The Black House, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay

On our motorbike road trip to Burma we stopped in Chiang Rai and visited the extraordinary, ornate, dazzling White Temple. We were sure nothing could top that experience but just 10km north of Chiang Rai we found a place that blew us away even more.

You can’t help but compare the Black House (Baan Dam in Thai) to the White Temple. At first they seem like exact opposites – the White Temple is south of Chiang Rai, a gleaming white vision of heaven, and a popular tourist attraction. The Black House is north of the city, dark and full of death, and is far less well known. But both were created by Chiang Rai natives, both artists with ambitious visions. The White Temple is Chalermchai Kositpipat’s masterpiece, and the Black House is the estate of Thawan Duchanee – both projects are ongoing and will take decades of work before the artists are satisfied they are complete. Both are unique creations unlike anything else we’ve seen.

The Black House feels hidden and mysterious – it’s a little tricky to find, receives very few foreign visitors, and there are no signs to explain the displays.

As you approach the first thing you see is the huge Lanna-style vihara of charcoal black wood with a steeply pitched, multi-tiered roof. Although it resembles a temple it isn’t a religious building and inside you’ll discover a long dark wooden table, animal skins hanging from beams, and an exhibition of contemporary paintings.

Vihara, Black House, Chiang Rai, ThailandAs at the White Temple is was the craftsmanship and attention to detail that impressed us – the graceful swirled peaks of the roof…

Vihara roof, Black House, Chiang Rai, ThailandAnd the intricate wood carvings on the side of the vihara, glowing in the late afternoon light.

Vihara detail, Black House, Chiang Rai, ThailandThe main building would be worth a visit alone but at the Black House there is much more to explore. Duchanee’s estate is a complex of 40 small galleries inside buildings of diverse architectural styles, spread out amongst the peaceful gardens. They display his collection of artwork – sculptures, wood carvings, and furniture created by him, and collected from around the world.

This isn’t your usual art collection though. It has an organic feel with wooden structures housing many animal skulls, bones and skins.

Boat, Black House, Chiang Rai, ThailandAnimal teeth pinned to a wooden pillar:

Teeth, Black House, Chiang RaiHonestly, as vegetarians we felt a little guilty for enjoying a place so full of animal death, but we couldn’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship and vision in this unique place. We can only assume/hope that the animals weren’t killed just to be displayed here.

Skull, Black House, Chiang RaiAn entire elephant skeleton was laid out under a stilted black pavilion:

Elephant skeleton, Black House, Chiang Rai It’s a quiet, mysterious place with new discoveries around every corner, always surprising. Duchanee combines elements of traditional Thai architecture with influences from around the world and a contemporary twist.

Black House, Chiang Rai

Black House, Chiang RaiThe gardens stretched on and on and we kept stumbling upon more buildings hidden in shady corners. As we peeked inside we never knew what to expect. We certainly didn’t expect this bizarre bathroom with wooden birds hanging from the high ceiling.

Toilet, Black House, Chiang RaiToilet, Black House, Chiang RaiIn the furthest reaches of the grounds the structures become even more surreal, less natural, and depart from the signature dark colours. The Black House has been a work in progress for over 35 years so I imagine these were more recent additions.

Black House, Chiang RaiThe most surprisingly and strange building of them all, that we decided was a cross between a pig and a dinosaur, contained an extravagant bedroom of animal skin rugs and gothic teak furniture.

Black House, Chiang RaiThis chapel-like building looks simple on the outside.

Black House, Chiang RaiBut inside we found the perfect setting for a rock star photo shoot. Simon was happy to play the rock star of course…

Black House, Chiang Rai

Inside the chapel all of the furniture was made from skulls and bones; and stag heads, furs and peacock feathers filled up every available space.

Black House, Chiang Rai

Black House, Chiang Rai

The Black House is one of the most unusual, bizarre, and innovative art sites we have ever visited. Every turn brought new surprises and we could have spent all day exploring every building, every carefully-crafted detail.

Chiang Rai appears at first to be an unexciting, provincial city but we discovered that it is actually a remarkable centre of cutting-edge creativity. Chalermchai Kositpipat’s White Temple and Thawan Duchanee’s Black House combine Thai traditions with contemporary ideas in a unique way.

