I have been to Thailand many times and have yet to explore the region in the north. While most tourists enjoy the sunshine, azure sea water and sandy beaches in the south, thickly forested mountains and historic heritages retreat inland in the north. Sukhothai and Doi Inthanon National Park are some of the places you don’t want to miss. Until recently I stayed a couple of days in Chiang Mai (I shared something about the northern Thailand food and hotel in The Best Places and Food in Chiang Mai for Weekend Getaway, I will write a little bit more about the city – the Weekend Market was quite impressive), I hopped on a bus and headed further north to another city that is close to the country’s border – Chiang Rai.
Getting to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is about an hour away from Thailand’s border with Myanmar and China. The area is also known as the Golden Triangle, an area well-known for the growing of opium (hence, the fascinating stories of drug lords and gangsters in the last few decades). The area is also where the Kayan people (Long Neck Tribe) reside. Today, the Long Neck Karen Village is no longer “authentic”, the few huts and houses are built for tourists, and Long Neck women sitting outside of the house as a display. While visitors may not spend a fortune buying their handmade handicrafts, the village makes good money from the rather expensive entrance fee. Tourists’ reactions toward the Long Neck Village are diverse: some are skeptical about the worthiness of visiting there, and some are interested in taking pictures of these fascinating tribal women.
All of these may be a little bit bizarre, or even “dangerous”, but you have nothing to worry about if you are getting around to the book. Chiang Rai is only a small town with a small night market. Apart from the Long Neck Karen Village, Chiang Rai is a place where visitors could see some serious Thai contemporary art. There are two must-sees places on this matter and oddly enough, the color scheme of these two sites is quite the extreme opposite.
The Black House – a museum that displays various eerie artifacts about death
Getting to the Black House would be tricky since the site is not served by convenient public transportation. Therefore, I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me from the home-stay to both sites (which are in opposite directions) and it takes about 30-45 minutes to get to the Black House.
The Black House (Baan Dam) is a unique creation of national artist Thawan Duchanee. Although some people call it the “Black Temple”, the Black House is the former residence of the notable Thai contemporary artist Duchanee and has become an art museum since he passed.
The Black House is a fairly large site with roughly 15 temple-shaped exhibit houses, and different from other ornately decorated real temples all over Thailand, these houses are built of wood. The houses showcase the intricate woodwork by the artists, who brilliantly create the contrast by attaching light wood carvings onto the black painted wood-walled structure.
I was deeply impressed by the stunning art as it spoke to my own fashion style – pure black canvas with a dash of an over-the-top extravaganza.
Who is Thawan Duchanee
Thawan Duchanee was born in 1939 in the province of Chiang Rai. He studied at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts, Amsterdam. He is one of the Thai painters who has made their names in the international art world.
For more than 50 years he has created works with a unique artistic style that are universally acclaimed. His work with a unique artistic style that is universally acclaimed. Through the years, the artist has played an important role in making Thai art popular worldwide with his exhibitions in Thailand and abroad. He spent more than 50 years building a “Baandam museum” museum of folk art in a plot of land covering an area of over 100 rai at BaanDam, Nang-lae, Chiang Rai, his hometown. The museum houses a large variety of folk arts, past and present. Its educational value is enormous, providing a place for learning for younger generations.
The White Temple – a showcase of traditional Thai Buddhist cultural values
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a contemporary, unconventional art exhibit of another national artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.
In the 1990s, the original Wat Rong Khun was too old to be repaired, and Kositpipat decided to rebuild the temple with his own money. The artist considered the temple to be an offering to Lord Buddha and he believed the project would give him immortal life; after all, he spent 40 million Baht on this project, with goodwill that the temple becomes a learning center of the Buddhist teachings.
The new temple opened in 1997 and immediately became an iconic landmark in the area. The temple is filled with visitors coming from everywhere in the world (mostly China). To me, the temple is a manifestation of Thailand’s contemporary art, and it was my first time experiencing it. (I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Bangkok last week and learned a lot more about the aesthetics of Thailand artists). Contemporary Thai art often combines traditional Thai elements with modern techniques. His artworks usually feature sharp pointy elements, a multi-layered texture, and bold and striking visuals, which depicted stories and mythologies of the Buddhist, or even Hindu Beliefs.
Wat Rong Khun consists of nine buildings, and the ubosot (the main building) is the focal point of the entire temple compound. The bridge of “the cycle of rebirth” leads to the entrance of the ubosot and the “small” lake in front of the building is already a striking scene – hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. By walking through the bridge, worshippers forgo temptation, greed, and desire for the Ubosot.
The sculpture and engravings are so lively that I could almost see movements of hair on the two Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from Buddhist mythology.
The interior of the principal building is quite a contrast to the white exterior, sharp pointy sculptures, and intricate trimmings on the pillars. The mural paintings are rather humorous. They feature swirling orange flames and demon faces interspersed with Michael Jackson, Neo from the Matrix, Freddy Kruger, Terminator, Harry Potter, Superman, and even Hello Kitty.
More, Kositpipat hosted a free art exhibition next to the exit of the temple, which features a number of his own contemporary art paintings and sculptures. The exhibit opened my eyes to Thai contemporary art, I found the paintings striking but the sculptures were even more lively and stimulating to me.
Auspicious number 9 of his majesty the King – the pointy 9 symbol means luck and I could see it in many artworks and places.