Chiang Rai things to do: The White Temple and the Black House are among Thailand's strangest attractions

Captain America's head is hanging from a tree. Neo from The Matrix is teaming up with Batman and, inexplicably, Michael Jackson, to fight evil while Freddy Krueger looks on.

I'm inside a Buddhist temple in Thailand, but this is no ordinary temple. There's nothing ordinary about Chiang Rai's Wat Rong Khun, also known as "the White Temple".

Created by prominent local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple is one man's eccentric vision, a place that somehow feels like it's out of a fairytale and nightmare at once.

The exterior of the temple can be enjoyed from outside, sitting, as it does, on a busy road. Covered in vivid white plaster, the building brings to mind nothing so much as the unstarted page of a colouring book, waiting to be filled in.

Passing the seemingly severed torso of the monster from Predator, I pay the 50 baht entry fee and head towards the small bridge that leads into the temple itself. This is where the fairytale look of the temple takes a dark turn. The bridge passes over a scene straight from the cover of a death metal album – hundreds of arms reach up from the depths, holding up the occasional skull. It's an unsettling vision.

Inside the temple, the aforementioned battle between good and evil is taking place on a giant mural. It's filled with a bizarre selection of pop culture figures, from Marvel superheroes, to pop stars, to the car from Mad Max.

A wax figure of a monk sits cross legged, eyes closed, in front of the shrine. It's so realistic only in conversation afterwards does a fellow visitor realise it's not a real (very still) person. Once again, nothing is quite what it seems at the White Temple.

The same could be said for Chiang Rai itself, which sprang into international headlines a little over a year ago when a boys soccer team was trapped by floodwaters in one of the region's caves. A rescue effort took 18 days to get the boys out and cost the life of Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy Seal.

The White Temple's creator has taken a more subdued approach to this subject than his White Temple works, creating a huge mural depicting the heroes of the rescue, along with a larger-than-life statue of Kunan. Both are now located at a memorial at the mouth of the cave.

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But there is more to the region than its infamous cave. Chiang Rai may not be as famous as its neighbour, Chiang Mai, but it also benefits from fewer tourists and a more authentic feel.

Local markets are actually used by the locals, offering everything from street food to prescription glasses – tourist tat is nowhere to be found.

The area also breeds artists, with painting, sculpture and earthenware among the many mediums locals work in.

In direct contrast to Kositpipat's White Temple is another of Chiang Rai's artistic attractions, the Baandam Museum (or "Black House"). Created by the late local artist Thawan Duchanee, the museum is a collection of buildings and sculptures spread across a large garden. As the name suggests, black is dominant colour here.

The small buildings, painted black, house items of furniture, sculptures and installations. Many of the latter consist of animals parts – buffalo horns, crocodile and snake skins, elephant bones. Almost all of them are painted black and, we're told, they all died of natural causes.

What was Duchanee's intention behind this macabre collection? We'll never know, as the artist died before the site was opened to the public. Instead, it's another quirk to add to the many curiosities Chiang Rai has to offer.

In Bangkok a couple of days later, I take the time to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where many works by Kositpipat and Duchanee (who has an entire floor dedicated to him) are on display. Founded by telecommunications mogul Boonchai Bencharongkul​, the private museum is a huge, impressive space with an equally impressive collection.

It's also almost entirely empty during my visit. Perhaps modern art isn't quite what people visit Bangkok for, but having seen the passion of two of Thailand premier artists on display in their hometowns, I enjoy the opportunity to see their work in the kind of home they deserve.

Trip Notes

MORE

traveller.com.au/thailand

amazingthailand.com.au

FLY

Thai Airways flies from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth to Bangkok with connections to Chiang Rai through subsidiary airline Thai Smile. See thaiairways.com

VISIT

The White Temple is open from 6.30am to 6pm daily. Entry is 50 baht (about $2.50). See au.tourismthailand.org/Attraction/Wat-Rong-Khun--189

The Baandam Museum (Black House) is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Entry is 80 baht. See thawan-duchanee.com

The Museum of Conteporary Art Bangkok (MOCA) is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm. Entry is 250  baht. See mocabangkok.com

The writer travelled with assistance from the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways.

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