In a tucked away corner of northern Thailand sits the small city of Chiang Rai. This sister city to nearby Chiang Mai is known primarily to visitors for its gleaming White Temple. The dirt roads, lack of tall buildings, and general laid-back atmosphere makes it feel like a real off-the-beaten-path treasure. Chiang Mai to the south is a major travel hub, and the overabundance of tour agencies in the city make it very easy to explore further afield. A visit to the White Temple was high on my to-do list, so I employed the services of a tour agency at random, and boarded a van full of Chinese tourists headed north.
The ride from Chiang Mai was roughly three hours long, with a quick pit stop at a “hot springs” rest area. Visitors could dip their feet into the hot water canal to get their blood moving around before continuing on their journey. Vendors were selling hard-boiled chicken and quail eggs cooked in the hot water. Those wanting a more traditional road snack had the option of visiting a fruit stand for refreshment. It all seemed very un-hot-springs like, but the hot water felt pretty good on my feet.
The first stop after reaching Chiang Rai was the quirky Black House. Not exactly a temple, though sometimes it is marketed as one. It serves as a studio, museum, and curio-collection repository for local artist Thawan Duchanee. This artist feels inspired to paint when surrounded by animals, alive or not, so several buildings in this complex were stuffed to the brim with animal skins, skeletons, shells, antlers, and various other parts he managed to collect over the years. He even had a live bird and boa constrictor in (separate) cages for artistic inspiration when needed.
The 40-building complex was designed to resemble Buddhist temples. I did see the resemblance on the outside. Stupas, pagoda-shaped roofs, Buddha statues large and small, and ornate carvings on doors and windows were all characteristic of local temples. True to its name, nearly everything was black. If not black, then a neutral color that easily faded into the surroundings. The inside of the buildings appeared much more like scenes from a horror movie several years after filming: dark, dusty, barn-like interiors with dead animal parts and paint smatterings here and there. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the art that was on display, though the atmosphere the artist created for viewing said art was a little unsettling. That being said, I do enjoy oddities. Something that moves beyond the mundane, and the Black House absolutely delivered in Chiang Rai.
In complete literal contrast to the Black House, on the other side of town was the bright and airy White Temple. Unlike other temples in Thailand, the White Temple is new and modern. It was built only about twenty years ago, and shows reflections of modern times. For example, the designer chose the color white to represent the purity of the Buddha, rather than the traditional gold. In the light of midday, the white was blinding.
Religious symbolism paints the experience from beginning to end, before one even passes through the turnstile. A large, flaming red, skull-topped no smoking sign was my first suggestion to resist temptation. Next to the sign was a tree from which carved heads dangled bodiless, to represent those that have given into temptation and addiction. As I entered the gate and approached the temple entrance, I came upon a sea of hands reaching up to me, offering temptations of everyday life and unrestrained desire. By crossing the bridge over the hands, the temptation was foregone and I passed the temple guardians to the “ubosot,” or main building.
The interior of the building was modern as well. It seemed more like an art gallery or children’s playroom. The back wall was covered with a mural showing images of modern pop-culture: Minions, Superman, Batman, Neo from The Matrix, and countless others. Less pleasant images were present as well, such as planes flying into the Twin Towers, and twin demons being released as a result. There are multitudes of interpretations of the mural, and of what these images are doing inside a Buddhist temple. Regardless of the artist’s intention, the effect was profound. Myself and other visitors puzzled over the provocative images to the point of silence. No photos were allowed, unfortunately, but the mental imprint was lasting. Yes, that’s Chiang Rai!
After a couple hours of exploring and pondering, everyone boarded the van and we began our three-hour ride back to Chiang Mai. Two unusual sites, I thought. A hell depicted in art and animal miscellany juxtaposed with a bright and modern heaven of a temple. I felt it a bit unfortunate that I had only dedicated a few short hours to this part of Thailand. Almost as though I had cheated, or hadn’t given it a fair chance. I know there was so much more to see in Chiang Rai city and province, but I did see just enough to make me want to return.