Travellers to the north of Thailand tend to head towards either Chiang Mai or Chang Rai. But to the east of these Provinces, nestling against the Laos border is the Province of Nan, a hidden gem, one of Thailand’s most scenic areas offering rare cultural experiences.
The Province of Nan was once an independent kingdom and thanks to its location in the embrace of the mountains, traditional ways of life are well preserved unlike other towns which have been affected by the modernization. This is because Nan is not on a main communication line and the route leading to Nan cuts through several steep mountains. You’ll find populations of hill tribe communities, including Hmong, N’tin, and Khamu. Nan features six national parks, including the stunning Doi Phukha National Park, which contains mountains nearly 2,000 metres high.
The rich natural beauty of Nan features splendid natural scenery formed by rivers and evergreen mountains, and cultural riches such as superbly-crafted Buddha images, vibrant murals and elegant temple architecture. Nan has long been a crossroad of cultures, with people from nearby lands — modernday Laos, Myanmar and China — arriving here to trade their goods for the local salt, which is still mined near the headwaters of the Nan River to the east of town.
A local historian dated the founding of the town to the mid-14th century. Nan has been strongly influenced and sometimes controlled by the nearby kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lan Na, Lan Xang (Laos) and Burma – and by the ethnic group Tai Lue: people, who emigrated from southern Yunnan in China. The way of life is much slower here and it’s nice to take your time and see some things that are slightly off the beaten path. You won’t meet too many other tourists but the locals will welcome you in and be enthusiastic about showing you their local culture. One great road trip that takes a few days with stops is from Chiang Mai to Nan. Here are some of the sights along the way.
Tung Kwian Jungle Market
The Tung Kwian market is the first stop you’ll come to, just an hour out of Chiang Mai. It has a fantastic collection of produce from the jungle as well as local artisan products. You can try all sorts of fried bugs and worms or go for something a bit safer like the traditional spicy pork sausage. The market is aimed at local people but they welcome tourists and will help you buy some of the strange food that’s on offer here.
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is considered to be the most beautiful Lanna temple in northern Thailand and is impressive for not just its buildings, but also the treasures it contains. It was built in the 1400s and is a large complex with several different sections. One of the highlights is a small emerald Buddha, which is kept behind a cage.
Just up the road from the temple is a wonderful ceramic factory where hundreds of pieces are made each day. You can see each of the steps of production from clay to painting – all of which is still done by hand. The large factory is a simple affair but offers a good insight into one of the local forms of art around Lampang.
Fabric Weaving Village
Another of the local art traditions in this region is the Tin-Chok weaving, which is always presented with high-quality work and beautiful intricate designs. The Fabric Weaving Village in the Long district of Phrae is the perfect place to see some weavers in action and learn more about the craft. There is a display of different styles of designs and a small shop where you can buy some pieces for yourself.
Ban Thung Hong
The small town of Ban Thung Hong is worth stopping at to see the local fashion, which looks like a cross between denim and a hippy’s t-shirt. The local product here is clothing with designs created with an indigo dye. The dye is made naturally from a local plant and the patterns are then boiled or painted onto the material. There are plenty of shops along the main street selling clothing and you can see them being made for yourself (or even make your own design).
Nan Riverside Art Gallery
This is not the kind of art gallery you expect to find in rural Thailand but it has a wonderful collection of artworks. It was founded by a famous Thai artist called Winai Prabripoo, who is often on the site to show you around. There are temporary exhibitions displayed on the lower floor and then a permanent collection upstairs. A couple of smaller galleries in adjacent buildings also have different styles of work. Be sure to look for the pieces made by the Thai princess and donated to the gallery.
Nan City Tour
There are lots of sights to see in Nan but they are not all close together. One way to get a good sense of them is with a Nan city tour by trolley. The tours leave from the main tourist information centre in town
Wat Phra Gerd
The staff here will help you make a traditional Buddhist flag called a ‘tung’. This flag is supposed to look like you and so you’ll glue a face into it and then put the animal that represents your birth year. When you’re done, a monk will bless the flag and hang it on the wall of the temple. It means every time there is a ceremony in the room, you are there by proxy.