The city’s art scene is growing and we noticed many signs to artist studios on the outskirts of town as part of the Cultural Bureau’s Artist Open House initiative. Take the time to explore and you’ll discover that Chiang Rai has more to offer than first impressions suggest.

Visiting The Black House

The Black House (Baan Dam) is located 10km north of Chiang Rai at Moo 13, Tambon Nang Lae, Ban Dhu. It can be difficult to find and English signage is limited. If you follow these directions carefully you should be fine though. It’ll be easier with your own transport or in a taxi.

Follow Highway 1 north of Chiang Rai and look out for the University. 2km past the University keep an eye out on the left for a purple sign with the name Thawan Duchanee. 100m past that there is a brown wooden sign with 13 on it (for Moo 13), go left here and follow the road until you get to a blue sign with four places on it written in Thai. Turn left here and look for the Black House a little further along on the left.

The Black House is open from 9am to 12pm and from 1pm to 5pm every day. Entry is free.

Also don’t miss the White Temple while you are in Chiang Rai, 13 km south of the city, also just off Highway 1.

Trail Wallet

Have you been to the Black House, Chiang Rai? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

53 thoughts on The Black House, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay

  1. Pingback: White Temple, Chiang Rai: A Photo Essay

  2. Pingback: Photo of the Week: Rock Star Photo Shoot at The Black House, Chiang Rai

  3. This place looks so creepy… but in an artistic way, so it works. I think it would be really strange to walk around with all those bones and full skeletons and teeth, though.

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  5. This place is so beautiful! The temple’s designs are so intricate and I certainly enjoyed the photo of the bizarre bathroom. Those birds certainly gives a unique vibe to that bathroom. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Definite thumbs up on StumbleUpon!

    I love the black and white image of the boat and this place, while I had never even heard of it, is now on my travel list thanks to your post. What a seemingly incredible experience.

  7. Awesome photos! This sounds like such an interesting place. I haven’t been to Thailand yet or even done any research on it yet, but I’ll have to put this on the list!

  8. That is seriously one of the more freaky bathrooms I have ever seen. The number of skulls seems higher than average as well. Great pictures, but weird place. Not quite as weird as that one with the predator statue out from you posted a while back, but wow still above average freak.

  9. Looks like a pretty amazing place. We missed it when we were in Chiang Mai, but the great thing about Thailand is that we always go back. Will have to check it out the next time around. Awesome photos guys. I feel like I have visited it myself!

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  11. Thank you for your write up and fabulous photography of the Black Temple. I wish we had come across this prior to our visit since we spent hours getting lost on the hunt. We kept hearing the word Pepsi but of course we were looking for a large blue Pepsi sign but the factory sign was subtle in Thai and listed all the Pepsi products.
    Well done!

  12. I’m Thai. I’ve heard of the place” Baandam” some few years ago but never been there as well. Although Thawan Duchanee is famous and regarded as a National Artist but his estate isn’t quite well known. I’m going to a conference in Chiang Rai next week but not quite sure if we’ll have time to visit the place. Such a shame. Love all of your magnificent pix. It’s really fascinating and encourage me to create a very lovely
    website like yours (one day).

  13. The Black House screamed “Egomaniac” to me, but it was interesting. Some of the horses on the estate didn’t look very healthy. The place was crawling with bus tour groups also.

  14. Hi, visited the white temple a couple of years ago, just by chance on the recommendation of a couple we met in chiang mai. It was fantastic, probably the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Going back to thailand shortly and to the white temple to see how it looks 2 years later. So pleased to find out about the black house, will definitely go see. Anywhere else you recommend, we are staying in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Thanks Anita

  15. Hello, me and my family travelled through thailand the last three weeks. We had a great trip and got some nice hints from your website.

    Your description for finding the black temple was very accurate. We found it right away even though it was our first time in Chiang Rai. We really like your website and want to thank you for your travel tips. We loved the black temple as well as the white one.
    You are doing a great job, we hope you’ll keep it up in the future.

    Greetings from Germany
    Andrea and Family

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