The province of Nan is rural, with rice and fruit cultivation spread across the wide Nan river valley and high mountains to the east and west, where a large hilltribe population dwells. Yao are particularly prominent -- you'll probably see some in the city market -- as are Hmong, N'tin and Khamu, the latter two groups being encountered in Thailand almost exclusively in Nan province.
Like Phrae to the south, was an independent city-state for much of its early existence, making up part of the Lanna federation, and was only incorporated into Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century. Today the same-named provincial capital, Nan, is a fairly typical provincial city with a vast, interesting history, some impressive wats and a very good museum to support it.
Outside the capital, the spectacular Doi Phukha National Park in the northeast of the province has stunning peaks reaching up to almost 2,000 m and, and, being just one of the six national parks in the province, demonstrates the potential of Nan. Despite this, Nan has stubbornly remained off the usual backpacker's itinerary, so you can trek here knowing that you are one of the few savvy travellers around.
The city itself is small and laid-back, and is ideally explored on foot during the cooler hours of the day. It has a pleasant riverfront area and some quite good restaurants and bars. The centre of town is a little back from the riverfront with most of the services between the market (near the river) and the museum. You'll find midrange accommodation near the market, while two of the better guesthouses are between the museum and the bus station.
Nan bills itself as an alternative trekking centre, in particular offering trips in which you can visit the Mlabri tribe -- a nomadic ethnic group only really found in Nan and Phrae provinces. Treks are also available to Mae Charim National Park which may include a rafting section. Fhu Travel is the best operator in town, though note that trekking in Nan is more expensive than elsewhere in Thailand, exacerbated by the generally low number of travellers in town -- be prepared to pay more and perhaps compromise to get a group together.
If you're about in October, the city is packed for the annual Nan boat races.
As in most large Thai towns, international access ATMs are scattered throughout town. Many of the guesthouses and hotels offer free WiFi, but if you luck out there are a couple of small internet cafes cum games centres between the market and the river.
The bus station is towards the eastern end of town, about a ten minute walk from the closest guesthouses.
If you are traveling without your own transportation, your options may be a bit limited, as many of the attractions and places of interest are somewhat spread out. You can however rent a motorbike from the Honda dealership on Sumonthewerat road for the standard fee of 200 baht a day.
The border crossing at Ban Huay Kon is a full international crossing.
Despite several consecutive years of rumours and conflicting messages, this mountainous, rural border checkpoint is now an option for travellers going to or from Laos/Thailand. Visas on arrival are indeed available, so no need to arrange anything ahead of time. Because of its status as a relatively new, out of the way crossing, arranging transport may be more difficult/expensive than the average traveler will be hoping for.
But local transport does make it here, and Saturdays are busier at the border due to the market, making that day your best bet for an affordable ride from any of the small towns in the vicinity. Those riding on their own steam will find the drive to be exceedingly beautiful no matter where you are coming from, and crossing the border with your vehicle is simple, so long as you have ownership document(s) and are willing to pay a small tax.
This border is ideal for those looking for natural beauty and a legitimately "off the beaten path" experience. Huay Kon's proximity to Luang Prabang is definitely an advantage, though the mountainous terrain and some lower quality roads will likely negate any hope of a shorter travel-time than from, say, the more popular Chiang Khong crossing.
Transport from Nan city to the border will be easy to arrange through your guesthouse or from the bus station in town, but the convenience won't come cheap. For those on a tighter budget, catch an early morning songtaew from Nan city to Thung Chang -- a regular "locals only" sort of route -- and from there arrange transport to the border. There are also overnight buses running from Bangkok to Thung Chang, though it would be a minor tragedy to go all the way from Bangkok to the Border without spending at least a couple days witnessing the wonders of Nan.
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Text and/or map last updated on 16th April, 2014.