Chiang Rai Highlights

by Jojo Furnival

White Temple, Chiang RaiEvery moment is a gift here at New Life, but Sundays are especially sacred. They not only are  an opportunity for a lie-in, but also offer community members a chance to explore the nearby cultural delights of northern Thailand.
One must-do Sunday excursion is the White Temple, Black House, and waterfall trip, which fifteen volunteers and residents enjoyed recently. The day, which was ably and amiably organised by volunteer Anders, was a jam-packed affair that also incorporated a visit to Pong Phrabat Hot Springs (usually reserved for a separate outing), where everyone had the chance to bathe for an hour or so in the warm natural waters in a private room or in the communal outdoor pool. Well worth a visit on account of being relatively unknown to tourists, enjoying instead the locals’ seal of approval.

This moment of pause in our day was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary beauty of The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which we’d visited that morning and is one of Thailand’s most famous cultural sites.

Despite its name, The White Temple is actually a privately owned art exhibit. Designed and constructed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, it opened in 1997 and is free to enter, though the complex is as yet unfinished and will comprise of 9 buildings once completed.

Blinded by the brightness of The White Temple’s mirrored exterior, we stepped gingerly inside to admire the artist’s representation of the Buddha’s victory over Mara, an enormous so called ‘Thai Neo-traditional’ mural containing depictions of Michael Jackson, Osama Bin Laden, and Neo from The Matrix, to name but a few.

After the springs, New Life’s regular songtaew driver took us to a traditional Thai restaurant en route to the waterfall, where we could recharge after the soporific effects of the bathing. Pad Thai and pad krapow (Thai basil rice stir fry) later, with some chicken on a stick from the roadside barbecue, we were sufficiently energised and raring to go for the 900m forest hike that awaited us.

Dripping in sweat and covered in ants, we finally arrived beaming from ear to ear at the small waterfall of clear water, and stripped off to plunge into the refreshing pools’ cold depths. Some of us even took the opportunity to challenge our meditation by attempting to sit directly under the running water, practising mindful breathing as water engulfed our heads: “Breathing in, we know that we are breathing in water…”

After eventually making it back down to the car park and slurping a rewarding ice cream while waiting for those in the group that hadn’t got the ‘wear sensible shoes’ memo, we made our way to our last stop of the day: Baan Dam, or The Black House.

The proud work of Thawan Duchanee, a Chiang Rai born Thai artist who represents the darkness of humanity with the use of skins, skulls, and other oddities that, when put together, give the visitor the feeling they’ve stepped into one of Game of Thrones’ seven kingdoms.

Misleadingly, The Black House isn’t a single building, but a complex of multiple structures, some enclosed and some open sided, containing eccentric objects from enormous banqueting tables adorned with animal skins, skull mounted thrones, giant wicker baskets, weaponry and Japanese style tapestries. White, egg shaped pods filled with chairs, drinking vessels and furs on display, plus numerous imposing black doors marked ‘Do Not Enter’ leave you with the feeling that the owner is out of town, but could be back at any time. And so, after absorbing as much culture as we could, we beat a speedy retreat back to New Life and the safety of its clean lines and natural gardens.

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