Art, Spirituality, and Medicine in Chiang Rai

Art, Spirituality, and Medicine in Chiang Rai

What was originally a one day stint in Chiang Rai turned into a three day stay when I came down with a fever and sore throat. Since Thailand is slightly more medically advanced than Laos, and most of my Laotian itinerary would consist of being in remote parts of the wilderness, I though it best to stay in Thailand until I felt better.

Another great thing about Thailand is how you can get most medicine over the counter. Not that I would recommend self-diagnosing since seeing a doctor is still very affordable, even as a foreigner. But since I’m trying to save every bit of cash I have, and the biggest risk of taking amoxicillin when you don’t need it is building immunity, I decided to see if what I had was, indeed, strep throat.

The nice pharmacist also recommended some traditional Thai medicine to treat my symptoms, and I felt much better within a day.

Chiang Rai is probably my favorite part of Thailand. Initially I wanted to wake up early and take the buses to the temples (the three places I wanted to visit were all spaced far apart, so it would take some time to get to all of them) but despite sleeping for two days straight, my body decided it still needed to sleep in until noon on the third day. This did not give me enough time to take the bus, so I ended up hiring a taxi for 800 baht for the day.

Wat Rong Suea Ten

My first stop was to the Blue temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten). I absolutely chose the temples based on their artistic quality. The Blue temple was built on top of ruins of another temple that was abandoned about a century ago. No one knows the true identity of the temple’s designer, but rumors have it that it was designed by one of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s (creator of the famous White temple) students.

Most guides say that this temple is the least known of the three, but when I visited it at 1pm, it was definitely the most crowded. Still under construction, you shouldn’t need more than 30 minutes to an hour to tour the entire grounds.

Baan Dam

Baan Dam, or Black House, was constructed by late Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. The entire compound takes about 1-2 hours to tour. Duchanee used animal hide and bones to reconstruct Buddhist and Balinese-inspired themes fused with statements about modern commerce.

The presence of living cows on the compound made the exhibits all the more ethereal and creepy. Many critics claim that Duchanee’s Baan Dam is the Hell to Chalermchai Kositpipat’s Heaven, but Duchanee responded to the claim with a quote from John Lennon: “There’s no Heaven above and no Hell Below.”

Wat Rong Khun

Chalermchai Kositpipat created one of the most well-known pieces of architecture in Thailand: The White Temple.

Initially, I only knew of the White Temple through gorgeous Instagram photos of women in pretty outfits set against a white backdrop. Little did I know that Kositpipat’s work was right up my alley and would come to be one of the best works of art I’ve had the privilege of experiencing.
The White Temple is still a work in progress and is not scheduled to be completed until 2070 at the earliest. Much like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the structure was created to become something larger than the artist.
Kositpipat focused on the idea that one must suffer greatly before reaching Nirvana. On the walkway leading up to the main temple’s entrance, grotesque and deformed arms and faces reach out to visitors over the bridge. You’re surrounded by skulls and bones at your feet, but then you look up to see sculptures of Buddha floating in the sun.
The temple’s interior is just as jarring; when you enter, you’re greeted with pop culture icons—Michael Jackson, Pikachu, Harry Potter, Sailor Moon—all battling demons and hellfire. An Angry Bird hurls itself at the Twin Towers. Then you look higher and you see humans crammed into spaceships, sailing towards Nirvana. A mortal sculpture of Siddhartha Gautama as a monk sits unassumingly at the front of the temple, eclipsed by three other versions of him reaching Enlightenment.
And 20 feet outside the temple are the severed heads of Deadpool, Wolverine, and other superheroes hanging from trees.
You can view Kositpipat’s original paintings in an adjacent gallery for free. I spent over two hours just wandering the museum.
Even if you’re completely templed out, Wat Rong Khun is definitely not a place to miss.

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