Chiang Rai

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The Swiss chalet-style Happy Room at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Photo by David Lansing.

Standing in front of a magnificent golden structure on the grounds of the White Temple in Chiang Rai, puzzling over its purpose, I saw a Thai tourist guide, a rather comely young woman, nod towards the guilded structure and ask the middle-aged American businessman she was guiding, in a whisper, if he would like to go in the “Happy Room.”

Oh, my.

I’d heard of “happy endings” at Thai massage parlors (although, alas, I’d yet to experience one). Did the White Temple have a particular house of assignation, a place where for a few extra Bhat one gained not only merits towards Enlightment but also a quick and erotic personal Nirvana?

I told Ketsara what I’d overheard (the American had, indeed, decided to take advantage of the Happy Room and was in there with the guide right now doing only Buddha-knows-what!), raising my eyebrows in disapproval.

Ketsara giggled. “You know what is Happy Room?” she said.

I told her I could only imagine.

“Happy Room in Thailand is bathroom. That what we say—‘You want to use happy room?’”

My erotically-charged imaginings dampened, I asked Ketsara why the temple would choose to make their public restrooms so grandiose, pointing out that, to my mind, the structure looked like a gaudy Thai chalet built on the slopes of St. Moritz by a Thai drug lord.

“He say,”—he being the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat—“he say toilets are gold to remind us that beauty in mind of one looking but can be seen in all objects, even toilet.”

Whatever. Personally, I like my interpretation of a Happy Room better.

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Is Chalermchai Kositpipat Thailand’s greatest artist? He thinks so.

A little bit more about the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed it: the guy is crazy.

This year he did an interview with a Thai publication called BK in which, while calling him “Arguably Thailand’s greatest artist of our time,” he proclaims on the one hand that he has stripped away his entire ego and is left with only mercy, followed by the revelation that “I’m fucking perfect. I’m good at art, management, PR and presentations. There is no defect in me.”

Oh, and he’s very humble.

Other revelations in this interview: “I always hit my targets faster than I plan to. I aimed to win the grand prize when I was in my fifth year of study—I got it in my fourth year. I planned to own my first house within five years—I got it in three. I planned to own a Mercedes in 10 years—I had it in seven. I planned to make B10 million in 15 years—I got it in 11.”

Obviously his true Buddha nature shines through.

Kositpipat claims that the purpose of the White Temple is to shine a light on Thai Buddhism and the greatness of Buddha. But let’s face it, the artist, who also created and produces a whacky Thai reality show called “Ton Silapa,” in which young artists compete in a sort of visual “American Idol” format to become Thailand’s “next great artist,”is just a huckster. But you know what? The Thai people may know Kositpipat is a huckster but they like him (and his White Temple) anyway. And that’s just fine.

What would Buddha think of the White Temple and its creator? Probably not much. Photo by David Lansing.

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The amusement park-like White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photos by David Lansing.

Yesterday we’re at the Black House (Baan Dam) in Chiang Rai. Today we’re at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which is just as bizarre. No, it’s more bizarre.

Here’s the story: In the late 90s, a controversial Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, went to the head monk of a down-on-its-heels temple in his hometown of Chiang Rai and said, “Let me redo the temple. I’ll pay for everything. The only thing is, some people won’t like it. But it will become famous, I promise you, and thousands of people will come here every year.”

So the old monk said, Why not?

True to his word, Kositpipat has turned the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, in to one of the most visited temples in Northern Thailand and, in so doing, is now known as The Gaudi of Thailand.

Frankly, I don’t see so much of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia in the White Temple as I do a Salvadore Dali or even William Blake. The White Temple is a sculptural allegory. The stark whiteness stands for the purity of Buddhism, the blinding mirrored glass for Buddha’s enlightenment. A bridge over a river of pain separates hell (with thousands of clay hands trying to drag you down) from heaven (the temple itself).

Inside are murals that, in addition to showing traditional Buddhist images, show the great battle between good and evil as being fought by Superman, Batman, Bin Laden, McDonald’s, and even George Bush.

