring of the well was a picture of each astrological zodiac sign.

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The gazebo
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The wishing well inside the gazebo
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The bottom of the well, encircled by the 12 astrological zodiac signs

Around the corner was a structure styled just like the big temple, but it had a rope across the entrance so visitors could not enter.  We weren’t sure what this building was meant to be, maybe it was a newer structure and not entirely completed?  Still very beautiful to walk around and admire, though.

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A smaller building with the same architectural style as the main structure

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Finally, it was time to visit the Ubosot!

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The Ubosot is surrounded by a shallow moat full of large, white koi fish.  As we got closer to the front of the building, we were greeted by horrifying creatures lining the edge of the walkway.  The temple building represents the realm of Buddha, and one must cross and escape the earthly desires (symbolized by demons and ghostly, grasping hands emerging from the earth) in order to enter.

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The moat in front of the Ubosot full of white koi fish
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Agh!
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Hands reaching up from the ground

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The bridge, guarded by demons

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Once we managed to escape the demons and impure desires, we reached the main temple hall.  Photography is not permitted inside the temple, but it was unbelievable!  The walls were covered in murals including Western idols such as Michael Jackson and Neo from the Matrix amidst writhing flames and demons, but there were also people riding in tranquil cloud-boats that were sailing over a sea of rainbows.  Sounds bizarre (and it was) but there is really no way to satisfactorily describe it.  You can look at some pictures of the murals here.

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Successfully fascinated and weirded out, we headed back to our hotel where we took a nap (couldn’t help it) then went out to explore the Night Bazaar in town.  It was a really quaint little market and we got some delicious barbecue for dinner for less than $6.  Win!

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The next day we set out to visit what could be considered the White Temple’s counterpart: The Baandam Museum, also known as ‘The Black House.’  Like the day before, we wandered down street to find a tuk tuk, and agreed on a 300Baht round trip fare.

In contrast with the White Temple, the structures of Black House are (as one might expected) mostly dark browns and blacks.  The complex is the creation (and former home) of a late Chiang Rai artist named Thawan Duchanee.  In fact, he was the teacher of,Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who designed the White Temple.  Like the White Temple, construction is still in progress at the Black House, and it seems the artist put things in place to have it continue after his death.

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The entrance of the Black House complex
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And another photo-op with Thawan Duchanee. Wonder who had that idea first?

Unlike the White Temple, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much religious significance to the Black House.  It seems more like an ornate collection of things like animal furs, bones, and sculptures.  Although it has a darker vibe to it, we found the architecture at the Black House to be more elegant than that of the White Temple.

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Intricate carvings in a door at the Black House
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Inside the main building
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A huge alligator skin, amongst other bones and furs.
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An enormous snake skin used as a table runner.
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A…cat?
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The elegant architecture of the Black House
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Another intricately carved door frame

The grounds are full of buildings of similar style, containing all sorts of strange things.  Some are monstrous, some are relatively small.  There are even bathrooms decorated with seashells and wood sculptures.  There was also some of the most ornately carved doors and furniture we had ever seen.

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Some phallic sculptures and seashells…
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It’s hard to see in the picture, but there were two enormous boa constrictors in a little hut in the middle of the grounds.
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And a large owl that peeped at us as we walked past.

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It was a strange combination of totally creepy, yet somehow elegant.  I think it might have trumped the White Temple in weirdness.  Wild animals, phallic sculptures…even the skeleton of an elephant…

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??
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A whole elephant skeleton!

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The Black House has gained so much notoriety, Thawan Duchanee has been declared a National Artist in Thailand.

Perhaps the most bizarre two days of our entire trip, but a good balance between the black and the white!  And we couldn’t resist another barbecue dinner at the Night Bazaar.

4/5

Breakfast: 120b ($3.69)

Coca Cola: 25b ($0.77)

Tuk Tuk to White Temple: 300b ($9.22)

Ornament: 30b ($0.92)

Sticker: 20b ($0.61)

BBQ Dinner at the Night Bazaar: 205b ($6.30)

Ice Cream: 220b ($6.76)

Water (2): 28b ($0.86)

Accommodation: 250b ($7.69)

4/5 Total Spent: 1,198b ($36.83 USD)

4/6

Breakfast: 180b ($5.53)

Tuk Tuk to the Black House: 300b ($9.22)

Pizza Company: 468b ($14.39)

BBQ Dinner at the Night Bazaar: 115b ($3.54)

Water: 14b ($0.43)

Ice Cream: 100b ($3.07)

Accommodation: 250b ($7.69)

4/6 Total Spent: 1,427b ($43.87 USD)

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