Chiang Rai in Black and White

More and more, I’m coming to think of Chiang Rai Province as Thailand’s equivalent to Vermont, in the United States. Both, after all, are in the north of their country, in a mountainous region, and are less densely populated than their country’s other population centers. This is likely magnified by the fact that the first couple of things I did in the area were crazy and slightly ridiculous artsy tourist attractions.

The city of Chiang Rai is a charming mixture of modern advances and traditional edifices. Central Plaza, a four-story, air conditioned shopping mall (complete with movie theater) sits just a few blocks from a gleaming white and golden wat, a temple dripping with traditional Buddhist design. It’s a city that grew outward, rather than upward, and if there are any high rises, I haven’t seen them. It’s a sharp contrast to Bangkok, which reminded me of New York City as I rode my taxi to Don Mueang Airport. There were pockets of very tall buildings, with shorter neighborhoods connecting them, and not a lot of room between. In Chiang Rai, however, the city center is the densest place around. Where I’m staying, at my grandparents’, is a quiet little neighborhood five or ten minutes south of the city center. It’s calm, there’s elbow room. Mountains loom in the distance but don’t actually encroach on the city at all. Rice fields fill much of the space between that neighborhood and the city. During the day, temperatures can peak in the low nineties by the afternoon, but they’re already dropping by mid evening. Tropical life has a wonderful rhythm that four-season regions simply cannot achieve.

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Such a peaceful area inevitably makes for a good place to do art, and that’s just what two locals have spent a great deal of time doing. My first two tourist experiences in Chiang Rai were the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Black House (Baandam). Both are the lifetime project of a single artist (each), both show a strong Buddhist influence, and both are strange and alluring, though definitely not in the same way.

The Baandam is an outdoor museum made up of several small black buildings, all

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designed by a Thai national named Thawan Duchanee. Some are wood, some are stone, some are stucco. All are filled with handmade sculptures and furniture adorned with animal bone, horns, and skins. The very northwestern European-style dining set adorned with a grey wolf pelt was my favorite, though the boa constrictor-skin table run was also exquisite. There were beds and couches and tables and chairs, all handmade by the same man. Everything sort of clicked when I got to the only buildings on the property that aren’t black. Three white stupas sit centered against the far side of the outdoor museum’s perimeter. Two contain a circle of horn and hide chairs (one set is fancier than the other) and many

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large seashells. The third has only one grand chair in it, more like a throne, with spears leaning against the walls and shells and mats in a circle around the rest of the stupa. That’s when it hit me: it was as though the furniture was in the traditional style of some ancient tribe, handcrafted using the materials they could find around them. This fantastical little village was built around that idea, it seems, and in a way, visiting the museum is stepping onto that tribe’s land, into their time. Writers talk about voice, what makes our writing distinct from everyone else’s. That tribe’s culture is where Duchanee‘s “voice” comes through; to see that same idea in a totally different medium can teach you a great deal about your own art, if you’ll let it.

Building upon that, the opportunity to compare the architectural styles of two different

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artists fairly back-to-back was particularly enlightening. Wat Rong Khun is much more tied to the soul of the area surrounding it, as it existed before Chalermchai Kositpipat became associated with it. After an earthquake, it fell into a state of disrepair and there was nobody to restore it, so he took it upon himself. He still curates the complex, charging tourists (but not locals) admittance to see the temple. It’s worth it, too, as not only is it a tourist attraction, but also an active Buddhist temple. There’s a building on the grounds where the monks live, and many of the people who go to visit take the opportunity to kneel before the Buddha statues and say their prayers. I also had something of a spiritual experience in the ubosot (the main temple building), but it didn’t have much to

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do with why the monks are there. Sitting off center, but evenly spaced between the left- and right-hand walls is a sculpture (a very lifelike sculpture) of a monk sitting in a meditative position and wearing glasses with real lenses—I had to look closely to make sure it was actually a sculpture. Behind him is a seated Buddha, slightly larger than the monk. Behind that is another, even larger seated Buddha, and behind that, painted on the wall is a massive standing Buddha looking down with open eyes on the entire procession. The other three walls are also painted, with scenes observing life in various stages and commenting on the human condition (as “canned-art-student response” as that observation is). The mural on the inside of the front wall has several pop culture icons scattered through it, including (but not limited to) a plane from Pixar’s Planes, Darth Vader, the Terminator, Harry Potter, Freddy

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Kreuger, and the Predator. Also on the grounds—but free of charge—is a museum of Kositpipat’s personal journey as an artist, starting with (what I assume to be) his earliest work, going through up to the present. I’d never been to an art exhibit I didn’t want to leave before. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m finally old enough, or if it’s because I’ve recently come to understand art better (college), or if there is something about his particular style, but I couldn’t help but buy a couple of prints, moved as I was.

I still have a fair amount to see up this way: a bit of the landscape, a geographical marvel. I’ll be visiting the Golden Triangle—where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet—and a bamboo forest before you hear from me next. In the meantime, my friends, be sure to have some fun.

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