Since Chiang Rai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat’s Wat Rong Khun, the a.k.a. the White Temple, is also known as the Gates of Heaven, I expected his contemporary Thawan Duchanee’s Baan Dam, known as the Black House, to be the Gates of Hell.
However, as seems to be a theme on this trip, I was wrong.
I never would’ve guessed what the Black House actually is, exactly—even after visiting, I’m still not too sure.
On the outside, the wooden building’s architecture is like that of traditional northern Thai. But on the inside, the design closer resembles that of a Wild West saloon… er, sort of.
The woodwork is proliferated with mystical, macho, phallic imagery that’s like a hybrid between Greco-Roman art and the naughty décor of Amsterdam’s red light district. Dining tables adorned with crocodile and snake skins conjured notions of Australian outback stereotypes. Throne-like chairs made of antlers made me think of the line from Gaston’s song in Beauty and the Beast: “I use antlers in all of my deeeecorating!” Then there’s the statue that kind of looks like Darth Vader.
In short, Lena and I were very confused.
“It’s like a raunchy, hyper-masculine, American frontier tavern—minus the booze and cowboys—but Buddhist?” Lena cocked her head. “I don’t get it.”
Adding to the bewilderment was the long-haired, bearded Thai man in what I guessed was his 50s plucking a tinny guitar and crooning 1950s American folk rock. When Lena dropped a couple of baht into his donations container, he gestured for us to join him beneath a half-completed mural inspired by the Black House, Thawan Duchanee and religious themes.
“Oh, Susie Q!” he began with a grin, and I nearly toppled over. “Oh Susie Q, baby I love yoooou, oh Susie Q!”
“Susie Q” was followed by various tunes by more Credence Clearwater Revival and Bob Dylan, and we were encouraged to sing along. As we harmoniously pondered how many roads a man must indeed walk down, I privately concluded that this was one of the most bizarre situations I’d ever found myself in.
Unlike Wat Rong Khun, Baan Dam isn’t officially a temple, but rather a Buddhist-inspired work of art—although Thawan Duchanee’s dark interpretation of the national religion hasn’t always been well received. Conservatives protested and destroyed his work, citing it as sacrilegious. Yet the Thai creative elite rallied behind him and he was eventually honoured by the government as a Thai National Artist.
Baan Dam incorporates the Thai notion of sanuk, which means to inject playfulness in whatever you do—and there’s certainly a dark cheekiness to the Black House, whether or not critics see the humour.
Thankfully, we did, at least.