The Black House
Another of Chiang Rai’s more extraordinary sites, in a town that’s blessed with several rather eccentric attractions, is the highly unusual Baan Dam.
Commonly known as the Black House it’s a park containing a diverse and sprawling series of buildings, displays, sculptures and installations, lying in Ban Du district a short hop north of town. The park and highly eclectic contents are the life’s work of local and nationally renowned artist Thawan Duchanee.
Despite occasionally, and mistakenly, called the “Black Temple” this is not a religious site and the themes are apparently more general commentaries on the human condition rather than Buddhist, or even unorthodox Buddhist, as per the White Temple. While bewildered, or to put it bluntly gob-smacked, tourists wander around trying to make head or tail of it all, according to those that know far more we do on the subject, the intention is to represent the darkness inside man!
It certainly is very dark—not just in the colour of the black, aged teak constructions that give the site its name—but clearly in atmosphere as well and the principal aesthetic signature is dead animal parts. Most buildings, regardless of whatever else they may display, are decorated with cow and buffalo skulls and horns though you’ll also see elephant bones and tusks, what looked like an entire whale skeleton, plus tables and chairs clad in bear or leopard pelts. (These grim objects were of course collected, not created, by the artist.)
The buildings scattered across the well maintained and beautifully laid out parkland are equally a mixture with some modern, concrete constructions and some ancient Lanna-style wooden designs. Each building (though some are not open to the public) houses a series of installations of ancient and new, found and created objects interspersed among the animal skulls. Some are locally found or locally inspired while there are African masks, Balinese and Burmese influences and plenty of unique creations with all the animal horns creating something of a Nagaland feel. The grounds also include rock sculptures and menhir stone circles.
There are no explanations—not even titles for the exhibits, in either English or Thai—but that did create a sociable side effect as dumbfounded visitors asked adjacent, equally bewildered ones what they made of it all. Although creator Thawan Duchanee died in 2014 the largest, temple-like hall contains regular painting exhibitions with artists in residence.
We did glean that in his younger days Thawan was apparently the family artist for the Sultan of Brunei who, if the story’s true, was so impressed with his work he recompensed him with a blank cheque on his return home to Chiang Rai. (Plus a couple of huge crocodile skins that you’ll notice amongst the displays.) An early, prototype Black House can still be seen in the downtown area behind Mercy Hostel though this isn’t open to the public and the park and constructions you see today in Ban Du are the results of some 50-years labour.
The picturesque, grassy, shady park dotted with tall mature trees has a small lake at its foot; is almost a worthwhile destination in its own right and of course contrasts splendidly with the sombre installations though some do have a definite light-hearted side. It is very popular and rivals the White Temple in visitors’ numbers so it is worth getting there early and allow at least an hour to see it all.
The small residential lane leading to the House has plenty of excellent, cheap cafes and coffee shops and we can particularly recommend the friendly Chana Coffee House for a simple local lunch in a pleasant garden setting. There’s also a relatively tasteful souvenir shop in the large car-park.
If you’re travelling up there under your own steam you could break the journey by a stroll around the huge Ban Du Market—just on your left before you reach the Black House turnoff.
To reach Baan Dam by your own means, head north out of town on route 1 past the airport and university. After passing the large Ban Dun market on your left look out for signs on the same side. It’s about 500m down a windy residential lane. For public transport access then take either a north heading buses from bus terminal 1—Mae Sai ones for example—or a Mae Chan-bound songthaew from the station behind the market on Uttarakit. Either will drop you off or pick you up at the entrance to the lane leading to Ban Dam from where you have around a 500-metre walk. Both means of transport costs 20 baht each way and drivers will have a pretty good idea of where you want to get off even if they don’t speak any English.
Address: 414 Moo 13, Ban Du district, north of Chiang Rai
T: (089) 767 4444; (053) 705 834;
Coordinates (for GPS): 99º51'36.5" E, 19º59'31.45" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 80 baht
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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