In all likelihood, travelers coming from the “western world” don’t have to spend much time in Asia to realize that most of their preconceived notions and perceived stereotypes are pretty far off from the reality of this side of the globe. Every once and a while, however, a piece of the local culture fits perfectly in to our overly generalized idea of a country’s ethos. Whether you’re a traveler, sightseeing on holiday, or a long-term resident, the yin and yang of Chiang Rai’s White Temple and Black House are an absolute must in the north of Thailand.
The White Temple
Chiang Rai sits just a couple hours north of the popular Chiang Mai city and is a great day trip, or pit stop on the way to the Laotian border. There are a lot of great outdoor activities near the city. Waterfalls and caves loiter just outside the city like tailgaters in a stadium parking lot.
During my time in Chiang Rai, I spent my time downtown, and if you’re in the city, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the famous White Temple. Unlike most Thai temples, this one was designed as an art piece and intends to draw in visitors for quiet reflection.
As the name suggests, the stark white building is easily visible from the busy main road on the south side of town. There is a gallery of the temple designer’s work onsite, and my first stop was to peruse his neon paintings that combine traditional Thai images with modern political commentary. In the end, it’s a great gallery, but it really pales in comparison to the temple itself.
As I walked up the entrance and over the bridge to the relatively small temple, I was surrounded on either side by the outstretched hands and tormented faces of sculptures trying to climb out of hell. It looked how I imagine the crowd looks at a Justin Bieber concert.
The walkway was steep and narrow as I made my way to the inner sanctum of the temple itself. The diverse crowd of tourists was quiet and introspective, creating a peaceful atmosphere. Before you reach the steps there are signs and encouragements to remove your shoes, out of respect for the sacrosanct space you are about to enter.
And then I entered the temple itself, ready to be enlightened and astonished.
Get to da’ Mural!
SPOILER ALERT: some people told me you shouldn’t explain what’s on the temple walls, out of some respect for the art and its message. Feel free to stop reading here if you feel some allegiance to that concept, but personally, I see no reason for it at all.
Nestled amid the serene white of this half of the yin/yang is the black spot that is the temple’s wall mural. The wall is intricately painted with heroes and villains from the western world, both fictional and historical. We see Predator standing mere inches from George Bush amid a cavalcade of cartoonish violence. Neo from the Matrix flies toward Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, ready to pummel peace and nirvana into his metal frame.
By calling it the black dot of the yin and yang, I don’t mean to suggest that the mural is offensive or negative. However, it is inarguably a jarring departure from the more traditional tranquility of the white that surrounds it.
Shocked out of my quiet trance by this confusing message, I left without ceremony or hesitation for my next tourist destination.
Winter Is Coming…to Thailand
A short drive and a few awkward hand gestures later, I arrived at the slightly less famous Black House. Built by the well-known Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, the property was like some architectural mash up of Game of Thrones and another, slightly less popular TV show, Kung Fu.
I think I expected something a little more obviously intellectual as I walked in to the main dining hall, only to find furniture made of bleached skulls and bones paired with dark teakwood floors and walls. Where I expected to be scratching my chin and making observations about metaphors and symbolism, I found myself laughing and staging pictures with the bones as props.
I was lucky enough to visit the Black House when no one else was there and was free explore the 3-4 acre property unbothered. The initial shock of what at first seemed barbaric began to wear off, and quite the opposite of the White Temple, I became more quiet and reflective. I’m not even sure what I was reflective about, but I remember walking to each of the dozen buildings, staring at weapons and masks that hung in fur-carpeted rooms, thinking about beauty and happiness. In the black of Duchanee’s work I found a small speck of nirvana.
Neither of the two halves of the yin and yang is better, or more valuable, than the other. They are merely a balance (*cough* of Asian philosophy misappropriated to another culture), sitting at opposite ends of a city, with very different kinds of art. If you are ever in the north of Thailand, don’t forget to bring your Game of Thrones outfit—it will fit in perfectly at either half of the yin and yang that is Chiang Rai’s art scene.