Wow. There is a lot of conflicting information about the Black House/Museum in Chiang Rai. I almost hesitate to blog about it lest I add to the misinformation in English. First up, is Thawan Duchanee who built the Black House, the teacher or the student of White Temple artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat?

I was told Thawan Duchanee was the teacher, but so many bloggers are saying the exact opposite. What’s interesting is I can’t find any credible source to confirm either role or any kind of relationship beyond both of them are from Chiang Rai. Although, I did read in the comments section, of a popular magazine site (from what appears to be a Thai person), stating what I was told: Thawan was the teacher, andΒ Chalermchai was the student. But the comment has not been addressed or noticed.

Thawan Duchanee is 16 years older than Chalermchai Kositpipat and given what I know about Thai culture, and the respect paid to elders, I had a hard time believing the White Temple artist was the teacher to the Black House creator.

So, I decided to ask my friend, who had lived in Chiang Rai for 30+ years, now lives in CM, and is very much dialed into the artist community here, etc, etc; she is a very credible source and here is what she has to say:

Neither Thawan Duchanee nor Chalermchai Kositpipat have ever been teachers or professors. Both have always worked as freelance artists.Thawan is a generation of artists before Chalermchai. [The Black House] is his home, the first buildings date back to the late 70s. Thawan has always said he has no “students” or “luk sit”. Chalermchai began the temple project around 20 years ago after his religious/spiritual paintings became very popular. This said, they have employed many local artisans who call them both “teacher”. Chalermchai and other artists in Chiang Rai call Thawan “I” or older brother.

Yea! Mystery solved!

But what about the “rumor” that the White Temple is built exactly the same distance as the Black House is from Chiang Rai’s city center? If this is true (good luck with Google maps), don’t tell me this was a coincidence??? It seems deliberate, doesn’t it, to have each complex opposite from the other, both in distance – and color, as everyone likes to point out. Black, white, heaven, hell, dark, light, blah, blah, blah.

So, my research led me, not only to the confusion over the artists’ relationship, but also this idea of what the Black House represents and means. For example, I read these kinds of things on various sites: The Black House is not a spiritual place. Don’t call it a temple. It’s a response to the White Temple, a counterbalance to Charlemchai’s “heaven,” and so on.

According to a Time magazine interview,

“The Black House evokes the past Thai civilization in a contemporary manner,” says Thawan. “I try to bring the spirit, heart and soul in their life [into the pieces].”

Hmmm, sounds spiritual to me. But the interpretation of art (and architecture, in this case), is personal, and regardless of the artist’s intent, the viewer sees what they want to see, and shares what they have learned. The Black House takeaway for me isn’t the art itself, but what everyone else has infused into it, and hyped it up to be.

For more information, visit Thawan’s website. I think his creation is worth visiting. Most folks visit the White Temple and the Black House together, but for us, we visited the day after the earthquake, so the White Temple was closed. (If you have young children, I would not bring them to either place, but hey, that’s me.)

It’s worth mentioning that the Black House is not an easy place to find, and I would recommend using/hiring a car or driver. By motorbike, it might be challenging, especially if you miss the turn, you will be either driving the wrong way on the superhighway, or constantly making U-turns to double back. This is Thailand where signage changes, and roads are under, what seems, constant construction.

You’ll also see that Thawan’s gallery is also on site, and a few snacks are for sale. But for a proper meal, I have a couple of recommendations which I’d like to blog about later. I’ll update this here, too. Oh, the beauty of the blog!

22 replies on “The Black House Quandary in Chiang Rai

    1. Thanks “Crazyguy” πŸ˜€ I was just thinking about how many photos today are OVER-saturated with the good ‘ol Photoshopping skillz, so it’s nice to be appreciated for just a point of view on my cheapy camera. I notice you don’t make your photos look unrealistic either. But it looks like you have a real lens! Cheers!


      1. Hi Lani. after many cameras in life I can now say that I got a perfect one. On all my previous cameras some things were top but always some function that dragged it down I was always thinking that I wanted a camera to be like my eyes, what I saw. was what I wanted to capture. nothing less. still believe that the camera is not very important. its you and capturing the exact moment. but with this camera it helps me to get me on the right mood and brighten up that moment πŸ™‚


  1. Thanks, after having wasted an hour on Thai Friendly πŸ™‚ I popped back to your blog. Glad I did. I never even knew about the black temple. Everyone always talks about the White one. Maybe I should visit it to change my luck! At this point I’ll try any color! Thanks for posting Lani.


    1. Oh, Roger, Roger, Roger. I didn’t even know what Thai Friendly was until you mentioned it. At least it was an hour spent trying to make friends πŸ˜‰

      As far as changing your luck, I would highly recommend ‘tam boon’ or making merit. Get thee to a temple! Good luck! and Thanks!


  2. I thought Wat Dam (the black temple) was outstanding. I definitely think it’s supposed to be spiritual. I like the architecture the best, and the relationship between the various buildings on the site. Not crazy about dead animals, but, when the horns and such are used more ornamentally I like them. Another great thing about the place is it’s FREE. So, if it’s not spiritual, and it’s not about making money, er?


    1. Good point. I forgot to mention it’s FREE. The architecture is very temple-like, and beautifully structured. The top of the main house reminded me of temples in Laos. Although a better travelled person would have probably seen influences from many places. Our resident South African certainly had something to say about it. I wonder if the snake, the owl, and the horses are Thawan’s pets! πŸ˜›


  3. Great blogging, Lani. I never made it to the black temple yet and can see from your photos it is outstanding. Hope you are there around new year, and we can visit. Simoon


    1. Thanks Sybil. It would be great to see you again. Can’t say where I’ll be for the New Year, but hopefully we will connect sooner, rather than later. Hugs!


  4. You know, you always make me want to visit. Thailand isn’t really represented well usually, so I’m glad it has people like you who share the real beauty. That being said, these places are really incredible. Definitely putting it on my list of places to see when i come visit you. πŸ˜‰


    1. Thank you. I know what you mean though. There is a lot of unsavory stereotypical stuff out there on the web about Thailand. My own brother won’t visit, on the grounds of wanting to avoid, “Ohhh, you’re going to Thailand, huh?” And he has family here!!! Looking forward to the visit πŸ™‚


  5. Lani, Very interesting…I’ve never been to either temple, but I love the light/dark good/evil vibe….I’ll have to put them on my list.


    1. I can’t imagine you have much of a list, as you’ve been everywhere!!! πŸ˜€ Cheers for stopping by.


  6. I’m still trying to get it.. understand it. A contemporary interpretation of Thai spiritual whatever…?


    1. I’m not sure if you should try to “get it.” You know, contemporary art these days is more about the museum experience than it seems the actual art. That being said, I think Thawan wants the Black House to be a modern interpretation of old or traditional Thai culture. I appreciate him putting his own spin on what feels like redundant Thai art. Hope that helps!


  7. Lani, Rebecca was a good friend of Chalermchai and knows about it from the beginning. She gave me a tour of the place and history. We started at the first house he built, continued on with the walk around and the story of it’s being created. Any questions ask her. beautiful pictures. What kind of camera do you have?


    1. I asked Rebecca about the whole teacher/student confusion, and of course, she’s so modest, she didn’t mention she’s pals with Charlermchai!!!

      My camera is nothing special, but I think Lumix is a good brand overall. I got it for $100 at Cosco the last time I was in Alabama πŸ™‚


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