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About Planning a Visit to Nan in Northern Thailand
If you’re looking to experience Thailand beyond the main tourist trail, be sure to add Nan to your itinerary. Overseas tourists often overlook this charming northern outpost as they head instead to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Travellers who do find their way to Nan will discover sublime mountain scenery, fabulous food and a historic provincial capital.
Take a look at our suggestions below for the best things to do in Nan.
The small city of Nan is the provincial capital and the perfect base to explore not only the city, but the spectacular countryside around Nan. Although many of Nan city’s main attractions can be covered on foot, a tram tour is an enjoyable option. This lets you get your bearings and appreciate the historic sights of this delightful provincial capital. Tours start from the Tourist Information Centre opposite Wat Phumin and run daily at 10.30am and 3.30pm each day. The Tourist Information Centre is also a handy first port of call for maps and suggested walking and cycling routes.
The informative Nan National Museum is part of a former palace which was home to the rulers of Nan. With exquisitely manicured grounds and frangipani-lined walkways, the museum is a pleasure to visit. The museum grounds are also home to the smallest temple in Thailand; Wat Noy. At just two metres wide and three metres tall, Wat Noy resembles a spirit house. However, Wat Noy is in fact a special temple constructed after the visit of King Rama V to Nan.
The Noble House, known locally as Hong Chao Fong Kham, is a 200-year old teakwood house. Now serving as an educational centre and museum, visitors can learn about local traditions and life in bygone days. This beautiful old building is located 30 minutes walk from Nan National Museum. Entrance is free, but it’s polite to leave a donation (minimum 20 baht).
Originally constructed in 1596, the elegant temple of Wat Phumin is one of the highlights of Nan city. The temple was rebuilt in the 1800s to give it the cruciform shape that can be seen today. Wat Phumin features a door at each entrance and a guardian naga serpent protects the main door.
While Wat Phumin is impressive outside, it is the interior design which is the main attraction. Entering through any of the doors immediately draws the eye to the central dais and the four golden Buddha images. Each image faces out to the north, east, south, and west.
In the late 1800s, the last king of Nan commissioned a local Thai Lue artist to paint murals on the interior walls of Wat Phumin. Although some of the paintings have faded, the artwork is exquisite. The murals provide a historical record of life and traditions in Nan at that time. The most famous mural scene is known as the ‘Whispering’. It’s a scene which is synonymous with Nan and replicated on a host of local souvenirs.
In addition to the depictions of everyday life, the murals also illustrate scenes from the Buddhist Jataka stories. These stories represent the past lives of Buddha.
Wherever you choose to stay in Nan, be sure to explore the verdant countryside. Visit during the green season (June to September/October) to see the Nan countryside at its resplendent best.
Head to Wat Phuket in Pua district for panoramic views over the rice fields and mountains beyond. Travel to Sri Nnan National Park and camp overnight. Wake up early to see the morning sea of fog from the viewpoints at Doi Samer Dao. Or hike the trails at Doi Phu Kha National Park to see the surreal rock and soil formations at Sao Din Na Noi.
If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, the Wa River in Nan is a good place to go white-water rafting. Local tour company Nan Adventure Tour can arrange trips for you.
The Thai Lue community live in areas of North Thailand including Nan, Phayao, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Thai Lue are famous in Thailand for their weaving skills and their colourful traditional style of dress. Visit the Thai Lue weaving community group to learn more about their traditions. You can see the weavers at work on traditional wooden looms and also buy products directly from them. The group can be found a stone’s throw from Wat Phuket in Nan’s Pua district.
Wat Phra That Khao Noi is located a short distance away from the centre of Nan city. This temple is famous for its splendid standing Buddha image that overlooks the valley below. The impressive Buddha image was built in 1999 to honour King Rama IX’s birthday anniversary.
Originally constructed in the late 1400s, a relic of the Buddha is enshrined inside the main chedi. The temple hosts an annual fair (usually in May) with sky-rockets launched to pay respect to Buddha.
Local people regard Wat Phra That Chae Haeng as the most important temple in Nan. Sitting on top of a small hill, the temple’s gilded chedi contains a relic of the Buddha. Founded in the 14th century, the temple is located a few kilometres to the south-east of Nan city centre.
If you’re staying in the centre of Nan, wake up early and see the city slowly come to life. Visit the morning market and watch a procession of Buddhist monks on their early morning alms round. Offering alms to monks is an important way for Thai Buddhists to make merit.
Nan Riverside Arts Space is located around 30 minutes drive north of Nan city centre. Occupying leafy grounds on the banks of a river, Nan Riverside Arts Space features an eclectic mix of artwork. This includes sculptures, paintings and drawings. You’ll also find a coffee shop and gift shop on site and this is a relaxing location to while away a few hours.
Nan is famous for its annual boat races (usually in October). The races mark Awk Phansa, the end of the Buddhist ‘Lent’ period. Long wooden boats are beautifully crafted in the shape of nagas. Drawing large crowds, the boat races are keenly contested with lots of local pride at stake.
You can find all the usual Northern Thai food classics in Nan. Chow down on sai oua, khao soi and khanom jeen nam ngiao. For food with a view of the Nan River, head to any of the riverside cafes or restaurants. Of these, Huen Chao Nang is one of the best options.
The morning market is as good a place as any to eat breakfast. Fill up on coffee, fresh fruit and tasty treats like pa thong koh (Thai-style donuts). For lunch, Huen Chao Nang is popular with locals. So too is Khao Soi Ton Nam located almost directly opposite. Both restaurants are centrally located a mere five minute walk away from Wat Phumin.
If you’re in Nan over the weekend, the enjoyable Walking Street Market is a great option for food. Select your favourites and sit down at the khan toke style tables that set up in front of Wat Phumin.
Diminutive Nan airport is a 10-minute drive away from the city centre. At the time of writing, low-cost carriers Air Asia and Nok Air both run services from Bangkok Don Mueang.
Bangkok to Nan is a backside-numbing 13-hour bus ride. However, there is an altogether more enjoyable bus journey if you’re already in North Thailand. The reliable Green Bus Company runs frequent services to Nan from Chiang Mai (6 hours), Lampang (4 hours) and Phrae (2 hours).
Although there is no railway station in Nan, it’s possible to take the train from Chiang Mai to Den Chai. From Den Chai, pick up a shared songthaew for the 20 km trip to Phrae. Spend a night or two in Phrae and travel onward by bus to Nan.
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