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Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Thailand have long drawn loyal repeat visitors with their lavish resorts, restaurants, food tours, cooking classes, historic temples, spas and eco-travel activities.
But in contrast to museum-rich Bangkok, these Northern Thailand cities often flew under the radar of art lovers. That changed in 1997, however, when “The White Temple” — an art exhibit conceived by artist Chalermchai Kositpipa — paved the way for other artists and patrons to further develop Northern Thailand’s art scene.
Here are some of our favorite Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai hot spots that should be on every art-loving client’s itinerary.
Baan Dam Museum, Chiang Rai Baan Dam Museum, or the “Black House,” is actually composed of several structures filled with paintings and mixed media works by controversial artist and Chiang Rai native Thawan Duchanee. It stands as a compelling, subversive counterpart to the mostly whimsical setting of The White Temple.
Throughout his career, Duchanee raised the eyebrows of Thailand’s cultural establishment, international art critics and the general public by exploring war, death and other elements of humanity’s dark side through heavy use of red and black paint, skins, skulls and found metal objects, while also fusing his work with Burmese, Tibetan and regional Thai motifs. In addition to the houses, the museum also features a shop, a cafe and an indoor gallery with his canvases.
Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai Art and history buffs may want to skip the touristy boat excursions at the Golden Triangle and instead head to the quiet village of Chiang Saen. Nearly pristine remains from a former Thai empire believed to date back to the seventh century are scattered throughout the village.
In a virtually tourist-free setting, there’s plenty of space to examine ancient "stupas" (structures containing relics used as meditation sites), temple remnants, impressive Buddha monuments and earthen city walls.
Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang MaiMaiiam Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in 2016 in a repurposed 3,000-square-meter warehouse, has the distinction of being Thailand’s first dedicated contemporary art museum. According to father-and-son founders Jean Michel Beurdeley and Eric Bunnag Booth, the permanent collection and rotating temporary exhibits aim to inspire foreigners to extend their perceptions of Thai visual art beyond what they’re already familiar with.
The building, devised by lead architect Rachaporn Choochuey, integrates simple industrial chic with traditional Thai architecture accents. The resulting cluster of airy rooms illuminates paintings, sculpture, photography, fashion design and mixed media works developed by mainly Thai artists. Other features include a chic museum store and a sunlit cafe serving artistically plated riffs on familiar Northern Thai dishes.
Studio Naenna, Chiang MaiAlthough professor and historian Patricia Cheesman opened her textile gallery and shop in 1988, Studio Naenna has taken on renewed appeal as Thai folk art motifs and contemporary fashion design (notably by fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul and Thai artist Tuck Muntarbhorn) have become popular around the world.
A leisurely afternoon with the consummate storyteller and her staff becomes a full-on exploration of Thai and Laotian textiles and various weaving and dye techniques. From there, guests get a hands-on lesson in indigo dyeing that they can apply when creating a fashionable scarf to wear and take home.
Wattana Art Gallery, Chiang MaiAt Wattana Art Gallery, the home gallery of Thai- and U.S.-educated artist Wattana Wattanapun, visitors can see how his signature styles — including traditional textile motifs spliced with contemporary female forms — evolved over time and were informed by his studies and teaching positions in the U.S., Canada and Thailand.
The space features movable wall panels showcasing framed works in oil, acrylic and pastel. There are also numerous mixed media pieces, steel engravings and nontraditional canvases such as bamboo blinds and other furnishings. Advance reservations are preferred; agents can make appointments over the phone.