A Tale of Two Works – the brilliantly divine White Temple and disturbingly dark Black House of Chiang Rai

After my first action packed day in Chiang Rai I knew I needed one more.  I had saved the best for last.  In the morning I hopped on my moto and headed south to Wat Rong Khun, aka the “White Temple.”

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The White Temple is the most incredible piece of art I’ve ever seen.  I am no artist, nor do I claim to be a judge of art, but when I see amazing art it feels like a pleasant punch in the stomach that forces me to catch my breath.  The most intense version of this feeling that I had previously experienced was at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, when I first saw Michelangelo’s David.  David is a masterpiece, pure and simple.  But the White Temple is better.

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The White Temple is still under construction, designed by native Chiang Rai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.  The temple is not even scheduled to be finished until 60-90 years after Kositpipat’s death.

Even though technically unfinished, rest assured Kositpipat has already made his mark with Wat Rong Khun – it is his magnum opus.  Kositpipat’s genius can be seen in every little detail of the temple – the intricacy of each aspect, each section, is mind blowing.

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I imagine that each piece of the temple, individually, could sell for millions of dollars.  Collectively, they form a priceless masterpiece.

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The White Temple is not big but it leaves an impression.  Visitors start by walking up a bridge that leads to the temple.

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The temple is perpetually full of tourists, so full that employees working at the temple are constantly yelling “move forward!” to urge the visiting guests up and over the bridge leading to the temple.  This reminded me of walking through the Vatican in Rome, particularly within the Sistine Chapel. Great works of art attract lots of people and they need to move them through quickly. It is a shame that one is not allowed to pause and take in the splendor for a longer period of time but I understand why they need to keep people moving.

On either side of the bridge there are two pits from which hands stretch skyward, grasping for help but receiving none.

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It is straight up creepy.

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I don’t want to imagine what Kositpipat had in mind with these.

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The bridge has two permanent guards, each pointing an accusatory finger that seems to warn those about to enter.

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At the other end of a bridge a more peaceful looking Buddha blindly perches with a wry smile.

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Photography is forbidden in the temple itself but the four-wall mural that Kositpipat has painted is incredibly modern.  Mixing tradition and current pop culture, among conventional Buddhist images Kositpipat weaves images of Superman, Neo (“The Matrix”), Bumblebee (“Transformers”), Taruk Mak Tao (“Avatar”), pod racers and a Droideka from Star Wars, the Terminator, Po (“Kung Fu Panda”), an alien from the movie “Aliens”, an atomic bomb exploding on an image of the globe, and even a depiction of 9/11, one tower burning before the other one got hit.  I did not take any pictures but apparently some people have been breaking the rules, as many of these images are available through Google Images.

Many of the people visiting the temple have come to take in its splendor. Many more come to worship and spend time kneeling and praying inside the temple.  It is a Buddhist temple, after all.

Visitors exit out the back left of the temple where the beautiful imagery continues.

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Around the temple there is a variety of other interesting art.

There were hundreds of identical trinkets hung on on these pedestals – I believe the visitors hang them for good luck or to make a wish come true.

There were hundreds of identical trinkets hung on on these pedestals – I believe the visitors hang them for good luck or to make a wish come true.

There is even a wishing well and I have to admit, I tossed a small value Baht coin in there and made my wish just like everyone else.

Near the entrance to the temple there is a series of disembodied heads hung morbidly from a tree.

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The attention to detail is almost too much to take and the hair is a bit too gruesome.

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Kositpipat even has a Predator, sans mask, rising out of the Temple Grounds.

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Kositpipat’s willingness to break from the traditional in favor of current pop culture is commendable and what sets him apart from other temple designers in Thailand.  I felt like the White Temple was made for my generation and if you think about it, it very well might be.

Later that evening I returned to the White Temple, now devoid of tourists.

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The pristine white images did not glean in the sun like they had in the daylight but the now silent temple still had a powerful visual effect with the sun setting behind it.

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If you ever come to Chiang Rai make sure to catch a sunset at the White Temple.

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Before returning to the White Temple in the evening, I decided to use my afternoon to see another great artistic work in Chiang Rai.  I jumped on my moto and headed back up to Chiang Rai, then continued north of the city towards the White Temple’s evil sister, Baan Dam, aka the “Black House.”

