Having seen photos and a video by Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai that featured the white temple in Chiang Rai, we were determined to visit. When we found out about the black house, we were even more excited. Black and white, Yin and Yang, dark and light. Life and death? Or was that not the underlying idea of the respective artists? From what we read about both places, people loved the white temple and all its beauty and detail. The black house however, evoked other feelings in most. Feelings of dread and even revolt.
What better way to enjoy the beauty of the white temple than to first see the darkness of the black house?
We took a local bus from the bus station and asked to be dropped off near the black house. It was not far out of town when the bus stopped to let us off and we were directed onto a dusty road to walk the last part. When we arrived at the black house we were surprised by the amount of people and activity. It turned out to be the birthday of the artist who created the black house, Thawan Duchanee. Instead of finding a dark, depressing place we found a place full of life, smiles and happiness. We were invited to look around and enjoy the free food and drinks that were on offer for the celebrations. We couldn’t say no to that generosity and we tucked into big plates of Pad Thai while sitting on a bench in the hot sunshine, overlooking the black house and other, smaller buildings that were all part of this open air gallery. After the unexpected lunch we started exploring the black house and its grounds.
Exploring the black house
The black house, officially called “Baan Dam”, is a collection of around 40 different structures. The first one you will see when arriving at Baan Dam is an enormous building, made of wood. It looks like a buddhist temple. Inside there are several of Thawan Duchanee’s artworks, sculptures and paintings. There are also long tables with eclectic chairs and stools around it and on top of the tables are all kinds of objects carefully displayed like a giant still life. Everything is made of things from nature. Wood and leather, horns, bones and skulls from animals, fur and snake skin. The use of these objects is a reference to Buddhist philosophy. Somehow it did not feel scary or dark to us. The aesthetics and natural shapes were harmonious if somewhat absurd.
Walking around the grounds of Baan Dam we went on to explore the other structures. All the Baan Dam buildings have buddhist influences as well as traditional northern Thai styles, combined with modern design. We learned that Baan Dam is not only an art gallery, it is also an art studio and it was the artists home until he passed. The buildings seem to belong in the garden with lush green grass and trees and it seems peaceful in a way.
When we left Baan Dam we felt happy, the art was though provoking but we did’t feel depressed by it or repulsed. Although Thawan Duchanee’s work is controversial and shocking to some, it is also an interesting different side of Thai art and culture.
From the black house to the white temple
After a sŏrng·tăa·ou (a converted pick-up truck that serves as public transport) ride and another bus ride we arrived at the white temple, “Wat Rong Khun”. A completely different site to behold. Again it was busy, but this time with tourists rather than locals. After covering my shoulders we could enter the area the white temple is built on. Surrounding the temple is grass and a pond but it is a relatively small area. But with the amazing details on the temple there is lots to see. At first glance it is all pretty and shiny like white lace with gleaming bits of mirror mosaics. When you start to look up close however, you suddenly get to see a completely different side of the white temple. You see screaming faces and clawing hands coming out of the depths alongside the beautiful bridge that leads up to the temple. There are hands holding eyeballs and feet sticking out on strange angles and what is beautiful and serene from a distance turns into a nightmarish spectacle. Crossing the bridge we got to the temple and after taking off our shoes we had a look inside. The walls inside are pained with meticulous detail. Figures you would never imagine in a buddhist temple grace the walls. There is Michael Jackson and Kung Fu Panda. There is Superman. There are the twin towers and scenes that look like hell on earth. It reminds me of the old painting “The garden of Earthly Delights” of Hieronymus Bosch in a way. Longing to be outside in the sunshine again we get out and make our way around the temple. On the side by the pond we see more mythical figures. This time in the shape of white sculptures. One has a dragons tail while another one has wings.
The meaning of the white temple
Wat Rong Khun was designed and built by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Although Wat Rong Khun is a buddhist temple, it is also an art exhibit and there is so much symbolism. The scary screaming faces and hands reaching out of the abyss symbolise unrestrained desire. The way to happiness is to forgo temptation, greed and desire. The bridge that leads over the sea of faces is the cycle of rebirth. The murals inside the temple show the destruction of the earth by humans and the horror we cause.
Yin and Yang
After seeing both the black house and the white temple in one day we felt these two very different places balanced each other out perfectly. Both are works of art and both are influenced by buddhism in their own way. What surprised us most was that we felt more apprehension of the seemingly peaceful and beautiful white temple with its hidden messages and horrific details than we felt of the black house. Despite the use of bones and skulls at the black house, the natural shapes and forms seemed more calming than frightening. Both Baan Dam and Wat Rong Khun are more than worth a visit and were some of the highlights for us on our travels through Thailand.
You can reach both the black house as well as the white temple by public bus from the bus station. Just ask the driver or the ticket person to show you where to get off. Be aware that the busses don’t go till very late. We missed the last bus from the white temple to the centre and were lucky enough to get a lift from a friendly local lady. Sŏrng·tăa·ou are a good way to get around as well. Make sure to bargain for a good price. We used a sŏrng·tăa·ou to get back to the centre from the black house because it came by while we were waiting for a bus. Just be aware because if you catch a sŏrng·tăa·ou on your own and you are not sharing with others, it can get very expensive and there are many drivers looking for tourists around the bus station.