Day 2 In the afternoon after our lunch at Doi Tung, we made our way to another famous attraction in Chiang Rai. This is the legacy of National Artist Thawan Duchanee who is also the mentor of another great National Artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, the creator of Wat Rong Khun or also known as the White Temple.
Baan Dam Museum was a home, studio and museum of this late great artists’ work and immense collections. The Baan Dam Museum is located in a village with around a cluster of forty houses in various designs from wooden to brick houses. Most of these houses were used to keep his vast collections of art works from paintings, sculptures, collectibles, baskets, wooden boats to more bizarre collections of skins, bones and horns.
Ajarn Thawan Duchanee, if you met him in real life would look very much like those masters of old with a long flowing white beard and dressed in a simple signature black cotton robe. He was inspired by more macabre items such as bones, horns and skins in his artworks which were a symbol of life, death and decay. He also liked using very strong colors in his master pieces, preferring black, gold, reds and silver as his trademark art pieces.
At the Baan Dam Museum site we were free to wander around and explore the many unit of houses while our guide explained the history of the museum and Ajarn Duchanee to us.
The main house is the one at the entrance to the little village. The typical Lanna architecture with signature four tier pointed roofs and made entirely of aged teak (which gave it the dark almost black color) was an impressive sight. In case you did not know, “Baan” means “house” in Thai and “Dam” or “Dum” refers to the color “black” in Thai. If you are also wondering why this place is called Baan Dam, take a look around you when you visit. The wood is aged and stained black inside and out, when you walk into any of the units, there is very little lighting except for natural light from the open wooden shutters! This gives the place an overall dark gloomy ambiance but though it may be dark, there is a very uncharacteristic life about the place that exudes and screams out to be noticed in all the works on display. Eerie yet not so, and makes for very interesting visits as you try and understand what the artist is trying to say to you.
As you walk into the main house building there are a set of wooden carved pillars on each side of the room in the front and behind each is a small alter while the center of the room contains a huge golden phoenix with an urn and picture. The urn contains the ashes of Ajarn Duchanee and one can pay respect to him when you visit this place.
The essence of Ajarn Duchanee’s art was to teach about impermanence in life through Buddhism, hence the inspiration from bones and skin. There is a whole skeleton of an elephant in one of the displays outside and many displays with a combination of rawhide, horn, bones and wood in the main building.
Ajarn Duchanee tries to teach his audience that greed (symbolized by the colors gold and silver and in metallic objects) are just a fleeting passion in life when all things must pass away (bones and skin) while the only permanence is enlightenment (the color white).
We learnt yet another lesson that afternoon at Baan Dam, that Chiang Rai is extremely rich in the arts heritage and has produced two outstanding sons of Chiang Rai who has received the highest National Awards from the King for outstanding contributions to art and society in Thailand.
Each of these Thai National Artist try to teach the people about the Buddhist religion, morals in life through their works and by dedicating their lives to creating lasting iconic monuments that are the pride of Chiang Rai province.
Many a visitor has wandered these grounds over time trying to make literally head or tail of Ajarn Duchanees’ concept art with the countless collection of skulls, horns, skeletons, skin, wood and stones. Some find it grim, grotesque, bizarre or simply controversial. The artist seemed obsessed with death and morbidity and quite frankly it is also reminisce of the collections in either a hunters’ lodge or a natural science museum.
Each artist is unique in their way of interpreting their concepts of religion, takes on life, death and the afterlife. You can read more about the Baan Dam attraction here in another article.
The TATNewsroom Blogger team was quite mesmerized by the collections in the museum. We were fascinated by the amount of artwork collections as well as the intricate carvings and overall architecture and construction of the buildings.
Worthy of mention at Baan Dam Museum is a fellow artist, poet, musician and prodigy of Ajarn Duchanee, Khun Chert. He is mostly there everyday and entertains guests with his artworks, songs and poetry. He was recently seen preparing a huge mural for the upcoming celebrations of Ajarn Duchanee anniversary this coming October.
Here Khun Chert was entertaining us with his songs (he also has albums of traditional Thai music composed by himself, self-published art books and poetry for sale). Khun Chert standing next to his newly painted mural in honor of the upcoming celebrations.
Walking outside the compound, you will see more wooden houses which contain more artworks such as paintings and sculptures. Some of these houses are open for viewing. Further in is also a compound that houses a fairly large pet python if you like snakes!
Each of the houses are very intricate and unique in design. Constructed mostly of aged teak with unusual pointy roof designs, they are themselves a work of architectural art. Did you also know that it took a total of 50 years to finish the Baan Dam site? A whole lifetime of work and dedication was invested in this place.
The skull and skeleton of a huge buffalo hanging from the rafter of an outdoor display platform. You can clearly see the symbol of a sun in the center created by some of the bones. One can only try to guess what was the symbolic representation of this display accurately.
These are the brick and concrete buildings in the inner compound. The landscaping contained circles of menhir stones and stone sculptures. The garden with old matured trees that offer a cooling shade are also worthy of a walk.
There is a little story about Ajarn Duchanee that he was the Sultan of Brunei’s favorite family artist and he was well compensated with a cheque that gave Ajarn Duchanee the freedom to write whatever amount he wanted on his return to Thailand. Along with that, he was also presented with several huge crocodile pelts as gifts. True or not as the story goes but the massive pelts are right there on the huge teak dining table along with the crocodile skulls!
When you are in Chiang Rai, the Baan Dam Museum is one of the must see places on your bucket list of attractions in Chiang Rai. If you like to collect souvenirs, there is a nifty little souvenir shop selling some really interesting art pieces and souvenirs of Baan Dam as well as a nice little coffee shop to enjoy a nice cool Northern Thai coffee.
*** All photos courtesy of TATNewsroom