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Travel Black, White And Blue: The Colours Of Chiang Rai

Black, White And Blue: The Colours Of Chiang Rai

Black, White And Blue: The Colours Of Chiang Rai
The main hall at artist Thawan Duchanee’s Black House in Chiang Rai
By Keith Mundy
September 15, 2020
Chiang Rai, Thailand’s most northerly provincial capital, has gone from a humdrum backwater to a place renowned for dazzling temples and shrines created by the nation’s foremost artists

Not so long ago Chiang Rai province attracted visitors almost exclusively for its natural assets—rivers, forests, mountains, waterfalls—and trekking in the hills among the tribal peoples. The city of Chiang Rai, possessing little of touristic note apart from Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that first housed the Emerald Buddha, was a base for tourists rather than a magnet in itself. However, that has greatly changed now, by courtesy of three outstanding Thai artists.

In the 1980s and 1990s something stirred in the creative soul of Chiang Rai. Two locally born artists who had achieved wide acclaim in Thailand and elsewhere, Thawan Duchanee and Chalermchai Kositpipat, began fashioning major projects of architectural and artistic impact. Except for both having spiritual intent, the projects could hardly have been more different, as the names they are commonly known by clearly indicate: the Black House and the White Temple. Recently the Blue Temple, designed by a student of Chalermchai, joined them. All three exist on the outskirts of Chiang Rai city within a few kilometres of each other. They are quite distinct projects, but there’s no doubt that these three artists have worked in the consciousness of each other’s ambition to re-conceive what a religious site can be.

Thailand is said to have around 40,000 temples but these three are well up in the top rank of the riveting sights Buddhism has inspired in the kingdom. Lying so close to each other, they can easily be visited in a single day with your own transport or in a taxi.

The White Temple

The White Temple reflected in its lake
The White Temple reflected in its lake

A temple called Wat Rong Khun had stood at the village of Rong Khun about 12 kilometres southeast of Chiang Rai city centre for ages, but it had become abandoned. The popular painter Chalermchai Kositpipat—flush with the high prices his canvases were getting in the 1990s—bought the site and set to work in 1997 on a grand vision. Effectively an enormous art piece with every exterior feature painted white, the new Wat Rong Khun soon became known as the White Temple.

The moment you catch sight of the White Temple, it’s obvious your journey has been well worthwhile— it’s out of this world, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. In the midst of drab suburban sprawl, the central structure presents a vision of otherworldly glory, glittering as the sun hits the mirror tiles embedded in its facades. With its exaggerated Thai temple styling and overpowering whiteness, the place looks like a gigantic wedding cake for the non-religiously inclined.

Iron Man with Thai embellishments awaits selfie-takers at the White Temple
Iron Man with Thai embellishments awaits selfie-takers at the White Temple

But be aware that Chalermchai’s creation, despite many playful touches, is deadly serious in its intent. Wat Rong Khun must be understood through the lens of Theravada Buddhist dhamma, or natural law. White stands for the Buddha’s purity and the mirrors symbolise the light of the dhamma. But should you be expecting all to be happiness and peace, the approach to the main hall is more hellish than heavenly. From pits on each side of the pathway, hundreds of arms and hands reach up as if from the fiery depths of hell, symbolising rampant desire, trying to pull you down with them. Skulls, demon heads and pop-cultural figures from the underworld—Hellraiser, Hellboy—are harbingers of what’s to come in the temple hall. To reach the hall, you enter the Gate of Heaven guarded by two fierce Hindu figures who decide man’s fate, Yama wielding a club and Rahu brandishing a sword, and step along a lengthy bridge over a pond. The bridge represents the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering by overcoming worldly temptations, greed and desire. But rather than pondering these things, instead—as you take the long approach—you may well be admiring the hall’s soaring white beauty.

Inside, shocks await in brilliant colours. The walls are covered with murals that range from conventional Buddha images to cartoonish paintings of Superman, Angry Birds and other pop culture icons scattered across a fiery backdrop in outer space that includes demon faces, an erupting volcano and a Maya pyramid, as well as our blue planet. Neo from The Matrix stands atop a rocket, the Terminator rides another spaceship and a pterodactyl ridden by a blue Avatar flies by. The scenes of inter-planetary war fought by superheroes also feature the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, alerting viewers to mankind’s capacity for violence and destruction as well as the calming grace of the Buddha’s teaching.

