Chiang Rai, a small city of 70,000 people in the far north of Thailand, may not look especially unique at first glance. The city, however, happens to be the hometown of some of Thailand’s most respected, as well as controversial, contemporary artists. And as their international reputation grows, this unassuming city near the Golden Triangle is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Chiang Rai is home to a relatively new creative movement which blends modern art and architecture with the ancient philosophy of Buddhism. And there’s no better place to experience this than at the city’s three colored temples – the Baan Dam (Black House), Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) and the recently constructed Rong Suea Ten, or Blue Temple.
UPDATE: This article was originally published in June 2017. A little over a year later, I’ve had the chance to visit all three temples again. The original article and photos have mostly been left intact, but you can learn about the recent additions and changes to the temples at the very end.
Baan Dam: The Residence & Masterpiece of a Thai National Artist
Animal hides, bones and tribal statues adorn the long tables found inside Baan Dam’s main structure, built in the traditional Lanna style and painted completely black. Entering the building, just one of 40 or so structures in total, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a secret lodge set up in preparation for some kind of bizarre mass ritual.
Inside the dimly lit room you can also find a couple of monochrome paintings by the late artist who created all of this, Thawan Duchanee. By the end of your tour of the Baan Dam, or ‘Black House,’ it should be clear why Duchanee is widely recognized as Thailand’s most important artist – even if the motivation behind much of his art might be a little more opaque.
Many like to describe Baan Dam as a dark place, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to the gloomy colors, it’s likely the dead cow skulls, crocodile hides or eerie sculptures that rub many visitors the wrong way. Furthermore, many of Baan Dam’s visitors are people who’ve simply hopped off the bus as part of their day tour, totally unaware of they’re about to witness!
After wandering around the compound, though, it doesn’t take long to see the humor in many of the site’s sculptures and exhibitions. Old rifles rest on the antlers of deer skulls nailed to large wooden pillars; a visibly excited carved man guards large seashells and cow hides inside of a white stupa; the long-bearded mastermind himself looks out at mystified visitors from a dreamy reimagining of the Black House compound.
The Baan Dam is just as playful as it is grim. Though often discussed in contrast with the White Temple, the Black House is full of many contrasts of its own – part of what makes it such an exciting place to visit.
'The Baan Dam is just as playful as it is grim.'
One of the few Thai artists to make a serious splash in the global art world, Thawan Duchanee was declared a ‘National Artist’ of Thailand back in 2001. Before his death in 2014, the Black House project was a decades-long labor of love. It was both Duchanee’s own residence as well as his perpetual work in progress.
Duchanee claimed to not be very religious and Baan Dam is not technically a temple, but the painter is widely recognized as one of the first prominent artists to fuse Buddhism with modern art – not to everyone’s enthusiasm, though. In fact, his unique style and reinterpretation of Buddhist motifs caused such a stir back in the 1970’s that some of his work was vandalized by religious zealots. Jump forward to today, in contrast, and Duchanee’s Black House is proudly displayed as a must-see destination outside of every tourist office in Chiang Rai.
In addition to traditional Lanna (northern Thailand) styles, Duchanee fused together influences from Bali, Myanmar and even the African continent. And now, after its creator’s death, other contemporary artists are leaving their own influence on the space. The Australian/Singaporean duo of Yok & Sheryo recently contributed a twin black tiger mural to one of the structures in a style very reminiscent of Duchanee’s own paintings. The popular Thai graffiti artist Alex Face also added some of his trademark eyes and childlike faces to the white stupas. Even after its founder’s passing, the Black House remains very much alive.
Baan Dam, located about 10km north of Chiang Rai’s city center, is a little tricky to get to by public transport. You can simply take a bus for 20 baht from the ‘Old Bus Station’ (in the middle of the city) and reach it in 30 minutes. You won’t be dropped off right at the entrance, however, but around half a kilometer down the road.
Taking a bus back, there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck waiting for awhile in the hot sun. That’s why we recommend taking a Grab car. You shouldn’t have to wait for more than 10 minutes for one to come, and there’s a good chance your driver will be willing to take you to all three temples and wait for you at each one. Check down below for more info.
Wat Rong Khun: Buddhism's Sagrada Familia
Even from a distance, the glistening White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun in Thai, makes an immediate impression as soon as it comes into view. At first glance, it looks like some kind of alien reimagining of a traditional Buddhist temple, sent down to Earth from outer space.
Around the perimeter, one can’t help but notice the mean-looking severed heads hanging from the tree branches outside the moat. Closer to the temple, faces of monsters and deformed figures surround hundreds of arms and hands reaching up from the depths of the underworld. While many refer to the White Temple as ‘heaven’ in contrast to the Black House’s ‘hell,’ Chalermchai Kositpipat’s as-of-yet-unfinished creation contains a striking mix of both.
