So, many on their trip to Thailand will hopefully make it to the north region of Chiang Mai, which is known to steal your heart for their culinary culture and temples.... but Chiang Rai is also full of really unique temples and museums so it's worth making a day trip or two to visit this little gem.
While at our hotel in Chiang Mai, we let our hotel staff know that we were interested in hiring a driver to take us on a day trip to Chiang Rai. They managed to get in contact with a taxi service that was willing to drive us for 6-8 hours round trip and take us to visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple, a.k.a. Heaven) and Baan Dam Museum (the Black Temple a.k.a. Hell). After scheduling a pick up time, we packed our day bags and got ready for the trip.
Along the drive, we really got to see the gorgeous landscape of the northern countryside. I remember the trees looking similar to what you would see in the lion king; tall with flat grown branches and leaves. Also some of the "grass" looked over grown and as delicate as standing feathers that blew in the wind as we drove by on the dual lane free way. We also got to see massive Buddha statues in the little towns and rice paddies. It was quite a site to behold.
Along the way, we stopped off at the "Hot Springs" which weren't really hot springs. They were more like pumped warm pools to put your feet in. They also had some good souvenir shops that were different than the ones in the islands so we picked up some cute items for ourselves and our families (I just don't think it's worth wasting your time at the hot springs when you could spend more of your time at the main attractions of Chiang Rai). We got back in the car and were back on our way.
After 3-4 hours in the car we made it to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple also known as Heaven. This plaza was quite full of tourists but totally worth seeing in person. The details in the architecture were just beyond what you can fathom just by seeing it in a photo or video. As you walk towards the main temple you walk over a bridge known as "the cycle of rebirth" with carved hands reaching up symbolizing desire. If you forgo desire, greed and temptation you can make your way to eternal happiness. It was a bit bone chilling as we crossed. There were many sculptures of mythical creatures representing half bird/half human, death and other creatures who decide the fate of the dead along the sides of the bridge. Once we made our way to the main "Ubosot" (the all white temple looking building), we were in for a surprise.
Before we took our shoes off to enter, I really wanted to try and capture the beauty of the building's architecture. I was incredibly impressed with the amount of detail that was put into this building. Think about it for a minute. A local Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, funded the renovation and designing of this plaza (THB 40 million which is 1.4 Million U.S. dollars). Construction started in 1997 so this is modern work. He designed this with such thought, as an all white building with details of mirrors on the edges. It's difficult for me to explain how beautiful it is so just let your eyes feast on this beauty below.
Sooooo.... now that we'd seen the outside of this masterpiece, we took off our shoes to enter the building and you wouldn't believe what is painted on the walls. It's not your traditional Thai painting telling you a story of Buddha. Although there was a little area of traditional Buddha paintings, that was not the highlight in this Temple. Believe it or not there were murals depicting the good and evils of the world highlighting pop culture icons like Harry Potter, Batman, Hello Kitty, Michael Jackson, Neo from the Matrix, images of terrorist attacks on the twin towers, nuclear warfare and images alluding to the harm humans have made to nature on Earth. It's a masterpiece and in my opinion it's left open to interpretation. Is this about defining your good/heroes and evil/villains, humans ruining planet Earth, judgement day, or is it about commercialism ruining humanity?
As I exited this building I was mind-blown! We proceeded to check out the rest of the grounds including a canopy lined with hanging coins with wishes written on them, a gold building symbolizing desire for wealth and an ornate gold arch housing a bell. We breezed through the rest there was to see here at Wat Rong Khun, called our driver and set out to visit Baandam Museum.
It was a 40 minute ride to Baandam Museum, which is best know as the Black Temple or Hell. In recent years, I have refined my personal style to be a bit darker and mysterious, which is why I wanted to visit this Temple so bad! When we arrived, we learned that the Baandam Museum is more like a complex of many temple-like buildings featuring artifacts from Thawan Duchanee and other contemporary Thai artists. The attention to detail, ornate dark figures etched in the entry ways, sculptures of devilish mythical creatures and unique take on modern furniture designed from bones and horns were out of this world!
For me, this was the highlight of our day trip to Chiang Rai because each building had its own different take on a temple or home. The architecture was so well thought out with a nod to historical temples but with a modern flavor. For example, some of the popular temples we had visited up until this point had the outside of the buildings incredibly ornate in many different colors with a well designed motif. This was in contrast to the modern temples of Baandam where the exterior of some buildings were solid black with black ornamental details. The only contrasting color on the buildings in Baandam were the sometimes tan colored motifs placed in the entry ways, along the tops and sides of the buildings. This presented a clear contrast to anything we had seen in Thailand and we can see why it's known as the Museum of Hell.
I am so glad we made this trip to be able to experience and appreciate the local Thai artists that have clearly made a name for themselves world wide. I left Chiang Rai feeling so inspired by the fact that there are celebrated local artists, inspired by the modern architecture, inspired by their view points on the world and the undertones of their work. The ride back was long and by the time we left it was going to be a late night. We left so fulfilled by this experience and I think anyone who plans time to visit Chiang Rai should visit Wat Rong Khun and Baandam Museum to see it for themselves.
Leave a comment below if you liked this article and let me know if you would want to see these for yourself?