Some viewers see the superhero images as kitschy and unworthy of a Thai temple, but Chalermchai is adamant that his use of modern-day symbols of good and evil instead of the traditional Thai symbols seen everywhere in the country’s temples is effective and righteous. If you watch the reactions to the murals of Thai visitors in particular, he’s undoubtedly correct. Note also that this is not his first engagement in radical new temple art—he was one of the Thai artists enlisted in the 1980s and 1990s to paint murals inside the new Wat Buddhapadipa in London, the first Thai Buddhist temple in Britain. In those works he snuck in images of notable politicians of that era like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Hands reaching up from hell greet arrivals on the path to the White Temple
Hands reaching up from hell greet arrivals on the path to the White Temple

Now for something completely different. For your bodily relief the White Temple provides “the world’s most beautiful toilets”, in the words of many visitors. If in need, head for the ornate Thai-style pavilion entirely cloaked in glittering gold paint. Chalermchai has stated that his intention in using whiteness as Wat Rong Khun’s signature is to divert people away from the materialistic lust for gold that is typical of Thai society, widely reflected in the use of this precious metal in Thai temple decoration. His glorious golden toilets are a pointed comment on the spiritual value of gold: they symbolise the body, whereas the white structures everywhere else represent the mind.

Built from Chalermchai’s earnings, without any funding from the government or wealthy donors, the White Temple stands free from outside pressures. It is a life’s passion, with its creator saying in 2009, “…l need to devote all my time to this and also to educate and pass along my vision to at least two generations of pupils. Maybe in 60 to 90 years after my death will the project be complete. My number one goal is to perfect my work. That is why my creation is ongoing. That is why l need to commit my life to this project.” Watch this space.

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
1 Phahonyothin Rd, Pa O Don Chai, Chiang Rai
Open daily, 6:30am-6pm. Art Gallery: 8am-5:30pm
Entrance: free for Thai citizens, 100 baht for foreigners

The Blue Temple

Chedi and assembly hall at the Blue Temple
Chedi and assembly hall at the Blue Temple

Roll back into town and cross the Mae Kok River and there you find a temple where colour rules, a glorious creation in vibrant blue with gold highlights. Putha Kabkaew, a student of Chalermchai, has created—and continues to create—a religious monument where (in contrast to his mentor) brilliant colour is the vehicle for his faith. This place is so dazzling it steals your heart.

Again, you step into another world, mesmerised by a fusion of traditional Buddhist values and classic Thai architecture with a circus of idiosyncratic fantasies. At the entrance you know straight away that you’re in for something special as it is guarded by eight-metre tall figures of Yama and Rahu, arbiters of man’s fate, that rise from a swirl of coiled naga snakes, all in blue. Beyond, the golden facade of the main hall presents itself, glistening in the sunlight, richly adorned in the traditional Lanna style with intricate wavy motifs, its bargeboards formed of brilliant golden naga serpents. Huge nagas also guard the hall’s entrance stairs, with snarling mouths and rippling scales, painted in hues of blue with details in gold, red and green.

Step inside and your eyes fall on the huge seated Buddha image at the end of the hall, entirely made of white porcelain, glowing and expressing a kind of surprise with unusual staring eyes.

His right hand points to the ground, the gesture of touching the earth and calling it to witness the moment Buddha attained enlightenment, called the Bhumisparsha Mudra position. Two rows of tall pillars adorned with intricate motifs march towards the Buddha image, supporting the hall’s great height. All over the walls and ceiling are murals in shades of blue—cerulean, sapphire, indigo—with symmetrical patterns dotted with little orange-robed Buddha images and hovering angels. Along the side wall are stories of the life of the Buddha painted in a modern style and mounted in ornate gold frames.

Putha’s sensibility—although showing Chalermchai’s influence—is far more restrained, his murals creating an atmosphere of calm and contemplation rather than imaginative stimulation. But not always. Turning to leave, the door surround painted in a fiery vision of hell jolts your serenity and you exit through the gaping mouth of a demon. The interior is mesmerising but the exterior is also transfixing. The walls, roof and surrounding statues are all covered in a gorgeous blue, embellished with gold highlights. All along the sides are blue statues of winged and bearded beings with demonic breastplates, seemingly guardians. Elsewhere are rows of seated ascetics in robes, hands held up in prayer, all in blue.

Just behind the temple, a tall white Buddha statue stands in an Abhaya Mudra pose, inviting visitors to relinquish fear and anxiety. The image faces a huge blue chedi with a golden spire. The overwhelming use of blue gives the temple a unique aura, hypnotising with its deep beauty. For many, this rich blueness suggests the infinite, the limitlessness of the sky and the sea. The Blue Temple—officially called Wat Rong Seua Ten (Temple of the Dancing Tiger)—is gentle with us, focusing on bringing light and calm; it lacks anything like the disturbing or shocking elements of the White Temple, nor the surprise that we’ll receive at our next destination.

