The Black House (Baan Dam) in Chiang Rai, Thailand, has the dubious honor of being Northern Thailand's most disturbing attraction. Call it every Gothic metal band's dream venue; you're guaranteed to leave the Black House with a sense of awe. The abundance of art, architecture, and human expression—albeit dark—is overwhelming.
Baan Dam is the life work of National Thai Artist Thawan Duchanee. The "museum" is made up of around 40 artistic structures spread over the grounds of the artist's last residence and resting place. Inside some of the halls, banquet tables are set for a meeting of demons. Skulls, skins, horns, and taxidermy make Baan Dam... Well, one of the spookiest settings in all of Thailand. Even the many outdoor sculptures force you to pause and contemplate. (Note that although there are many references to Buddhism spread throughout the Black House, calling it the "Black Temple" is incorrect. Baan Dam has nothing to do with Chiang Rai's other famous attraction, the White Temple.)
About the Black House
Before going, understand that the Black House is deliberately designed to evoke icky, morbid feelings. It is dark in more ways than one! Don't expect to leave Baan Dam feeling fuzzy and warm inside. Instead, wander around and marvel at a masterpiece of expression. The artist clearly kept himself very busy when not traveling.
Don't buy into the myth that the artist was Satanic; he was actually a devout Buddhist. No part of the Black House is meant to promote Satanism. Instead, the grounds are rumored to portray the hell and suffering of Samsara—the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Mortality and undesirable human traits, such as lust and greed, are recurring themes. If you find animal remains and taxidermy disturbing, the Black House probably isn't for you.
Some of the structures are only visible through the doorways or windows, and some are closed to the public altogether. Although living in such a place is difficult to imagine, the Black House served as the primary residence for Thawan Duchanee when he wasn't traveling the world!
How to Get to the Black House in Chiang Rai
The Black House is located a little less than seven miles north of Chiang Rai. Plan on approximately 20-30 minutes driving from the central clock tower designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, creator of the White Temple. Stay alert—the Black House is located in a residential area, and the turn can be easy to miss while speeding down the highway.
Renting a scooter is a fun, cheap way to explore the area, assuming you've got the experience to handle Chiang Rai's fast-moving highway. Head north out of town on Route 1 (Phahonyothin Road). After 6.5 miles, watch for a turn on the left just past the hospital. Once off the main highway, small signs along the winding road will direct you to the next left turn. You know you're close when you begin seeing the numerous cafes that have sprung up.
Go to the old bus terminal in the center of town. Purchase an inexpensive ticket for any northbound (Mae Sai) bus. You can also try hailing (gesture with palm down at the ground in front of you) any northbound bus or Songthaew on Route 1. Although the driver can probably guess your destination, try telling them "bai (go) Baan Dam." The easiest option is to hire a taxi, but you'll have to negotiate the fare.
Tips for Visiting the Black House
- The Black House is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but closed for lunch from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
- Adults are 80 baht ($2.64); children 12 and under are free; people with disabilities are free.
- Families should note that some of the art at Baan Dam prominently portrays genitals as part of the worldly sins motif.
- The Black House was once lesser-known and more serene than the White Temple, but times have changed. Baan Dam is now very much on the radar for large Chinese tour groups, especially during high season. Consider visiting early or late to miss the rush.
- Although billed as the "Baan Dam Museum," don't expect signboards or English explanations of the displays you see. You'll have to interpret them in your own way!
- The sculptures and various structures at the Black House are spread around the grounds. You'll be wandering between them; most of your time will be spent outside. Wear sunscreen, and take an umbrella if visiting during the rainy season.
About the Artist
Born in 1939, Thawan Duchanee was a master artist from Chiang Rai Province who balked mainstream art and irrevocably influenced artistic expression in Thailand. Through paintings, sculptures, and other mediums (the Black House is one), he blended strong Buddhist beliefs with eclectic ideals.
Duchanee was made the National Thai Artist for fine art and visual art in 2001. He trained and taught all over the world. With his wispy, white beard, he looked as much a sage as an artist.
Thawan Duchanee passed away in 2014 at age 74. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a daughter of King Bhumibol, oversaw his funeral, held at Wat Sririntwarat.
What to Do After
If you haven't already explored Chiang Rai's other premier attraction, get to the White Temple. Also created by an eccentric artist, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) offers some serious contrast. But just because the temple is "white" doesn't mean there aren't some disturbing elements on display.
If you're done with death-themed attractions for the day, consider heading an hour south (a straight shot down Route 1) to Doi Luang National Park. The bamboo-lined trail leads to a peaceful waterfall. You can stop off at Singha Park on the way back to town.