Chiang Rai is a whim city for us. We have been rocketing through Thailand, and think making a run at the Laos border directly from Chiang Mai would tire us. Chiang Rai is only three hours away, and there is a regular bus service! Also, they had very similar names. Off we go.
The owner of our B&B is middle-aged, speaks flawless English, and her house feels delicate and genteel. We hide our drinking not just to appease her rules, but also because we suddenly feel the urge not to disappoint her. We don’t stop drinking, certainly, we just learn to become ashamed.
She scoffs when we suggest taking a tuk-tuk to the White Temple. We’ve heard good things, but have been told it is out of town and difficult to find. Our suddenly surrogate mom shakes her weary head, writes down some instructions in Thai and English, and tells us to simply walk to the market and find our way onto the local bus. Tuk-tuks, she implies, probably knowing we have already fallen victim to them numerous times, are for suckers. Find the local bus, pay the twenty cents, and you will get there in one piece.
Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, is actually not that difficult to find, as we already know what to expect. Pearly, spiky tendrils break for the sky; snaky, opalescent spires writhe from the ground to great heights; a great bridge, seemingly hewn from bone, leads you to the temple. In the pits beside the bridge are great pools where sculpted hands reach, yearning and clawing, towards freedom from the depths. It is Thai Buddhism by way of creepy gothic sensibility and also maybe the Childlike Empress’ palace.
Inside, artists work on an enormous mural of Buddha, who is surrounded by the floating spectres of modern science fiction. Neo, C3PO, Marty McFly all swing and evanesce throughout the Buddha’s presence. It is peaceful and weird, which is just how we like it.
Trouble comes when we try to find our way back to town: there are no bus stops, per se, and so we walk to what appears to be some sort of police station and begin waiting alongside the road. We sit here for hours, even as somewhere nearby an enormous garbage fire is lit and terrible black smoke subsumes the countryside. Cabs stop before us, but the prices they offer are well beyond what our grim penny-pinching will allow, and we snootily declare that we will wait in the plume of death gas, thank you very much.
After several of the police men inside curiously inquire why we are there and mutter vaguely that buses will probably come, we manage to flag down the first large vehicle that shutters down the road. We have memorized the Thai script for Chiang Rai, and their foreigner-gouging price is still so cheap and manageable that we happily cram ourselves aboard.
Such journeyman spirit enlivens us, though, and thus we head the next day to the Black House, which we think of as a spiritual twin to the White Temple. It is weird-looking, arty, out of the way, and difficult to find. A challenge to unearth, you say? We are no simple tourists, we are travellers. Hell, we’re practically nomad archaeologists. We can find anything!
Of course, when your sources for directions are the delicate hand-written instructions and half-remembered advice from the travel wiki, things can go slightly awry. But we are confident, arrogant, nearly swimming with pride in our travel capability. We’ve never even heard of the word hubris. The local bus deposits us at the entrance of a fancy looking suburb, and we march valiantly on, as all the arrows point in the same direction.
Our careful, intricate plan to continue stumbling blindly hits a snag when the road diverges. The signs do not help us: our command of written Thai is pitiful, and the instructions written by our B&B granny begin to muddle into bewildering inky noodles, swoops and circles and elegant cursive runes we cannot even fathom, never mind decipher. We begin to suspect that this paper, this missive from the B&B, actually contains an incantation, some local witchcraft designed to get us lost in the woods so our bodies can be looted or sacrificed to the gods.
We walk aimlessly for some time, and given our recent predilection for sleeping in, it is now afternoon. Which is to say: it is hot. Our water quickly diminishes, and though this suburb is wealthy and probably filled with very nice people, we are certain we will die here. The asphalt is hot. Our bags are hot. Our skin is hot. There are dogs nearby that gambol alongside us: they are cute, but we also suspect they know our time is nigh. They are carrion feeders, these peppy terriers.
Eventually we stop a woman on a scooter who looks at our sweaty, shambling shells and our sweaty, desiccated slip of paper and points us off in the distance. We are fairly certain we have been off in that vague distance before, but then again we are already hallucinating from the heat, and maybe also the spell that has been cast upon us.
We eventually find the Black House, but it is easy to mistake it for a vision of Hell and simply believe that we have already perished. Everywhere there are dried and bleached skulls, animal remains unearthed and reassembled to look like the skeletons of unthinkable horrors. Horses roam freely, as surely they are feed for whatever monsters dwell in this dimension. The buildings are dark, black and brown wood, curved and hooked and shaped to look like torture devices, charnel houses, places where only the meanest, cruellest sorceries are performed. Domed structures at one end are filled with blackened spires and alligator skins. Below the domiciles of fell beasts lie sculptures of twisted grey porcelain, depicting terrible gods with writhing tentacles and bulbous extrusions exploding in every direction. The main long hall must be another plane of existence: there are great tables hewn from ancient trees, terrible enormous ebony thrones everywhere, adorned with skulls and horse-hair and bones. The generals of the underworld live and dine and plot in this place. Will we ever escape?
Also, there is an ice cream stand out front, so we buy two popsicles each and march happily into this hellscape. The weather is hot, our fists grow sticky from rapidly failing icy treats, and we are in the one of the weirdest places on earth.