The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seua Ten)
306 Rim Kok, Chiang Rai
Open daily, 7am-8pm
Entrance: free

The Black House

A Black House sala containing buffalo horn installations
A Black House sala containing buffalo horn installations
Horns also make stairs to a black rice barn
Horns also make stairs to a black rice barn

Take Highway 1 another eight kilometres further north and you’ll come to an entirely different experience, the Black House created by Thawan Duchanee, the Thai artist who had the most powerful international profile during his lifetime. Here Thawan lived and worked for four decades until his death in 2014, year by year adding structures and enhancing them until he arrived at a complex of around 40 distinct buildings spread across lawns with stone gardens and the shade of trees.

Part studio, part home, it started in 1975 and still in the 1980s consisted of a few humble huts roofed with thatch. Over the years Thawan’s reputation grew with exhibitions around the world and works commissioned by Thai embassies to embellish their properties and promote contemporary Thai culture, giving him the means to continually expand the Black House project. In 2018, four years after his passing, his creation was officially opened as Baan Dam Museum by the director-general of Thailand’s Department of Culture.

Enigmatic, gothic, cloaked in sombre colours of brown and black, the Black House has a very different mission from the White Temple and Blue Temple. For a start, it is not a temple, and was never meant as a place of worship—there is no focal Buddha image as at the other two shrines. The main hall sets the tone for the whole site. Shaped like a traditional Lanna Thai temple, made of teak wood stained black and dark brown, with a soaring four-tiered roof and sharp horn-shaped finials, the huge hall draws you inexorably towards it. Passing elaborately carved doors featuring contorted demons, you enter an immense barn with exposed beams rising high above.

Thawan Duchanee
Thawan Duchanee

On display is a kaleidoscope of objects and artworks with a huge number of dead animal parts—antlers, buffalo skulls with horns, skins and skeletons. The centrepiece is a long wooden table with a black crocodile skin splayed across it. Another table of epic proportions has a runner made from a monstrously long snake skin, upon which people place coins. You begin to suspect that the Black House is a shrine to mortality and the Buddhist notion of impermanence. A forest of elaborately carved totem poles reaches towards the roof. A huge golden Hintha bird, in Hinduism the vehicle of Brahma, carries a portrait of Thawan—a bulky sage-like figure with a huge grey beard. Large paintings present bright red images with black slashes and swoops in Thawan’s signature style—said to explore “what lurks in the heart of modern man.”

You can stroll all around the grounds and peer into the numerous smaller wooden halls, which display many more animal parts, but most cannot be entered. Standouts are the tall narrow halls with many-tiered roofs in unusual formations. Three white domes are modern takes on chedis; inside one dome are chairs made of black-lacquered buffalo horn and white goat skins, encircling rings of large conch shells with a giant crocodile skin at the centre. Another dome, almost empty, reverberates with the sounds you make. Most esoteric in shape is Thawan’s former sleeping chamber, a large black, whale-like building with porthole windows, half sunken into the earth.

The continual appearance of dead animal parts—including a complete elephant skeleton in one hall—suggests an obsession with death or, more kindly, the artist’s wish to constantly remind himself of the impermanence of life. However, asked about them by Time magazine in 2009 Thawan said, “They mean nothing. They are for study, to help me with anatomy, form and function,” and it’s true that animals feature frequently in his work.

Thawan called himself non-religious and addressing the widely held opinion that the White Temple is heaven and the Black House is hell, he indignantly said, “Why do people say this is hell? Like the John Lennon song [Imagine], there’s no heaven above and no hell below.” But artists often like to throw enquirers off their trail, irritated at being asked for explanations of their work, which they feel should speak for itself. So take what you will from the Black House—a thought-provoking combination of the spiritual, the surreal and the sombre.

The Black House (Baan Dam Museum)
414 Moo 13, Nanglae, Chiang Rai
Open daily, 9am-5pm
0-5370-5834, 08-9767-4444
Entrance: 80 baht

One last tip. Back in Chiang Rai, head downtown to the city centre and take a look at the ornate golden clock tower created by Chalermchai, which after dark is floodlit in an array of alternating colours. This is the artist’s gift to his native city, replacing an earlier commercially-sponsored clock tower.

Chalermchai’s golden clock tower in Chiang Rai
Chalermchai’s golden clock tower in Chiang Rai

Related: See. Love. Phrae


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