I was insistent (Dave would say bossy) that we visit Chiang Rai while we were in Thailand. From the days when this here trip was but a twinkle in my airline miles account, I had been googling interesting things to see in Asia. I love me some modern art and I also, in a way, love me some Buddha. In some internet wormhole of daydreams on a Sunday morning between cups of coffee and all the things I *should* do I stumbled upon images of the White Temple in Chiang Rai and it zoomed to the top of my bucket list. Dave happily complied because it seemed neat and it was a thing to do. He is much more easily pleased in a way. So far each day we have a beer, eat some meat on a stick, enjoy some air conditioning, and logistics work out semi-decently he’s pretty tickled. He does have some underlying ennui as most Pisces tend to, but it is very easy to distract him with “moo ping” (i.e. pork on stick in Thai).
We were only in Chaing Rai 3 nights and 4 days and two of those days were travel days. One of those full days was already dedicated to luxuriating in the pool/grounds of the Le Meridien Chiang Rai where we had booked the night for 1,600 Starwood points and $30 USD. HOW CAN YOU NOT? We got upgraded, ate Western food, I got shockingly tan and there was an infinity pool. That does not count as Thai, not even a little (though it was awesome).
So — we had one full day to see the White Temple and its counterpart, the Dark Temple. So we were up and at them earlier than normal for a day of adventuring. We walked 2 km to the bus station from our guesthouse, grabbed a sandwich from a “local” bakery and then hopped on the public bus.
We did something peculiar here — we trusted Wikitravel. Wikitravel pointed us towards the right buses with the right fares. A kindly yet brisk lady who collected fares spoke the following words of English:
- where you go
- white temple
- black temple
- walk down there
which were more helpful than the words we speak of Thai:
- numbers 1 – 99
- thank you/please
- me want
- no worries
We got on the first bus, and then 30 minutes later were dropped off on the side of a highway which we darted across and then made our way to the White Temple.
Which did not disappoint.
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a modern Buddhist temple — construction began in 1997 and the artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, expects it will take until 2070 to complete his vision. The whole temple is in a way an equal testament to his religious zeal and his ego.
The temple is ornate and all silver and white and gorgeous. On the inside where we couldn’t take pictures though I think is where the real powerful stuff was — frescoes of the modern world where Spiderman was saving people from the Twin Towers and materialism is the new god. Really amazing.
After we toured our way through the temple, Dave hilariously was like “let’s go check out the golden temple next!”. The “golden temple” were the bathrooms. I took a pose-y picture to commemorate our laughter.
The White temple was an amazingly impressive structure. Totally worth the trip and the hype. It was everything I wanted it to be and more:
Amazing Buddhist imagery
Incredible detail work
After a restorative smoothie across the road, we darted across the highway again and flagged down a song taew which Chiang Rai (and Chiang Mai’s) public transit. Not glamorous, it is a pickup truck with benches along the back that operates as a shared taxi. It is cheap however — around 80 cents a ride for a decent haul — and you do get to mingle with locals who laugh at how formally you address them and how fat and big and white you are.
The song taew dropped us back at the bus station where we simply boarded another public bus to get to the Black temple. The same lady greeted us and this time she laughed at where we were going and put us on the right bus, collected the fare and when our stop came, pointed out which way we should go. Also, when a woman had a puppy asleep in her arms and Dave tried to call it “cute” the lady was quick to pipe up from riding along the open doorway to say “DOG!” and we chuckled. Yes! We are dog people! THAT DOG WAS TINY, ASLEEP, AND CUTE!
This here encapsulated why we love the Thai people. Here, you are in on the joke with them. How hilarious is it that you are grown and have money and are stupid here? I know, right? Other places, everyone laughs at how different you are. Here you smile along because — yeah– it’s HILARIOUS. I probably just said “niece feather triangle” instead of “iced coffee, two” so you just have to laugh. Dave saying “cute” was probably heard as “blerglegaidfnaf” and she was like, “hey dumb dumb – it’s a dog– relax”. Then, we all laugh because YES!
Again, the bus dropped us off along the highway and we walked 500 meters to the Black temple. Ok, ran because I had to pee REALLY bad. We bought some special Chiang Rai pineapples — they are about the size of a large peach– and enjoyed them and they fortified us to walk the grounds of the temple. BTW a kilo of them were 40 baht, or $1.30. #winning
Dave didn’t love this one as much. He was like, “Ok, I get it. Things are grotesque. To live is to suffer and to die. Ok. Suffering. Got it. “. I loved it.
The artist who created this place, Thawan Duchanee, is the teacher of the artist who created the White temple. Their work is similar in that they focus on religious iconography and purpose, but otherwise that seems to be it. The Black temple is actually a series of around 40 buildings which look like one room houses. Some look like living rooms. Some like dining rooms. Some like bedrooms. Some like tiny temples. The focus however is carnal. Nearly all materials are physical — either rocks or wood– or worse yet, animal skins, tusks and other parts. The whole place gave me the heebie-jeebies in a “isn’t this BRILLIANT” kind of way. The scariest temples even had rocks as the footpath so you felt uneasy walking on uneven terrain as you see freaky stuff.
After this action packed day, we darted across our last highway, hailed our last song taew, and had lunch at 4pm. We walked 2 km home, went for a swim at our guesthouse, drank a beer and then walked the 2km back into town to eat a huge dinner.
All photos are on our flickr page in our Chiang Rai album: www.flickr.com/photos/banhmiandyou
All in all, we walked over 11 kilometers, had charming experiences, and saw some pretty amazing modern religious art. We came, we saw, we gathered new subconscious fodder for nightmares, and we conquered.