With stunning mountain scenery, a rich history and oodles of things to see and do, a visit to Nan is always a pleasure. The only surprise is that more overseas tourists don’t travel to this delightful province in the north of Thailand. But their loss could be your gain and if you want to explore an area of Thailand that remains relatively unknown to most foreigners, consider adding Nan to your Thailand itinerary. In no particular order, here are 19 reasons to visit Nan.
1) Take the road less travelled
With most visitors to North Thailand heading to better known destinations such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, it has allowed Nan to remain under the tourist radar. If you are in search of the road less travelled, you will undoubtedly find it in beautiful Nan.
2) Appreciate Thai Lue traditions
The culture of the Thai Lue (also written as Tai Lu) hill-tribe people is alive and well in Nan. The Thai Lue population in Thailand is estimated to be around 80,000 with most living in the northern Thai provinces of Nan, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Phayao. The Thai Lue have a rich heritage dating back centuries to the old Lanna kingdom in what is now North Thailand. They are especially well-known for their weaving and embroidery skills and the elegant traditional clothing they wear. If you visit the Thai Lue weaving community group located close to Wat Phuket at Ban Ket in Pua district, you can watch the weavers at work on wooden looms and buy products direct from them. Or you can hire a traditional costume to have your photo taken with the gorgeous Nan scenery in the background.
3) Soak up the natural beauty of Nan
Nan is one of the most naturally beautiful provinces in Thailand. Visit Srinan National Park and witness the early morning sea of fog at Doi Samer Dao. Trek through the mountains at Doi Phu Kha National Park and see the other-worldly rock and soil formations at Sao Din Na Noi. And visit Nan during the green season to see breathtaking views of the verdant rice fields. Take a trip to Wat Phuket and from the temple terrace you can enjoy views like this with an expanse of rice fields in the foreground and the mountains of Doi Phu Kha National Park in the background.
4) See the famous murals at Wat Phumin
Wat Phumin is one of the best-known attractions for Thai visitors travelling to Nan. The temple is famous for the hand-painted wall murals which date back centuries and depict the local way of life and stories from the life of Buddha. And there is one painting in particular, ‘Poo Marn Yar Marn‘ (‘Whispering of Love’) which has become a symbol of Nan. According to local legend, if you and your loved one wish for happiness together in front of the mural, you will stay together forever.
5) Unwind into the slow life
The people who live in Nan are rightly proud of their heritage and their way of life. People from Nan will often say they enjoy the ‘slow life’ or ‘good life’. And once you spend a few days or more here it’s easy to see the appeal of this sabai sabai lifestyle. Walk around Nan city or hire a bicycle available from some hotels and guest-houses. Bikes can also be rented from opposite Wat Phumin where you can also obtain a map with suggested routes. Alternatively, take a tram tour (departures at 9:30, 10:30, 13:30 and 15.30) for 30 Baht per person from the area opposite Wat Phumin.
6) Enjoy the low rise life
One of the first things that strikes you when you arrive in the charming small city of Nan is the absence of any high-rise buildings. To help maintain the character of the provincial capital, there are strict laws about what can and can’t be constructed. You may also notice that some of Nan’s 7-Eleven convenience stores have been designed to fit in with the local architectural style of Nan.
7) Visit the viewpoint and the walking Buddha at Wat Phra That Khao Noi
A short distance away from Nan city centre is Wat Phra That Khao Noi. A road leads all the way to the top of the hill and the viewpoint, but if you have the energy you can cycle from the centre of town and climb the steps to reach the temple. The temple is home to a chedi which dates back to the 15th century and is believed to contain relics of the Buddha. There is also a viewpoint here where an elegant walking Buddha statue looks out over Nan city and the surrounding countryside.
8) Travel to the museum and bamboo village at Wat Sri Mongkol
Located in the Tha Wang Pha district of Nan, this old temple is home to an interesting museum that contains a number of ancient artefacts. These include old birth certificates that were written on leaves known as ‘Bai Lan’. And at the back of Wat Sri Mongkol, there is a small bamboo village in the rice fields.
