On our first full day in Chiang Rai, we opted to hit some of the city’s “biggies.” (By some accounts, we hit all of them; Chiang Rai is not a huge city and much of its tourist allure lies in the area around it.) The White Temple is the iconic Chiang Rai site, so that was definitely on our list, even though it’s really more a work of art that an active wat. I also wanted to see Wat Pra Kaew, the “Emerald Buddha Temple,” since it is a true wat and one of the most revered places in Northern Thailand. Despite warnings of temple fatigue on a trip as long as ours, it seems I don’t really tire of visiting temples. I am fascinated by the variations of religion from country to country, even within a faith, as older local customs become adapted to and incorporated within new ideas and belief systems. At the suggestion of a hotel staff member, we added the Black House to our list, a quirky art site I’d read about but wasn’t so sure was my type of thing. Still, some describe the artist who created the Black House as the national artist of Thailand, so how could I not take a peek?
The sites we’d chosen were in opposite directions from our hotel with the White Temple being a good 20 minutes away. Our hotel arranged a tuk tuk for us for 700 baht ($20) for the day. Our driver, a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, arrived promptly in a vehicle similar to Sawat’s small, puttering tuk tuk in Siem Reap. That’s where the similarity ended. We roared away from the hotel in a cloud of noise so loud David said it reminded him of high school when guys would drill holes in the mufflers of their cars for maximum machismo. This guy was a lot faster than Sawat, too. And impatient. We snaked through traffic, squeezed our way to the front of lines, drove on shoulders and thundered ahead of the “competition” at least until we got onto more open roads and the pick-up trucks could “take us.” Even then, though, our driver floored it, doing his ear-splitting best to keep up with the big boys. And, there we were in the open-air rear of the tuk tuk, no seat belts, no helmets, laughing and shaking our heads. I couldn’t help but imagine making this ride with my boys when they were younger on one of our many travels. I’d have been worried I was going to get them killed!
We bumped our way to a stop in the parking lot of the Black House (officially the Baandaam Museum), chosen as our first destination by the driver for logistical reasons. As billed, this is a really strange place. The “main” building is in the form of a wooden lanna (the traditional local ethnic group) temple, but done all in black. Animal skulls and horns, furs and crocodile hides mingle with statues and art, that drift from “normal” to bizarre.
Behind the main “temple” a number of other buildings are scattered around the surprisingly large grounds. Several dark wooden are on stilts, the space beneath them crammed full of various creations, often nearly identical pieces: horn chairs and the like, repeated over and over. There are glass-sided buildings with “furnishings” inside, often fur-covered horn beds with horn chairs or couches surrounding them. Some odd white half-domed buildings stand in a row, allowing similar glimpses through glass doors or windows.
At a far end of the grounds, I came across a modernistic black building, vaguely reminiscent of a squid or maybe Verne’s “Nautilus.” Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. In thirty minutes, David and I had seen enough and headed back to the tuk tuk. [The Black House is free of charge although there is a gift shop selling all sorts of weird momentos.]
After the strange artsy-ness of the Black House, I was ready for a real temple. Thankfully, our next stop was Wat Pra Kaew, the Emerald Buddha Temple. The wat gets its nickname from its famous history: In 1434, lightning struck its stupa, cracking it to reveal an emerald Buddha inside. This Buddha has been revered ever since and has made its way from Thailand to Laos and back. The original is now in Bangkok, but a replica was carved from jade and is ensconced in Wat Pra Kaew.
A lovely little temple sits at the front of the wat complex and David and I couldn’t resist slipping off our shoes to look inside. Afterwards, as I was slipping my sandals back on, an older monk thanked me (for showing respect–I was also appropriately dressed to hide my scandalous knees) and asked me where I was from. He told me to be sure not to miss the Lanna Museum just around the corner within the complex. He made a point of telling me the replica Buddha was carved of Canadian jade, so he may not have understood when I told him I was American. Still, I was impressed with his friendliness and English, and David and I headed off in that direction. The two-story museum turned out to house an impressive collection in a beautiful wooden lanna-style building. Along with the Emerald Buddha replica, there are white-jade Buddhas from Myanmar, reliquaries, altars, offering containers, and other statues of sacred figures.
We strolled along a flower-lined path, past shrines and the white stupa that replaces the one struck by lightning, but not venturing into the monk school that lies in the rear of the grounds. The main temple stands before the school at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Lit green tiles line the walls surrounding the Emerald Buddha, framing murals depicting scenes of the Emerald Buddha’s history.
Back in the tuk tuk, we made our high-volume way southwest towards our final destination. The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is really more an art project than a temple. It replaces a temple that once sat there and we still had to take off our shoes before entering (and I wasn’t supposed to take the photo inside that I did), but still, it’s art. There’s a definite Gaudí-esque feel to the place, although the lines are sharper. It’s a fantasy brought to life in stucco and mirrored tiles, a truth reinforced by the pop-culture characters portrayed at its periphery. A bronze version of the alien from “Predator” sprouts from the ground near masks of the “Terminator,” Spiderman, etc. hanging from a tree…which sits just in front of a beautiful covered walkway from the ceiling of which thousands of thin metal prayer offerings hang. Finally, a golden “temple” constitutes possibly the fanciest most improbable public restroom building ever.
The White Temple recently started charging foreigners an entry fee, but at a mere 50 baht ($1.43), it’s hardly exorbitant and well worth it.
We stopped at one of several open-air restaurants on the way to the tuk tuk for a quick, tasty and very late lunch. I’d provide the name of the place but there was only Thai on the outside, so a photo will have to do. At 40 baht a plate ($1.14), we doubled the price of our lunch by ordering a couple of beers bringing the total to a whopping $4.57. I could get used to these prices!