Although it’s one of the original seven kingdoms of Lanna, few people outside of northern Thailand have heard of Nan. This is a shame, as Nan is easily one of the most charming, uncrowded towns in the country, with temples dating from the mid-fourteenth century. It’s one of the most remote areas of Thailand but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a popular getaway.
Tucked away in the northern corner of Thailand near the Laos border, Nan is far enough from every other major city that only the most intrepid travelers make this small town a part of their itinerary. But the mountainous region itself is awash in natural beauty, ethnic hilltribes and historic sites. In fact it remained an independent vassal kingdom within Siam until the early 10th century and boasted a well established and relatively wealthy centre for seven centuries.
This resulted in a legacy of very important temples and relics that are highly placed with the Fine Arts Department, one of the main draw cards of Nan Town. Wat Phumin is the most famous temple complex, dating from 1596 and well restored. The ancient murals in the bot are famous. Two kilometres out of town is Wat Phra That Chae Heng, a 650 year old enclosed complex on a hillside with large Lanna-style gilded chedis.
Wat Phra That Chang Kham is perhaps the most rewarding attraction; a large collection of buildings with the oldest dating from before 1450. It boasts an impressive chedi but the biggest story here involves an art historian who bought a crude Buddha image in 1955, only to discover that beneath the Sukhothai styled exterior was a solid gold Buddha! The abbot promptly demanded it back and it remains on display in the Wihaan.
Two other ancient temples which deserve a look in are Wat Hua Khuang, opposite Phra That Chang Kham, with some ancient buildings and artefacts, as well as Wat Suan Tan with its 15th century Chedi that reveals several architectural styles.
A good place to start your history tour is at the Nan National Museum, a decent repository of exhibits covering the region’s many ethnic groups, rare Buddhist images and other interesting relics of the Lanna kingdom. It’s housed in a regal old teak mansion and reveals the remarkable legacy of antiquity this town has.
The trekking infrastructure may be missing, but there are as many outdoor activities around Nan as in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Treks to remote hilltribe villages, rafting along the Nan River and elephant tours are mainly handled by Fhu Travel Service, the town’s oldest tour operator. The uniqueness of this is a chance to visit the rare Thai Lü, Htin and Mabri hilltribes or this northeastern region.
Transportation to Nan
By car: hiring a car from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai is the most practical means of getting to Nan, as you get to enjoy the hilly scenery en-route and perhaps incorporate a side-trip to Phayao lakeside town.
Be warned that there are higher risks of accidents on these windy mountain roads where reckless driving is common. There is no direct road route to Nan; from Chiang Mai you have drive south to Denchai, beyond Lampang, and then follow the 101 northwards to Nan, taking about three hours.
From Chiang Rai you drive south via Phayao on HWY1 and then follow the 103 eastwards to meet the 101 which leads north to Nan, and also takes a total travel time of around three hours. However, there are many nice places to stop on the way if so inclinded.
By bus: buses leave Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal frequently throughout the day taking six hours. There is one bus a day from Chiang Rai (09:30, seven hours) and several from Bangkok (10-13 hours).