9) Go to Nan Riverside Art Gallery
Located out of town next to a river, this unusual and captivating art gallery is worth making time for. The arts space is a labour of love for a famous Thai artist, Winai Prabripoo, who was born and raised in Nan. Enjoy the indoor art galleries, but make time too for the outdoor art installations.
10) Learn how to make chocolate
You may not associate Thailand with quality chocolate, but that is slowly starting to change. And Nan is at the forefront of that change with the innovative work carried out by Khun Manoon at Cocoa Valley Resort. Visitors can learn more about the process and test their own skills at a chocolate making workshop.
11) Feast on delicious Northern Thai food
If you’ve travelled around north Thailand you may already be familiar with the region’s signature dish, khao soi. Foodies visiting Nan can enjoy this and many other northern Thai speciality dishes such as sai oua and gaeng hinlay. Huan Chao Nang is one of a number of restaurants with good views of the river. And if you visit Nan at the weekend, don’t miss the atmospheric Walking Street Market that sets up near Wat Phumin. Do as the locals do and buy some food from the vendors and sit down at the town plaza (khuang muang) in front of Wat Phumin and enjoy the ambience.
12) Get up early for the morning market and alms giving
Get up early and hit the morning market in Nan to get a feel for the city and to watch monks on their morning alms round. Enjoy a hearty breakfast at any of the eateries near the market and then stroll around Nan’s historic central zone.
13) Pay your respects at the Nan City pillar
Every city in Thailand has a city pillar (lak mueang) which protects the city and where locals come to pay their respects.
14) Visit Wat Phra That Chae Haeng
One of the most important temples in Nan, Wat Phra That Chae Haeng is located across the river to the east of the city centre. The 55 metre tall golden chedi is said to contain a relic of the Buddha making this one of the most revered temples in the province. A colourful festival is held annually at Wat Phra That Chae Haeng in February or March depending on the lunar calendar.
15) Learn about local life at Nan National Museum
To learn more about local culture and the history of Nan, make a beeline for the excellent Nan National Museum located in what was former palace that was home to the rulers of Nan. The picturesque grounds are an added bonus with a photogenic tunnel of frangipani trees. Interestingly, the grounds are also home to what is said to be Thailand’s smallest temple, Wat Noi. Standing at around 3.5 metres tall, it appears at first glance to be a large spirit house sitting in front of an old banyan tree.
16) See the nagas of Nan
Mythical serpent-like creatures known as ‘naga’ are a common sight in Thailand thanks to their association with Buddhism. Nagas can be seen in decorations at temples throughout the country, but Nan has a special association with the mythical nagas. According to folklore, the people of Nan are the descendants of two people, Chao Khunnun and Chao Khunfong, who were born from naga eggs. You can see the nagas in various locations around the city. If you visit Nan at the end of Buddhist Lent (usually in October), you can enjoy the longtail boat races with the famous nagas of Nan carved into the figurehead of the boats.
17) Observe the traditional way of life at Hong Chao Fong Kham (Noble House)
Constructed around 200 years ago, the Noble House (Hong Chao Fong Kham) is a traditional Lanna style teakwood building that is now a museum and educational centre. For a 20 Baht donation fee, visitors can learn about the old way of life and local traditions.
18) Relax at charming cafes
With epic scenery and a burgeoning coffee culture, it’s no surprise that Nan is home to some lovely cafes. Sample the locally produced coffee at Huang Hung Tor cafe and make sure your camera is fully charged for a visit to the photogenic Ban Tai Lue Cafe in the scenic Pua district of Nan.
19) Go your own way
As one of the most laid-back and welcoming locations in Thailand, Nan is ideal for solo travellers who want to experience ‘unseen Thailand’ beyond the main tourist trail. To help you plan your travels around Nan, the excellent online guidebook, Me, Myself & Thailand* has been produced in association with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The free guide is packed with more ideas for things to see and do in Nan as well as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, Nong Khai and Phuket.
*Unfortunately, it seems this is no longer available to download