Black&White&Blue in Chang Rai, Thailand

Even for a kunsthisterik of my magnitude it is easy to get “templed out” in Thailand.

One is surrounded by Buddhist temples at every step and they are all in one way or another the biggest, the glitziest, the emerladiest. Yet they lack the vibrancy and aliveness of Balinese Hindu temples with their constant stream of devout worshipers, offerings, flowers and ceremonies.

Except for a must do excursion to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on top of the hill above Chang Mai we did not seek out the city temples intentionally. They were good landmarks to go by or peek into on our daily wanderings around the city that has grown tremendously in our absence of 30 years. Our memories were foggy and we did not recall any of the places from our first visit. We remembered the relief of coming to the cooler Chang Mai from stifling Bangkok, but alas, this time the temperatures up North were unusually high. Thank god our budget now allows for an air conditioned hotel room and the numerous Ubers are so inexpensive that we used them even for short hops from a restaurant to a museum to a market.

We had allocated a week to Chang Mai but we were not as enamored with the city as many other visitors, so we quickly started looking for excursions out of town. The sweet receptionist in our little hotel recommended a friend of hers as our driver and guide, in particular because she had a very comfortable, brand new car, with good suspension–a plus for Mirek’s back.

The best day trip we did together was to Chang Rai. With two of us the cost was just about the same to hire a private car or go on a day group minivan tour. The advantage of having your own car is, of course, that you can stop when and where you want, so we deviated the classic tourist itinerary a bit. We were delighted to find mushroom vendors by the side of the road. A Thai version of porcini?

For those who know me well, you know that come winter in California I am out in the woods of our neighborhood, picking inordinate amounts of chanterelles and foisting them on unsuspecting people.

At another spot we got to taste quail eggs cooked in boiling thermal spring waters. Here instead of the usual slides and swings the entertainment for visiting children consists of fishing out little baskets of cooked eggs from scalding hot water. This little girl was quite adamant to make it work. And beaming with pride when she finally succeeded!I always enjoy shaking up the preset itinerary a bit and showing local guides some new places. So in Chang Rai I dragged my poor husband and our guide to a small, little known museum of history, started and manned singlehandedly by a retired teacher, originating from Burma. Even at the uttering of the word museum my husband’s eyes glaze over and he immediately starts searching for a bench where he could take a nap, but this museum and the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable lady guide showing us around kept him awake and engaged. I wonder if it was these kinds of exhibits? The museum had a most extraordinary thorough and rich collection of tribal dress from all corners of Thailand and Burma. Just the thing I love! It was a bit disorienting to find all the mannequins very lifelike, and of Western, Caucasian origin! Imagine my surprise and delight to find on a particularly handsome model a teeth festooned headdress of the like I had brought home from Burma many years ago! I might ask Mirek to wear it around the house more often! Perhaps I was sidetracking so much because I was actually quite weary of the temples awaiting us in Chang Rai. In particular the controversial White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). I read enough contradicting opinions about it that I was afraid it will be a kitschy disaster, for we have such refined tastes in art! 😉 Yet to our mutual surprise and delight Mirek and I both loved it! It was a spun sugar fantasy baked with a sure artistic hand of Mr. Chalermchai Kositpipat, who then took a giant silver frosting gel and accentuated the creation with a flowing wiggly line, his very distinct fluid signature. For his effort the artist who not only designed, but also financed the project to the tune of 1 million dollars got plenty of scorn from the Buddhist community and fellow artists. True, his interpretations, especially the surrealistic paintings in the main hall that bring in a number of strange pop icons such as Spider-Man and Hello Kitty are well, out of this world, as are creepy moss covered severed heads hanging from trees and really scary ghoulish hands reaching for you as you cross the Bridge of the cycle of rebirth, but they bring his message across. Your salvation lies in Buddhism you sinful human living in a hellish world. The hands are intentionally not shown here so you don’t have bad dreams or feel like we are trying to scare you in converting.

If the dude had not won me over with his sugar concoctions I would certainly become his fan after seeing (and using) his toilets.

The golden throne he created is about the most beautiful and interesting restroom we have ever seen on our worldly travels. You might not know, and might not want to know particularly, but we have quite an obsession with toilets and have endless supply of pictures. Look forward to a future post on this topic! For now here is the best of the best. We said goodbye to one controversial Thai artist and hello to another. Mr. Thawan Duchanee created a large artistic compound many (incorrectly) call Black Temple. The real name is Baan Dam or Black House. That is misleading as well as the whole project consists of about 40 structures, only some house or temple like. Altogether they are supposed to be another personal interpretation of Buddhism. The two artists couldn’t be more different. One exuberantly white and silver and gold, the other elegantly simple, black with a dash of white. Inspiration for many of his building seems to come from traditional folk architecture from all around Asia. We felt right at home standing in front of black structures reminding us of recent village visits on different Indonesian islands. The perfect cultural extension was his obsession with buffalo heads and horns that were everywhere. Including at the toilet. He too, like our other artist friend put much effort into the toilets, except instead of just one huge golden one, he designed a large number of small black ones. Each had very distinct and individual and anatomically correct 3D visual signage for male and female sides.

It was differently overwhelming to walk around this collection of art. Every few steps one came face to face with yet another unusual idea. Dare to open the door to the circular White House and find yourself face to face with an enormous crocodile surrounded by chairs made of black buffalo horns. A cozy meeting place for Game of Thrones kings…But the biggest jolt I got was when I wandered behind a large whale like (or was it a giant mouse?) structure and discovered two live buffalos. Um, OK, guys, I am backing off really slowly now. And then there was the Blue Temple. Nothing mystical or highly visionary and not scary at all. Just very blue and very fun! I am calling it the Mermaid Temple. Don’t you just love this rad blue merman with yellow mustache?

Oh, and I nearly forgot about the Red Temple. Just kidding, just kidding…

4 thoughts on “Black&White&Blue in Chang Rai, Thailand

  1. Your heart and feelings are beautifully conveyed through your writing and amazing photos! So alive!..especially that little girl’s smile! We can imagine ourselves there! The crazier you get the better travelers you become! Keep going crazy – we love the results, we LOVE YOU! C&F


  2. These are extraordinary photos. I’m all over the toilets but intrigued with the bronze bra. Can’t wait for what’s next.


  3. Temples of Thailand always amazed me. But yes, I haven’t seen many beyond Bangkok. Now I see I need to put Chang Mai on my « to go list ». I especially liked the part about how you showed the local guide that museum. Not to mention the absurd of the mannequin … :)))))


  4. I have seen the places in Chiang Mai you went to. Some of the oldest temples in the old section are really like impromptu museums as people gave their best to the temples in the old days and there it remains as a sort of hodge podge. The “chicken temple” down town always makes me smile. When I am in Chiang Mai I stay at a guest house on the river. It is loaded with a different type of pottery in all sizes that the owner collects and you can eat outdoors right on the river. Moderately priced and the owner speaks good English. Easy walk to town. I like to go on a little river tour for cocktails and nosh’s and send up those Thai rice paper balloons at the end. Best to be there at Loi Katung (spelling) or the rose parade.

    I have not seen the new temples in Chiang Rai. They look amazing. I like to actually stay there a few days at a resort. Cheap, air conditioned and acres of beautiful grounds.


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