Yin and Yang in the Wrong Country: Visiting Thailand’s White Temple and Black House

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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.

Ryan Farley / Own Work
Ryan Farley / Own Work

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.

Ryan Farley / Own Work
Ryan Farley / Own Work

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.