A riot of colours in Thailand’s Chiang Rai

Payal Dhar
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Many Hues: Wat Rong Khun (aka White Temple) (Photos: Getty Images)

Did you mean Chiang Mai?’ I invariably get asked every time I mention my trip to Thailand’s biggest northern city, Chiang Rai. Located close to the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet), Chiang Rai remains fairly undiscovered despite its history as the capital of the Mangrai dynasty.

Before seeing Thailand, I always believed India to be the last word in eye-popping, colour-riot vibrancy. Discovering Thai Buddhist marvels was, therefore, a swift kick to such preconceived notions. Life lesson learnt: when in Thailand, always check out the temples, and Chiang Rai has two spectacular examples. Also, stop by the local street markets.

Wat Rong Khun (aka White Temple) is arguably the city’s most striking landmark. In fact, it might be one of Thailand’s top sights. Don’t let the “white” fool you — from a distance, it looks like an unlikely ice sculpture defying both laws of physics and the tropical sunshine. During the day, the pieces of mirrored glass on the spotless facade make the entire complex sparkle; at night, it is lit up like a galaxy of stars. While the white is symbolic of Buddha’s purity, the glass pieces are reflective of his wisdom. Some say, it’s more a work of art than a place of worship.

Despite its historical antecedents, the temple had fallen into disrepair, and was taken up for private renovation in the 1990s by the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It’s a work in progress, expected to be complete by 2070, when the complex will have over a dozen structures, including monks’ quarters, meditation hall, art galleries and more.

The White Temple gets hordes of tourists — non-Thais pay a THB 100 entrance fee — and there is a strict “route” that one must navigate, which includes a circuit of the pond in front, and up through a ramp that is flanked by twin seas of human hands stretching up to the sky. Spooky, yes — but it is supposed to signify the cycle of rebirth, leading up to the entrance, known as the gate of heaven. There is a statue of the Buddha inside, but not conducive to worship or offerings. The walls feature an intriguing mix of traditional and contemporary art, a hat-tip to the ever-changing nature of culture.

Photography is not allowed inside, but the complex is not something that you forget easily. Once you’re through the main halls, there are lots of art installations to admire inside, particularly the wishing well and the metallic wishing trees. You can buy silver leaves (THB 30 each), write a message and hang on trees. Silvery leaves with messages hang from the ceiling of a covered passage, making a snowy-looking canopy above your head. Despite the strict ushers who don’t let you retrace your steps, you could still spend a long time at this temple, wandering around, sitting in the open-air hall, or writing out your wishes.

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Life lesson learnt: when in Thailand, always check out the temples, and Chiang Rai has two spectacular examples. Also, stop by the local street markets.

Wat Rong Seua Ten (aka Blue Temple) is a newer landmark. The main hall was finished only four years ago, and some external parts are still under construction. Located in an unlikely, quiet street off the main roads, its vibrant facade feels like something out of an Oriental fantasy rather than a contemplative place of worship. (I cast a surreptitious glance at my travelling companions to confirm that I wasn’t hallucinating, that they were equally stupefied by the cobalt-blue and gold marvel.)

Admission is free. Two magnificent temple guardians astride splendid horned beasts — one somewhat tigery — guard the gates. Before approaching the main temple hall, you must pass the scrutiny of a marble monk. Two mythical serpents — nagas — guard the stairs to the temple. Their bodies intricately carved, blue scales with gold highlights, shiny white teeth in deep red mouths.

Inside, the reflection of the blue walls — covered in Buddhist art — on to the iconic white Buddha makes it glow. Sit in prayer or quiet contemplation — but not on the seats designated for monks. Another Buddha stands outside the temple, as does a winged blue angel and a green yaksha, as guardians.

The one place, however, that truly boggles the mind is the art museum Baan Dam (the Black House). Once the residence of a maverick contemporary artist Thawan Duchanee, this architectural wonder defies description. Comprising 40 buildings of wood, concrete, terracotta, etc., in a variety of styles, and predominantly in black, the complex is spread out on a large garden. It contains Duchanee’s art collection — paintings, sculptures, animal skins and bones works inspired by nature, particularly, animal remains. It’s well worth the THB 80 ticket, provided dead animals or erotic motifs don’t offend you.

On weekends, the busy street in the centre of Chiang Rai is closed to traffic, as it metamorphoses into a typical Thai night market, with rows upon rows of stalls selling everything from touristy souvenirs and handicrafts to fresh produce and local delicacies and snacks. Known as the Walking Street, this is not to be confused with the night market that opens daily from dusk to midnight. Though nowhere as grand as the others you find in Chiang Mai or Hua Hin, it is one of the best places to sample authentic Thai cuisine.

Connected by daily flights from Bangkok, Phuket and some Chinese cities, Chiang Rai is beginning to find its way on to tourists’ maps. Not quite an undiscovered pearl, but it might be wise to tune into its charms before it becomes a sought-after tourist magnet.

Payal Dhar is a Delhi-based freelance writer. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline 'Riot of Colours'