Three of Chiang Rai’s most memorable temples are not traditional religious sites, but rather, they are long-term projects of contemporary artists.
You might think that once you’ve seen a handful of Thailand’s 40,000 Buddhist temples, you’ve seen them all. But three of Thailand’s most memorable, awe-inspiring sites are far different than the traditional monastic centers that characterize Thailand’s peaceful landscape.
Unlike most temples in Southeast Asia, monks don’t live and practice in the colored temples (the White Temple, Blue Temple, and Black House) because they aren’t actually religious structures–at least in a conventional sense. Rather, these temples more closely resemble art museums, as they represent decades of work from three artists native to Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand.
If you’re not primed on what to expect, you’ll be in for a surprise to encounter a mosaic Transformers statue, grotesque floating heads, and even a separate “golden temple” (which is actually just a really nice bathroom).
When Wat Rong Khun (later, the White Temple) was abandoned, the popular Thai painter Chalermchai Kositpipat bought the old temple, reconstructed it as an enormous art piece, and opened it to the public in 1997. However, Chalermchai intends to continue expanding the temple for the rest of his life. Years later, artist Thawan Duchanee opened his mysterious, gothic Ban Daam Museum (Black House), where he resided before his death in 2014. Then, in 2016, the Blue Temple opened, rich with kaleidoscopic paintings, statues, and crystal balls.
The colored temples are separate projects, but it’s no coincidence that they all happen to exist on the outskirts of Chiang Rai within miles of each other. These three artists take clear inspiration from one another, borrowing from their country’s Buddhist heritage to reconceive what a temple can be.
As soon as you lay eyes on the White Temple, it’s obvious that it’s a masterpiece. In the midst of unassuming suburban sprawl, the White Temple stands in its otherworldly, ornate glory, glittering as the sun hits the reflective mirror tiles that cover the structure. But if you’re not primed on what to expect when you visit the White Temple, you’ll be in for a surprise when you encounter a mosaic Transformers statue, grotesque floating heads, and even a separate “golden temple” (which is actually just a really nice bathroom).
The pathway into the prayer room is more hellish than heavenly, which the temple’s white motif wouldn’t lead you to expect. Even more shocking is Chalermchai’s fantastical mural inside of the temple, dotted with cartoonish paintings of Spiderman, Angry Birds, Minions, and other pop culture symbols scattered across a fiery backdrop. Controversially, he also paints the attack on the Twin Towers, which is jarring to encounter in Thailand, though it is thought to remind visitors of the capacity for human destruction.
Traditional Buddhist temples are decorated with paintings that allude to tales from Buddhist lore, so at first glance, Chalermchai’s conflation of cartoon characters, terrorist attacks, and Buddhist imagery may seem confusing or disrespectful. But, the artist is actually a devout Buddhist, and his interpretation of the close relationship among culture, nationalism, and religion has been disputed for his entire career. In the 1980s, Chalermchai was enlisted to paint murals for Wat Buddhapadipa, the first Thai Buddhist temple in the United Kingdom. In these murals, though, Chalermchai sneakily included portraits of contemporary politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which enraged Thai officials.
Knowing Chalermchai’s background as an artist, you’ll get more out of your visit to the White Temple–for example, it may be a bit easier to conceive of what the motivation might be behind painting Michael Jackson and Harry Potter opposite a Buddha statue. Zany as Chalermchai’s sensibilities might be, the White Temple certainly offers an immersive, artistic experience unlike any other. Although it tackles intimidating subject matter like the afterlife and man-made terror, the White Temple’s atmosphere manages to retain a sense of whimsy.
Like the White Temple, the Blue Temple was once a traditional monastery. But now, Wat Rong Seua Ten–which translates to “house of the dancing tiger”–is undergoing a long-term renovation into another “art temple” in Chiang Rai. Still, the Blue Temple has a distinctly sacred, religious aura, which is probably because there’s a truly massive Buddha staring at you across the hall.
Regardless, there’s something special about the daring vibrancy of its magnificent colors. As you walk up to the temple, you might recognize the sculptures of mythical water serpents (nagas), which often adorn temples in Southeast Asia. But even though the Blue Temple replicates many of the motifs that characterize Thai Buddhist architecture, the psychedelic murals inside of the main hall remind you that this isn’t your typical temple visit.
This abstract yet precise and realistic style of painting makes it clear that this isn’t a historic site, but rather, a contemporary beauty. Of course, there’s enormous value in visiting ancient religious mammoths like Angkor Wat, in Thailand’s neighboring Cambodia–but, it’s inspiring to see that there’s room for new landmarks to dazzle travelers, too.
Since the temple only opened in 2016–and is still visibly under construction–the site isn’t as heavily-laden with moral messaging as the White Temple. But because Chalermchai’s artwork is a clear inspiration for the Blue Temple project, it will be interesting to see how Wat Rong Seua Ten develops over the years.
It is a bit of a misnomer to designate the Ban Daam Museum a “colored temple,” because the Black House is not a temple, and never was religious in any right. In fact, even calling it the Black House isn’t exactly accurate, because the museum is made up of about 40 uniquely bizarre houses situated across a large lawn. But because of its geographic proximity and influences from Buddhist architecture, this equally impressive museum gets thrown into the mix.
Though it’s tempting to call the Black House the “opposite” of the White Temple, these sites are similarly eerie. Like Chalermchai, Thawan Duchanee was one of Thailand’s most distinguished artists, and the Ban Daam Museum proves that the mind of the artist is a wacky place.
Supposedly, no animals were harmed in the making of Duchanee’s spooky home, but animal lovers may balk at the sheer amount of taxidermy and bones across the museum. Of the three colored temples, the Ban Daam Museum is easiest to get lost in (both literally and metaphorically)–it’s huge. Especially if you’re the kind of person whose favorite holiday is Halloween, it would be too easy to spend hours pouring over the paintings, sculptures, and designs of one of Thailand’s most remarkable artists.