Most temples in Thailand are beautiful but pretty standard. Sharply pitched roofs with carved decorations, often covered in gold leaf. Inside, you take off your shoes and sit under the high arched ceiling looking at a carving of the Buddha. They’re cool, but honestly, they all started to look the same to me after the first two weeks. But then, I went north to see the three colorful temples of Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai is a quiet city a few hours north of the more popular Chiang Mai. It’s near the borders of Laos and Myanmar, and, in my opinion, a far less touristy alternative to Chiang Mai. You can walk the streets and feel like you’re actually experiencing Thailand the way the locals do; rather than the way tour companies think you want to experience it.
There’s an amazing night market, where hundreds of vendors sell everything from mango sticky rice to packs of underwear, and there isn’t a tacky tourist t-shirt in sight. The town is a great base to hike into the nearby mountains. It’s also home to some of the weirdest religious buildings in South East Asia.
The Black House
So, technically the Black House (a.k.a. Baan Dam Museum) isn’t exactly a temple. It’s an art installation by Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. However, it was inspired by the artist’s religion, and so gets lumped in with the other Chiang Rai temples. It’s also easily the most metal place in Thailand.
The buildings and motifs are influenced by Buddhist theology, although not in any way you would expect. The buildings are shaped like a traditional Thai temple, but painted all black. It makes a sharp contrast with the bright green tropical vegetation surrounding them.
Inside, the bones and pelts of thousands of dead animals are posed in ways meant to invoke thoughts about death, the afterlife, and resurrection. Various sculptures inspired by traditional Thai and local Lanna handicrafts rest amongst the taxidermy. There’s also a lot of dicks. Carvings of genitals even label the respective men’s and women’s restrooms.
Overall, the Black House is pretty cool. I’d read numerous things talking about how “shocking” it was before going there. It’s only really shocking if you’ve never seen taxidermy or a carved wooden penis before.
It’s worth the half hour bus ride from central Chiang Rai (just look for signs that say “Baan Dam” or ask someone, people are pretty helpful). But, I have to be honest and say it was the least impressive of Chiang Rai’s three colors. I left feeling like I’d seen something cool, but it really didn’t invoke any sort of emotional response beyond that.
I wanted to be “wowed”. The wowing would come later, in different colors.
The Blue Temple
The Blue Temple, Wat Rong Suea Ten, is just across the river from central Chiang Rai. It rests in an unassuming neighborhood, next to some warehouses, a few homes, and some motorcycle repair shops. It’s easily one of the most impressive temples I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for the nearby White Temple, I would say it was the best one in Thailand.
The exterior is painted a deep blue, topped with gold trim that sparkles in the sunlight. Carvings of dragons breathing out waves of water line the steps up to the temple. Sculptures of angels with clawed feet guard the outside. Men with snake bodies overlook the rear parking lot. There are also some rather cartoonish looking tigers.
Inside, the ceiling is crowned with various Buddhas and lotus flowers, all meticulously painted in the temple’s blue-gold motif. A huge white Buddha sculpture sits peacefully reflecting the blue of the temple, looking at the intricately painted walls and columns.
You can actually take pictures inside this temple, too, but don’t be a jerk about it. People still come here to worship.
Again, if we hadn’t made it to the White Temple later, this would have been the best temple of the trip. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place.
This is the king of the Chiang Rai temples. Religious buildings are often built in order to inspire some kind of awe in the people that visit them. The White Temple in Chiang Rai does that and then some. Batman’s severed head? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Pikachu riding a gas pump? They’re all here, alongside more traditional Buddhist motifs.
Wat Rong Khun, as the temple is known in Thai, is the life’s work of another artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. It was a regular temple but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century. Chalermchai has since been investing his own money to turn it into a center of Buddhist learning and meditation. Even though they don’t expect ot finish it unitl 2070, it’s an impressive work in progress.
The temple is amazing beyond the random pop culture references. When they call it the “White Temple” they mean it. The brilliant white exterior really pops in the bright Thai sun. The bits of mirrored glass embedded in the walls really make it sparkle. The exterior almost looks alive with thousands of elaborate carvings all over the temple’s surface.
Even the restrooms are impressive. You walk down a long, golden hallway to reach the toilets. Gold walls carved with dragons shimmer above the row of pristine white urinals set against iridescent black tile.
Behind the temple, there’s a grotto with a little pond and a waterfall. The rocks look like they’re melting. The Ninja Turtles are here, as well as the alien from Alien and various sculptures of jungle animals. There’s a lot of Buddhas, too.
The severed heads of Batman, Hellboy, and others dangle from a tree with grey plant roots growing out of their necks. Predator (from the movie Predator) growls up at you from a circle of stones.
To enter the temple, you have to cross a bridge over the underworld. Hundreds of hands reach up at you like the souls of the damned clawing their way out of hell. Twisted demons lurk amid the grasping hands. Gigantic elephant tusks that look like fangs coming out of the earth frame the whole thing.
Pikachu rides a gas pump on 9/11
They don’t let you take pictures inside the temple. You’re going to just have to trust me about what’s next.
Inside, an incredibly detailed painting that supposedly represents the cycle of death and rebirth covers the walls. The painting is vivid and brightly colored. It’s one of the few non-monochrome places in the whole White Temple complex. And it’s absolutely fucking crazy.
You’ll see the Buddha and various Thai Buddhist saints and demons. There’s also Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. And Harry Potter. And Michael Jackson is there too. Nuclear missiles soar. Also, Hello Kitty.
George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden rest in the eyes of a fierce demon whose mouth looks like he’s swallowing the door. To the right just below the door, Pikachu rides a gas pump. The twin towers of the World Trade Center explode behind him.
At this point, it’s almost a little too much. I left the temple feeling almost visually overloaded with all the imagery and references. The attention to detail is astounding. Mind-blowing. I would go back in a heartbeat.
So, make your way up to Chiang Rai the next time you get tired of stuffy old religious buildings. The temples of Chiang Rai are unlike anything else in the world.