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Black House (singular) is somewhat of a misnomer – the Black House is actually a series of black houses.

Like the White Temple, the Black House is an ongoing work and will not be finished for at least two decades.

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Unlike the Black House is lesser known, less visited, harder to find, and as its name indicates, much, much darker.

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I was the one of the only people visiting the Black House that afternoon.  Though the sun was out, the silence, creepy statutes, and stone patterns that seemed to be used for occult rituals made me feel uneasy as I walked through the grounds.

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The Black House is being designed by Thawan Duchanee, another Chiang Rai local with artistic genius.

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The entire grounds of the Black House just feels downright evil and because of that I think Duchanee is accomplishing exactly  what he set out to accomplish when he started the project.

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In the first and largest house of the many dark houses, two long snake skins and two small wood-carved statues sit on a long table bordered by gothic looking chairs.

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I’m not sure but my guess is that the smaller of the two statues is a self-carved portrait of Duchanee himself.

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Don’t take my word for it – click here and judge the similarity for yourself.

The biggest house has a long central corridor split by a row of long tables, each with a massive snake skin for decoration.  This is not your family friendly Thanksgiving dinner…

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In the two parallel side corridors of the biggest house there are intricately carved benches and nine-column arrangements in the form of a square.

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The detail in the columns’ carvings was jaw dropping, making up a series of undefinable intertwined creatures.

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Every centimeter of each of the nine columns is laced with terrifying images of monsters with gnarly swooping teeth.

The 10-meter-high doors to the biggest house had similar frightening carvings, though I could not be sure who (or what) was eating (or carrying) who.

Other tables in the biggest house had collections of unidentifiable bones, skins, and carvings.

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The doors to other houses also had incredible wood-carved detail.  It is mind boggling for me to think how much time Duchanee spent on each of the 30 some houses that make up the Black House.

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The architectural theme of the Black House is dominated by what I will describe as a “swooping” design.

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Swooping rooftop spires.

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Swooping posts.

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Swooping benches and ceiling fans.

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The white-bark trees around the Black House grounds provide a good contrast to the black tile and siding of the houses.

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Towards the back of the grounds there were two white-domed structures and two horses grazing.  I had to assume the horses were evil if they were grazing in a place such as this…

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I thought for a moment that there might be some “lighter-themed” decorations in the domes, being that they were the only white structures on the grounds.  I was wrong.

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An alligator skin and four dishes at each of its legs stood in the middle of the bigger dome, surrounded by 24 chairs along the edge of the dome.  The room screamed occult ritual – I didn’t stay in there long.

After quickly leaving the dome I thought a bathroom break might let me regain a feeling of normalcy and shake the prevailing feeling of dread that was following me as I walked around the Black House.  Again, I was wrong.

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Turns out even the bathroom in the Black House is darkly decorated.   And amusing, if you take notice of the toilet paper holder.

An entire elephant skeleton was laid out under one of the houses near the bathroom.

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At this point after what I had seen already I was not surprised.

One of the houses with a lighter brown color had a collection of totally unrelated wood carvings.  In the picture below you can see a carved tree where each of the mushrooms “growing” on it was individually carved – that takes some fantastic talent.  Behind the tree are several gun racks with wood carved guns.  Random.

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I finally left the Black House and with it, the prevailing of anxiety that had followed me as I wandered through the deserted grounds.  Like the White Temple, the Black House had given me a very intense feeling (it was good art), albeit a very different, more disturbing one.

As I left the Black House I remembered that the reviews on tripadvisor had done a very poor job of giving me directions so I took the below two photos for people that stumble onto my blog through Google while looking for directions.  I plan to post the following pictures and instructions on tripadvisor when I have a minute.

Taking the main highway north of Chiang Rai, after crossing the bridge, passing the airport, and then after you have gone about 300 meters past Chiang Rai University, you must take a left at this bizarre looking post.

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Then head back on what will seem to be a random winding road until you see this sign on your left.

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200 more meters and you are there.  Just get ready for what will surely be an unsettling, yet awesome, experience.

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