Contemplating Life and Death at Baan Dam, the Black House of Chiang Rai
Tourists flock in quite large numbers to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, often missing the sister attraction Baan Dam, the Black House. If you’re planning a trip to Thailand and the White Temple is on your agenda, make sure to not miss the Black House. Find a tour that includes it, or if you’re self-planning, make sure to add it to your agenda.
Baan Dam (The Black House)Where: 11 km North of Chiang Rai
Hours: 9am–5pm, seven days a week
Entrance fee: 80 baht
Time: Expect to spend 1-2 hours
The massive crows at the White Temple make contemplation a difficult task. Indeed the entire affair seems designed to funnel tourists through the compound and then out the gift shop area. Not so at the Black House, which is spread out over 40 acres and gives visitors a chance to meander through the property at their own pace.
The Black House was constructed by Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee, who was actually the teacher of Chalermchai Kositpipat, designer of the White Temple. Being located on opposite sides of Chiang Rai, they provide an interesting contrast to one another. There seems to be an intentional nod to the concept of yinyang in their construction; the Daoist symbol is featured at the White Temple, and seems to be subtly inferred at the Black House.
The grounds consist of almost 40 structures, and many of them house installations you can view. If the White Temple is meant to evoke life, then the Black House certainly evokes death. Throughout the complex you’ll encounter images of death, mostly in the form of dead animal skins and skeletons. They are artfully arranged both in and outside the buildings. The main structure at the entrance almost looks like it belongs in a scene from Game of Thrones, with large chairs made of ram horns scattered about.
All the scenes of death might initially seem macabre, but I don’t believe this was Duchanee’s intention at all. Instead, viewed through the lens of art, we are seemingly invited to contemplate life by coming face to face with death. Whereas the White Temple’s design is meant to convey the journey through life toward purity and enlightment, stripping away all that holds us back from attaining that goal, the Black House takes a difference approach, and has us contemplate the finality and fragility of life by confronting death. This is another way of achieving the same goal sought by the White Temple’s path, but one that is more grounded in our earthly experience. It doesn’t shy away from death, but instead confronts if head on, and finds purity and enlightment that way.
At least, that’s my take on the installation. I would strongly encourage you to make time for the Black House when visiting Chiang Rai and find your own meaning. With the massive rush of crowds elbowing each other and pushing through the White Temple, it was a refreshing experience to be able to slow down and appreciate the way Duchanee structured his work. He passed in 2014, but continues to live on through his Black House.
Allot plenty of time to enjoy Duchanee’s home. He began work on it 40 years ago and it is an impressive expression of his artistic vision. In the main structure, we encountered a band of children playing traditional Thai music, enhancing the contemplative ambience. Other corners of the grounds allowed for quiet meditation. And of course, the spectre of death could be found everywhere.
You should be able to hire a driver to take you there and wait for you for about 300-350 baht. If you intend to see the White Temple on the same day, you might be able to negotiate a combined rate. Just note they are located on opposite ends of Chiang Rai so it will take a little time to go from one to the other. From the old bus station, you can take the bus at platform 5 and get there as well.
While our initial reason for visiting Chiang Rai was to see the White Temple, we were glad to also able to experience the complementary Black House. Both are powerful visions from master artists and both deserve a spot on your itinerary.
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