Chalermchai Kositpipat, perhaps Thailand’s most famous artist after his mentor Thawan Duchanee, was very deliberate about the imagery chosen for the project. Though deformed faces and arms are not what one would typically expect to find at a temple, they represent the classical Buddhist belief that suffering must come before salvation. In interviews, Chalermchai is very open about the Buddhist world view with which he approaches his art. Like Duchanee, his visual interpretations of religious concepts and ideas may be unorthodox and unsettling, but Chalermchai’s work is best understood through the lens of Theravada Buddhist dhamma, or ‘natural law.’
Inside the temple, the theme of salvation through suffering repeats itself all over the intricate paintings covering the walls and ceilings. Photography inside Wat Rong Khun is not allowed, but the internal artwork is really a site to behold. At the lower section of the walls, images of war, death and destruction are interspersed with famous characters from Western pop culture. Superman, Pikachu and Neo from the Matrix are just a few of the characters to be spotted among the dark, detailed scenes of intergalactic war. And it may require a double take, but yes, that really is an Angry Bird hurling itself at the Twin Towers.
'At first glance it looks like some kind of alien reimagining of a traditional Buddhist temple, sent down to Earth from outer space.'
The higher the paintings go up the walls, the more heavenly and majestic the imagery becomes. It’s otherworldly, psychedelic and really must be seen to be believed. Amidst all the colors and chaos, the main temple area also contains a small space to sit and meditate or pray in front of a Buddha statue. Due to the heavy amount of visitors, though, you’ll likely feel compelled to keep moving and save your meditation or chillout session for another temple.
Chalermchai considers the Wat Rong Khun to be far from complete. He intends for the project to be carried on long after his death, estimating another 70 years or so before his extravagant vision can finally be realized. One can’t help but compare Chalermchai’s ambitious project with Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. As the Catalan cathedral nears its completion almost 140 years after construction first began, Wat Rong Khun may follow in its footsteps as another extravagant religious structure to reward repeated guests with new surprises upon each visit.
When visiting Wat Rong Khun, it’s important to remember that unlike Baan Dam, this is officially a Buddhist temple and is even home to a number of monks. Like at all temples in Thailand, the proper customs and way of dress should be observed. This means wearing clothing which covers both the shoulders and the knees.
Outside of the main temple is an excellent free art gallery featuring a variety of Chalermchai’s paintings. There are also many restaurants and coffee shops around the vicinity which are surprisingly cheaper than what you could find in central Chiang Rai.
Like the Black House, the White Temple is also a 30 minute, 20 baht bus ride from Chiang Rai’s central bus station – although in the opposite direction. The bus will drop you off by a highway which you’ll have to cross to get to the temple, but the walk is a fairly short one.
If this is the first temple of the day that you’re visiting, then a bus ride there may be a good idea. But taking a bus all the way back to the station and then waiting for another bus to Baan Dam is probably not worth the hassle for the amount of money you may save. Calling for a Grab car is ideal to get from Wat Rong Khun to your next destination.
Wat Rong Suea Ten: The Majestic & Mysterious 'Blue Temple'
A more recent edition to Chiang Rai’s artistic and religious landscape, no visit to Chiang Rai is complete nowadays without a trip to Wat Rong Suea Ten, or the Blue Temple. This stunning temple was only recently completed in 2016.
In contrast to both the Black and White temples, where images of their creators can be spotted all over the compound, the Blue Temple remains much more mysterious. The artist in charge is not named anywhere around the temple, nor in the brochure. Furthermore, the information is completely missing from all online sources that I came across.
When this article was originally published, I asked if anybody who knew the true creator of the temple could send us a message. Luckily, a helpful Chiang Rai resident informed me that the mastermind behind the Blue Temple is an artist named Putha Kabkaew. If you noticed some similarities between the White and Blue temples, that’s because the artist here is indeed a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat himself!
The Blue Temple lacks anything comparable to the more disturbing or shocking elements of Baan Dam and Wat Rong Khun. Nevertheless, the style of the artwork and the structure itself feels very contemporary and modern compared to more traditional temples in Thailand.
The temple’s vibrant sapphire blue color has a mesmerizing and calming effect. You could also easily lose track of time observing the little details of the intricate paintings all over the ceiling and walls.
Rong Suea Ten still remains somewhat of a hidden gem, but that’s changing fast. During my initial visit, it was just me and a handful of locals. On my second visit a year later, in contrast, I encountered dozens of other people (see more below).
The temple’s exterior is just as impressive. Adorned with sapphire blue and gold, the outside of Rong Suea Ten features numerous carved statues of the Buddha, Nagas, Garuda and other beings from Thai Buddhist cosmology. If it’s a hot day, and it likely will be, there are plenty of vendors just outside selling coconut water.
Many visitors are surprised to learn that ‘Rong Suea Ten,’ the temple’s Thai name, does not actually translate to anything like ‘Blue Temple’ at all. Rong Suea Ten means ‘Tiger Temple,’ a name which predates the ephemeral Blue Temple now sitting at the spot. Legend has it that years ago, the original temple of the neighborhood was left abandoned, with wild tigers roaming the area.
After the locals finally decided to spruce up their neighborhood and renovate the local temple, construction on what would become the Blue Temple first began in 2005. It was finally completed in 2016, but like its bigger brothers Baan Dam and Wat Rong Khun, the Blue Temple is also considered a work in progress. Construction is still going on at the time of writing, and only time will tell exactly how much it’s going to grow.
