Phallic-inspired totem poles, ironically, keep the structure standing, along with wooden shed rafters and panelled siding. While you might expect to find stalls of horses or bear witness to a quick-draw duel, instead you’re met by long refectory tables adorned with crocodile and snake skins as runners and confusing smorgasbord of statues, including one statue we could only conclude (wrongly) was a Buddhist interpretation of Darth Vadar.
While Baan Dam is hard to categorize as it is at once many things. It should be mentioned it is not a temple, although commonly referred to as one. In its entirety, it is a Buddhist-inspired work by the late Chiang Rai-born Thawan Duchanee, who passed away in 2014.
Today, he is remembered as a nationally celebrated artist, although early on his interpretations were not. As he emerged on the Thai art scene, Duchanee’s unconventional works offended conservatives, prompting some to destroy his work, condemning it as sacrilegious. It wasn’t until the Thai elite stood behind him that public perception changed, thrusting him into good favour.
Duchanee was once quoted as saying: “What has a man got to leave behind except his wisdom brought out through his work? If I don’t leave something behind when I’m dead, I shall be outdone by a buffalo.”
Love it, hate it or leave thoroughly confused by it, with the Black House, Duchanee did leave behind a legacy that will continue to both befuddle and move visitors far into the future.
With an estimated 40,000 temples in Thailand, it’s rather easy for travellers to find themselves templed-out, awe-inspiring architecture losing lustre the more you see. On our travels however, we visited three temples that would cure even the most apathetic among us of temple fatigue.
The Black House
Baan Dam is known as the Black House—or as I like to call it the wild, wild west of Buddhism. The house is at once a studio, a museum and an artist’s former lair. While its exterior is more or less architecturally in line with northern Thai buildings, it has the sinister colouring of a villain’s headquarters and its inside is somewhere between a barn and a saloon.
The White Temple
Despite the blanketing Thai heat, at first glance the White Temple—Wat Rong Khun—seems to be straight out of a Disney animation. It’s only on closer inspection that the “gates of heaven” are paved with the gnarled hands and pained faces of unrestrained desire, as well as cultural references to terrorist attacks, nuclear warfare and ring-bearing villains from Lord of the Rings.
Before entering the main temple, you cross a bridge over a small lake that is meant to symbolize the foregoing of gluttonous, earthly pleasures and sins alike. Inside the temple, a deceivingly life-like wax figure of a monk greets you, back-dropped by a mural that colourfully and loudly illustrates the violent impact humans have had both on the earth and each other.
Just outside of Chiang Rai, the White Temple was created and self-funded by Thai artist, Chalermchai Khositpipat, who we were lucky enough to ever-so-briefly meet. He rebuilt the temple, unveiling it to the public in 1997. He chose white to represent Buddha’s purity, and used glass so the sun would reflect Buddha’s wisdom over the earth.
Construction on the temple is ongoing. It’s slated to be completed in 2070—outliving the creator himself. As I watched Khositpipat from afar, who was huddled nose-to-grid-paper with whom I could only assume were his architectural henchman, it made me wonder what his imagination, in combination with deep spiritual belief and our ongoing human history, would lead him to create next.
If you can successfully pass the nail-biting near-vertical gravel road that is 800 metres of dirt path and iron stairs on a dense jungle mountain spine, you’ll find Wat Chalermprakiat, a series of pagodas built in honour of King Rama IV of the Rattanakosin dynasty’s 200th anniversary.
An hour north of Lampang in the Chaehome district, the mountain temple is new—just built in 2004. And its construction is a mere wonder in itself. Each stupa is top a rocky ridge line, and two pagodas are capped with gold-flaked precipices that remind me of spinning tops.
One of the pagodas offers a platform and shine for visitors to pray, while both have viewpoints for everyone to take in the lolling pastures and rambling ranges that have no end in sight. And everyone does take note of the beautiful sight.
While we crossed paths with few other tourists, we did exchange a smile with an orange-robed selfie-stick-wielding monk. Later, we spotted him from afar as he broached the stupa’s shrine to pray…but not before taking a selfie!
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