Thailand has something for everyone. Bryan Petroff of Big Gay Ice Cream’s discovers that sometimes taking the road less travelled brings with it some amazing rewards.
Off the beaten path
While I was staying up near Chiang Mai for the wedding I found myself with a free day. Most people would probably just make it a pool day, but my tendency is to pack in as much as possible when I travel and that leaves me with little interest in things like “pool days.” I had already done a number of things locally, so I investigated what to do further out.
Essentially, I wanted to go as far as I could on a day trip. My hotel provided me with a number of flyers and ideas, and ultimately I chose a day trip to the Golden Triangle, the northernmost part of Thailand centered around a fork in the Mekong River where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet. The tour promised visiting that area of the river with an optional trip across it to a Laotian market plus seeing three local wats: the White Temple, the Blue Temple and the Black House.
My tour van wouldn’t pick me up at my hotel outside the city, so I had to go to their pick up spot: a McDonald’s in town across the street from the historic Tha Pae Gate, part of the massive brick wall and moat built in the 13th century as part of the fortifications of the original incarnation of the city (now called Old City). This meant leaving my hotel via my prearranged car at 6am. Fortunately the McDonald’s was 24/7, so I was able to have breakfast before getting picked up by the tour van. It was quite a study in contrasts: sitting outside, eating an Egg McMuffin, staring at a 700 year old wall, while next to me was a life-size statue of Ronald McDonald greeting customers by performing a wai (the traditional Thai greeting of a slight bow with palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion).
Now, as far as getting “off the beaten path” goes, I realized pretty early on that this trip was going to be lower on the “road less traveled” scale than I thought. The restaurant was a pick up hub for many tours, so the area was soon filled up with tourists, busses and vans. Luckily it wasn’t hard to find my specific group. The drive would be a few hours to Chiang Rai (the largest city in the Golden Triangle), so we stopped about halfway at a roadside rest stop – again, another hub for all the travel groups going up and down between Chiang Mai and the north. There were dozens of vendors, a convenience store, gas and hot springs where many people soaked their feet. There were also public restrooms, that, well … let’s just say I don’t recommend going to the toilet there if you need to sit down, because, well, there were no actual toilets.
Our first stop was the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). The place was swarming with tourists – easily the most popular (re: crowded) stop on our itinerary. I was familiar with the White Temple before my trip, but was surprised by a number of things. For one, it’s actually very young, only opening to the public in 1997. It is the brainchild of contemporary artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is technically still under construction. It’s also not just one building. It’s actually made of up a number of overwhelmingly ornate white (and gold and white) buildings and sculptures on meticulously landscaped grounds. There are souvenir shops and restaurants located onsite (we had lunch there and even though the food felt mellowed down for tourists it was quite good). Its ornateness, constant (self-funded) construction and singular vision reminded me of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And like that building, the number of tourists can be overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong: it’s stunningly beautiful and contemplative and worth visiting. I just wasn’t prepared for masses.
Next up was the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten or “Dancing Tiger Temple”). As the name suggests, it is a complex of ornately carved and painted cobalt blue and gold buildings. It’s even younger than the White Temple. The giant white Buddha inside the main hall was completed in 2008, but the building itself wasn’t completed until 2016. All around the main hall are a few smaller blue buildings and sculptures, as well as an outdoor market with tons of souvenir and food stands. The food here catered much more to the locals. I was particularly excited by one ice cream stand that made blue, white and purple sundaes in half a coconut with sesame seeds, edible flowers and peanuts.
The Black House (Baan Dam) was the last of the three. It was brooding and surreal. It was also by far the least crowded. It felt like a hidden gem in a forested area of the city. I’m not sure if it wasn’t heavily visited because of its location or its dark subject matter. Many consider the Black House to be the antithesis of the White Temple. They say that if the White Temple is a vision of heaven, then the Black House is a vision of hell. To me that’s way too simplistic of a reading of the collection of wooden buildings, sculptures and earth art that made up the grounds. All of the buildings were stained black and smelled of pungent pine tar. Wandering the grounds, at first glance many of the buildings appeared to be temples. But once I started looking around I realized they’re definitely not. The buildings were more like galleries, filled with the bones, skins, antlers, hides, horns and skulls of thousands of animals, all arranged into macabre art installations. There were also scores of carved wooden phalluses and female genitalia, as well as furniture made from animal parts. It’s all the vision of Thawan Duchanee, arguably Thailand’s most famous artist and recipient of the National Thai Artist prize in 2001.