The Blue Temple is the most centrally located out of the three. Located just north of the Kok River, the temple can be reached in 10 minutes by car from the night bazaar area, or around 40 minutes on foot. Taking a Grab car or even a regular taxi is the easiest way to get there.
2018 Update: The Black, White & Blue Temples Revisited
My first visit to the ‘colored temples’ of Chiang Rai occurred in the spring of 2017. All the photos above were taken during that visit. Just recently in the summer of 2018, I had the chance to go again. Though only a little over a year later, I was surprised by all the changes I noticed at all three sites.
Baan Dam Revisited
The Black House was actually the one place that I didn’t expect to be different at all. But as I walked around the compound, a lot of the changes were easily noticeable. It’s also possible, of course, that I simply noticed some things that I hadn’t before. Easy to do at a place as large and as detailed as Baan Dam!
All in all, I was very impressed with how the organizers managed the changes at the Black House. Not too much was added, nor was it taken away. It turned out to be a fun game, wandering around the complex, noticing small details that were different from last time. If you’ve visited the Black House already, you owe it yourself to check it out again during your next trip to Chiang Rai.
The White Temple Revisited
In contrast to the Black House, the White Temple complex is constantly expanding. From what I could tell, though, the main temple area was mostly unchanged from a year prior.
There were a few new fairly large buildings that were mostly complete, in areas that had been nothing but empty space during my first visit. As they were still off-limits to visitors, though, it was hard to tell what function they’re going to serve. I did notice some new smaller shrine in the back of the temple, but they still seemed to be closed for worship.
The Blue Temple Revisited
The changes at the Blue Temple from the year before were by far the most pronounced. New structures have been built both in front of and behind the main temple, while new Buddha statues are even being constructed in the parking lot.
The biggest change, however, had to be the number of visitors. While only a year ago, the Blue Temple was a hidden gem unknown even to many local residents, it’s now become another stop on the tourist trail.
The Blue Temple remains stunning, and it’s well deserving of its newfound popularity and success. With the larger crowds and quickly expanding compound, however, it seems as if the days of it being the quiet alternative to its White counterpart are now over. It has essentially turned into “Wat Rong Khun II.”
With that said, if more and more people are going to keep coming, they might as well keep expanding. Fortunately, most of the new additions are impressive, though the lights beneath the main Buddha image are a bit too much. Seeing how dramatically things changed in only a year, I can’t help but fear they may ultimately end up adding too much. I’d hate to see for this sophisticated and elegant temple to turn into something kitschy.
In the original iteration of this article, I wrote how the ‘colored temples’ were likely to reward visitors making repeated visits over the years. And I was lucky enough to return to this fascinating city and experience this first hand. It’s clear that there are still a lot more changes to come, and this certainly won’t be my last visit to Chiang Rai.
BUS: Most people arrive in Chiang Rai via Chiang Mai. The ride is around 3 and a half hours and buses are operated by a company called Greenbus. A couple of buses leave every hour and there are different classes, with the most expensive buses going for just 260 baht. There’s not a major difference between the different classes so just pick whatever bus leaves at the time most convenient for you.
Tickets are technically available online, but the Greenbus web site is confusing and many people have complained that their bookings did not get logged in the system, even after payment. Therefore, you might just want to show up at the Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal (across from Central Festival Mall) and purchase your ticket in person.
There are two bus stations in Chiang Rai. If you’re staying somewhere near the city center, be sure to get off at the second stop, and not the newer bus station in the outskirts of the city.
PLANE: Chiang Rai also has its own airport which is serviced by many of the local and budget airlines in the region, such as Air Asia and Nok Air. A taxi from the airport to the city center costs 200 baht.
Much of the information about Chiang Rai online came out before ridesharing services like Uber and Grab were introduced in the city. As Chiang Rai mostly lacks a public transportation system, these new services really change the game.
As mentioned throughout the article, we recommend Uber or Grab as these will make going from temple to temple so much easier. You may want to take a 20 baht bus ride to either Baan Dam or Wat Rong Khun to start off your day, but from then on a car is most convenient.
It’s possible to hire a private driver for around 1500 baht for the day, which may be worth it if you want to visit the temples in addition to an area like Doi Tung. Otherwise, try to strike up a deal with your Uber driver who will likely be happy to wait for you at each destination.
Of course, you can always rent your own motorbike and get from place to place at your own leisure.
As mentioned, the Black and White Temples are both far from the city center, in opposite directions. The Blue Temple is closer but still a good ten minute drive. Therefore, there’s no particularly strategic place to stay if you want to see all three temples in a short amount of time.
You might as well look for accommodation in the city center, as this will ensure that you’re close to the bus terminal as well as easy walking distance from Chiang Rai’s other attractions. These include the night bazaar, the Clock Tower and the Wat Phra Kaeo, a must-visit temple that was once home to the Emerald Buddha.
There are an abundant amount of options on hotel booking sites like Booking.com and Agoda as well as on apartment rental sites like Airbnb.