Black. White. I grew up with the notion that black represented what was bad and white good; Western society perpetuates the concept in films, books and art. But in Chiang Rai those semiotic signs have been turned on their heads by two inspirational pieces of art and architecture by two exceptional Thai artists.
The White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun) is a project by Chaloemchai Khositphiphat – a project he believes will be completed 60-90 years after his death… Maybe! It is immediately awe inspiring and jaw dropping as soon as you catch a glimpse of the spiralling pristine white stuccos. They glitter in the sun from the thousands of small mirrors imbedded in the masonry. Stunning.
However, woven within the glittering white architecture, a much darker story is told. At the base of the bridge, the main access to the temple, hundreds of white hands clammer at your feet, it is like you are walking over the trapped souls of millions of people. Some are smooth, others look rotten, their skin peeling off, and more still are being eaten by unknown mythical creatures. It is a strange entrance to a Buddhist temple.
And once you are inside the temple the plot thickens. The artistry inside, which is still being completed, is incredibly beautiful and demonstrates exquisite skill. At the far end of the temple sits Buddha (so far so good, I recognise this), on the side walls people are floating towards him on cloud-like vehicles (okay, not seen this before but I kinda get it… I think). But the real shock and bewilderment comes as you turn around and look behind the doors. Painted on the walls, and at this point I must stress I am not kidding, is Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Neo (from the Matrix), Michael Jackson, Miss Kitty, the Twin Towers (with the planes crashing in)… And that’s only the few I can remember. It is surreal and utterly confusing. Ideas on a postcard please!
The Black House (or Bandaam Museum) in the North, the opposite side of town to the White Temple is the brainchild and vision of Thawan Duchanee… I’m just not entirely sure what that vision is.
The House itself is hidden down a small soi, which reflects the piecemeal way the House offers its secrets. It is not instantly inspiring like the White temple, you have to search and explore the 40 odd buildings scattered in the forest, but you are rewarded (and maybe scared) by what you discover. In one building you spy a bear head, another, thousands of bones – elephant, shark, and many others, dried and preserved fish, alligator hides, snake skins, phallic shaped objects – including on pan handles, skulls, shells, fur, wood, drums, gongs… Oh and two huge, living pythons. I could go on.
Whilst it is another bewildering, and at times eerie experience (unlike the White Temple, where hundreds of people descend every day, the Black House is deserted), a consistent theme emerges. This is about nature. There is not much in the maze of buildings that isn’t from the earth. Much of it might be dark, stretching beyond the world of Buddism, maybe even reflecting Paganism at times, but it is grounded in this world and not the mythical.
To me this is what defines and differentiates the two temples. They are not in opposition, they are not ying and yang, black and white. Both are dark, mysterious and magical places, but whilst the Black House expresses nature, the White House presents a more mythical vision.
Whatever the true vision these remarkable artworks express they are well worth a visit. The pictures do not do them justice.
Tomorrow we will leave the majesty of the temples behind us and cross the border into Laos… Which I hope will be a simpler and saner place, but only a little bit! 😉