On our first visit to Thailand, we hit several of the major temples around the country. Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Chedi Luang to name a few. It was exotic, fascinating, and we wanted more. These glittering relics provide the first euphoric feeling of being in a foreign land- different from the towering sky scrapers of the Windy City and begging us to discover more of Thailand’s ancient culture.
But over time, the small temples in each and every town around the country leaves you with a little bit of deja vu: lots of architecture, lots of Buddhas. Maybe saying that makes me a little ignorant of the culture. These are places of worship, after all. Sacred to the local people and visited often, for prayer and to provide offerings. But as an outsider, hitting up the major temple in each town is moving down in priority on my ‘to-do’ list.
That was until we came to Chiang Rai. For us, this city wasn’t just a stopover on our way to the Laos border. We came to see a temple, the White Temple, rumored to be different than the rest. We told the owner of our hotel that we needed some scooters to go visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and she pushed us to check out Baan Dam (the Black House) as well. And that’s what we did.
We mounted our little motorbikes for the first time and fumbled around trying to figure out how to start them. Did I mention I’ve never driven a motorbike before? Turned out to be easy enough and after a brief practice run around the block a few times we headed down the back roads to the White Temple.
It’s a quick drive, and before we knew it we had met up with the crowds of tourists in front of Wat Rong Khun. The temple is the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a well-known painter from the area. In the past he had been criticized for his contemporary work, but over time became more accepted. I can understand why. Inside the temple is a wax monk that looked so real I had to stare at it awhile to make sure he wasn’t going to blink. And along the back wall is a large wall depicting many “good vs. evil” characters in modern culture: The Matrix, Freddie Kruger, the Twin Towers, Star Wars, Angry Birds, Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, and more. But the locals amongst us sat praying as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
There are no pictures allowed inside, but if you Google the temple you’ll get a few hits from those who didn’t abide by the rules.
After wandering around the grounds trying to make sense of what we just saw, we strapped on our helmets again and headed north to the Black House. It’s not a long ride, but without our handy City Maps 2Go app it would have been difficult to find. Signs are all in Thai and it’s hidden down a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the highway.
The Black House is not a temple, but rather an artist’s museum (or more of a complex) of sorts. Thawan Duchanee’s estate feels drastically different than what we had just experienced at the White Temple. While Wat Rong Khun seemed to tell us that good will prevail, Baan Dam took us to the dark side. Be warned.