Before we arrived in Chiang Rai, the city was a bit of a mystery to both Jamie and I. We had heard that it was a good launching point from which to hop on the slowboat to Laos, with a few memorable sites to check out around town for a couple of days. We had casually read something about a white temple and black temple, but other than that, we knew nothing. Quite honestly, we had very little desire to visit either of these temples and were going to embark on an extensive search to uncover a few hidden gems around Chiang Rai. Thankfully, our bus from Pai stopped just outside of the White Temple for about 20 minutes and we were forced to get a glimpse of what we would be missing by choosing not to visit the area’s main attraction. Almost immediately, Jamie and I vowed to rent a scooter the next day and return so that we could enjoy the temple without the threat of a kamikaze mini-bus driver leaving us behind if we stayed for 21 minutes instead of the 20 minutes he had been so gracious to grant us.
After traveling through Southeast Asia for almost 4 months now, temples just don’t do it for me anymore. The formula’s almost always the same. There will be some Buddha statues, some incense sticks, a few people kneeling in prayer, some monks wandering around in their orange robes and countless tourists trying to get pictures of them. If the temple’s rated as a “MUST SEE!!!!” on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet, then there will be a “Big Buddha” or a “Reclining Buddha” which are pretty damn similar to the countless other big and/or reclining Buddhas you’ve seen in every other Asian city. It’s kind of like backpacking through Europe and visiting what seems to be every church ever built in the history of Christianity.
This repetitiveness is exactly why I will recommend that any travellers in Northern Thailand must see the White Temple and Black Temple in Chiang Rai. They are refreshing and utterly unlike any other temples in Asia. I suppose that this is because they aren’t really temples at all. They’re art exhibits, and should be treated as such. I wasn’t aware of this until we visited the White Temple, but we were pretty quick to understand that the temple might not be all that traditional when we saw the moat full of scaly hands clutching weapons, grasping at whaling faces, and brandishing dismembered penis’s.
The thing that’s really striking about the White Temple is the detail. There are a million things to look at in every which direction. On the outside, the massive demon looking soldiers guarding a bridge across the moat full of hands is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Upon entering the temple, there’s a huge mural that includes everything from Buddhist monks to Michael Jackson and depictions of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I’m not artsy enough to be able to understand what any of it means, and I was a bit shocked to see the decapitated head of Batman hanging from a tree next to the temple, along with that of Freddy Kruger and a few other pop-culture icons. Regardless, I was captivated for 100% of the time that we were at the White Temple and I’d be surprised if anyone else who’s been there would say differently.
On the other end of town is the Black Temple which comes across like some sort of Satanic worship monument. Like the White Temple, it’s completely and totally bizarre… so you’ll find it hard to stop taking pictures at every turn. The most striking memory from visiting the Black Temple, for me, is the incredibly long, Viking like structure at the site’s entrance which is adorned with various furniture made out of animal horns, skulls, human hair, and a table cloth made entirely of snake skin that spans for what seems to be at least 100 feet. Like I said, this place is weird. Outside of the Black Temple are a few cages, which upon closer examination house gargantuan living pythons. Similar to the White Temple, there’s more than a few shlongs that make an appearance here. Spoons, statues, canoe paddles… anything that could possibly be turned in to a penis, is. It’s like taking a walk through a Grade 9 student’s history textbook.
We knew far too many people who travelled from Chiang Mai directly to the border with Laos and missed Chiang Rai entirely. You don’t need a ton of time here (maybe one day), and there isn’t much to see other than the White and Black Temples. Regardless, it’s a good way to break up a long trip from Chiang Mai to Laos and these temples might just be the most memorable on your trip through Southeast Asia besides Angkor Wat.