This was by far my favorite of the three sites. I saw it less as a vision of hell and more a contemplation of death and its role as the inevitable counterpoint to life. One cannot exist without the other, and I felt Duchanee’s creation forces us to observe and try to understand and except the interconnection of the two.
One thing that is striking about these temples is their three uniquely modern interpretations of places of worship. They are as much art installation as they are religious temple. Touristy? Sure, but regardless, they’re beautiful in their unique ways and definitely worth visiting.
The final stop on this day trip was seeing the actual Golden Triangle. As mentioned, it’s a fork on the Mekong River where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet. The first thing you see when you get there is a huge golden Buddha on the Thai side. It was fascinating to spend some time going up and down the river knowing each side was a different country (without any border guards in sight). Seeing the giant Buddha rising above the river was quite impressive. I also did the side excursion to Don Sao Island Market on the Laos side of the river. The first thing you’re greeted with when stepping into the market was shots of whiskey ladled out of large jars with various animal parts pickling in the alcohol. Honestly I only did this to say I’d been to Laos and get my passport stamped. Being on the river a stone’s throw away from other countries with a view of a giant golden Buddha was nice, but unless you want to eat at the KFC there or return with a whiskey bottle with a cobra head stuffed inside or a pack of generic cigarettes there’s no real reason to go to the market itself.
When thinking of the recipes for this week’s “off the beaten path” theme, we thought about the idea of foraging and the variety of herbs and fruits you can come across. So one of this week’s flavors is an herbal sorbet with kaffir lime leaves, mint, basil, lemongrass, ginger and basil seeds. When done it looks like the inside of a dragonfruit. The other flavor is a quick and easy mango sherbet. Both are perfect for hot summer days.
Hugs, Bryan xo
This week’s Big Gay Ice Cream recipes are inspired by Bryan’s trip to the Golden Triangle
Thai Herbs Sorbet
- 3c water
- 2c sugar
- 2c loose Kaffir lime leaves, hand crushed
- 2c loose Thai basil leaves, hand crushed
- 1c loose mint leaves, hand crushed
- 1 3” section of fresh ginger, peeled & sliced into coin shapes
- 4 fresh lemongrass stalks chopped into 1cm sections (to prep: chop off the bottom root section & top green section of the stalks & peel off outer layer, leaving only the white section then chop)
- Juice of 1 lime
- Zest of 1 lime (finely grated)
- 2-3 tbsp basil seeds
Makes 1 quart
- Combine sugar & water into a large lidded pot over medium-low heat
- Cook until sugar is completely dissolved, stirring occasionally
- Add lime leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves, ginger & lemongrass; stir to incorporate
- Cover pot; turn off heat; leave to steep on the burner & cool until room temperature
- Transfer covered pot to refrigerator & refrigerate overnight
- Strain mixture into a large bowl, pressing herbs to release as much of the liquid as possible (note: at this point the mixture will have strong ginger & lemongrass notes)
- Stir in the juice of 1 lime & churn according to manufacturer’s instructions
- While transferring into freezable container gently fold in the lime zest & basil seeds (this will cut the gingery bite & bring out the herbal notes)
- Freeze covered for 4 hours before serving
- 1c sugar
- 1 1/2c milk
- 2c pure mango juice or purée
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 mango, diced (optional)
- Zest of 1 lime, finely grated (optional)
Makes 1 quart
- Over medium-low heat mix together sugar & milk in a saucepan until sugar has dissolved (about 2 minutes), stirring often
- Remove from heat
- Whisk in mango juice & lime juice until fully incorporated
- Cover & refrigerate overnight
- Churn according to manufacturer’s directions (whisking together again right before churning)
- If you wish, gently fold in the diced mango &/or lime zest when transferring to a freezer-safe container
- Freeze covered for 4 hours before serving
Serving suggestion: serve with the pineapple-mint topping from the Big Gay Ice Cream Book
More of Bryan and Doug’s Thailand adventure
Join Bryan as he discovers Thailand’s ancient, Northern city of Chiang Mai, from heartwarming grassroots projects to stunning natural wonders. He also shares two wonderful recipes inspired by the city.
Bryan heads to the Thai capital for ‘one night in Bangkok’ and takes on its grand outdoor market at Chatuchak to discover retail-therapy, Thai style. His travels inspires a Big Gay Ice Cream take on a classic Bangkok recipe.
Read more >
Bryan ventures off on an adventure to the Golden Triangle to discover that there is far more to Thailand than the heavily touristed spots. His journey to Thailand’s far Northern borders inspires two mouthwatering recipes.
Read more >
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