Did I say the temple was bizarre?

You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. Frankly, I didn’t. To me, it reduces the ancient knowledge of Buddhism into a comic book with Star Wars’ heroes fighting beside Buddha to save your soul. I don’t think it’s irreligious—just silly.

Hands from hell reach out to you as you cross the bridge to the White Temple. Photo by David Lansing.


Demons near the entrance depict the sinful addiction of alcohol to reaching the temple. Photo by David Lansing.

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The Black House in Chiang Rai

Black House, Chiang Rai

Sitting on the steps of one of the 40 structures that make up the Black House in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo by David Lansing.

My impression of Steve, who works for Thailand Tourism out of New York, is that he’s intrepid. Ride an elephant? Absolutely. Scale a treacherous temple’s exterior in the dark? Let’s do it. But when we get to the Black House (Baan Dam) in Chiang Rai, he walks inside, takes a quick look, and quickly walks out. When I ask him what’s the matter, he says, “I don’t like it. It gives me the creeps. I’m not going in.”

There’s no doubt about it: The Black House is eerie. Build by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, it’s like Buddhism meets Santeria. If the Black House was a movie I had to pitch, I’d say, Think David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” set in Thailand.

The Black House is actually a collection of some 40 different structures—some large, some small—in diverse architectural styles, spread out amongst a green, peaceful garden that feels as ominous as a cemetery. I read somewhere that Duchanee (who turned 74 on Friday) explains his art by saying that it “explores the darkness lurking within humanity.”

When you first walk in to one of the largest structures, a Lanna-style vihara (a vihara now being a Buddhist monastery but originally meaning a secluded place in which to meditate, or a refuge used by wandering monks during the rainy season), what you notice is that it is big. And kind of spooky. And filled with such oddities as water buffalo skulls and cow horns. In the very middle of the room is a very long table—perhaps a hundred feet long—with snake skins, like table runners, down the middle. And at the very end of the table, is the snake’s head—leathery and puckered but still a bit scary. It’s difficult to say what Duchanee’s intent is. But it’s definitely a bit disconcerting. Particularly when you realize he has designed the room in such a way that even the slightest whisper carries from one end of the room to the other. The wind, rushing in from the open doorway, sounds like a thousand murmuring voices coming from the garden. No wonder Steve was spooked.

Black House, Chiang Rai

Snake skins run down the center of the long table in this vihara-like structure at Black House. Photo by David Lansing.


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Chiang Rai Night Market

The Chiang Rai Night Market. Photo by David Lansing.

Once upon a time, Chiang Rai must have been magnificent. Say 750 years ago when it was the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom. These days the rather unremarkable town is best known as the “gateway to the Golden Triangle.” Which means, it’s where you fly into before starting your tour of the Golden Triangle but there’s really not much to see or do in the town itself.

Probably the biggest attraction is the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar. Everyone talks about it. I met a couple of young backpackers from Australia at the bar in my hotel yesterday evening and the first thing they said was, “Have you been to the night market? They’ve got everything.”

Well, yes and no. There are hundreds of stalls selling just about everything—T-shirts, golf caps, underwear, T-shirts, knitted hats, switchblades, T-shirts, badly-produced knock-offs, scented candles, slippers (did I mention T-shirts?)—but the problem is that while there’s lots of stuff to buy, there isn’t really anything you want to buy. Unless the idea of getting a cheap Heineken T-shirt in Thailand appeals to you.

Was I the only one who thought everything at the market was junk? Apparently. Steve bought several T-shirts, including one with the logo of the local Thai beer, Chang, on it. PaLè bought some cheap bead bracelets for her daughter. Liz bought sandals.

And me? After walking around for about 20 minutes, I gave up and followed the music coming over loudspeakers to a square in the middle of the market where a troop of dancers with jasmine wreaths in their hair and foot-long dragon fingernails on their hands were performing a rather erotic, if traditional, Thai dance. I ordered the high-alcohol Chang beer, sat back, and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the evening.

Photo by David Lansing.

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