Well worth the side trip

The tranquil provincial capital of Nan, with its boutique hotels and trendy coffee shops, along with the picturesque rural roads and well-ordered national parks of the province, are a phenomenon of the last 30 years; before that, Nan was a pretty wild place.

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One of Thailand’s furthest-flung provinces, Nan was also one of the last to be officially and fully incorporated into Siam. Though incorporation was official in 1932 after centuries of existence as an autonomous city state, due to Nan’s remoteness and rugged, mountainous terrain, it continued to suffer from banditry, as well as being one of the major hotspots for the Communist Party of Thailand’s military activity well into the 1980s.

A highway linking the provincial capital to the rest of Thailand was completed in the 1980s, opening up the town to commerce and tourism. Contemporary Nan is a typical, mid-sized Thai provincial town, albeit more attractive than the average thanks to its riverside setting, plentiful ancient temples and a Tai Lue heritage -- the overall feel is laid-back and friendly. During the 1990s Nan, as a formerly off-limits province, became something of the flavour of the month as an alternative travellers’ destination, and guesthouses and trekking agencies opened up to cater for the more adventurous tourists.

Despite good access and its wealth of tourist sights, such as fine national parks, an excellent town museum and historic buildings, most tourism these days is domestic-based. Perhaps with the opening up of other remote Thai provinces, plus of course nearby Laos and Burma, even the adventurous foreign visitors of yesterday have been reduced to a trickle.

All the more reason to visit then, and with a great range of accommodation and some top restaurants in the provincial capital plus vast expanses of bandit- and insurgent-free mountainous terrain to explore, Nan is well worth inserting into any North Thailand itinerary. The airport has daily flights to Bangkok, a land crossing to Laos is open for foreign travellers in the far north of the province and good roads connect to Phayao and Chiang Rai to the west and Phrae to the south. Phrae has a rail connection (in Den Chai) to the main Bangkok/Chiang Mai line while highways link to Sukhothai and Phitsanulok to the south and Lampang and Chiang Mai in the west.

The ancient city of Nan had strong Lanna, Burmese, Shan and Tai Lue influences – it was originally founded by migrants of the Tai Lue ethnic group, then Shan and Burmese arrived with the teak trade. It lies in the wide Nan River valley with mountains to the east and west inhabited by hilltribe populations of Yao and Hmong. H’tin, Khamu and Mabri are other minorities generally only found in this corner of Thailand. Another ancient town, Pua, lies north of the provincial capital with spectacular Doi Phuka National Park situated close by while beyond, the unusual village of Bo Kluea, close to the Lao border, makes for a fascinating trip.

Sadly, the province has suffered ecologically far more than neighbouring provinces with extensive deforestation and dammed rivers. The cynical may see it as some form of collective punishment for Nan’s rebellious years but trekking, outside of the preserved national park areas, has been severely curtailed and the lower reaches of the Nam Wa - formerly one of the finest rafting rivers in North Thailand – has seen recent dam construction. Many hilltribe villages with a former taste for opium and insurgency have been relocated to lowland areas and the previously nomadic hunter/gatherer Mabri (or Pee Tong Luang) are now settled in a fixed village.

Maybe these days leave the trekking for Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son, but do grab a bicycle and discover the old town’s great wats, markets and coffee shops and do rent a motorbike and get out into the pretty hills and national parks.

Crossing into Laos from Nan
Although the Ban Huay Kon/Muang Ngeun entry point is neither the most conveniently accessed border post for Thailand or for Laos it is now a legal crossing point into both countries for overseas visitors and with the exception of Pakse in the far south, is the only border post between the two countries that doesn’t involve crossing the Mekong. Although hardly plain sailing, you can reach Luang Prabang from here by road, providing the only (more or less) direct means of reaching there without taking a boat or plane. We say more or less since though transport is very straightforward on the Thai side, reports from the Lao side sound messy. Minibuses depart regularly throughout the day linking Huay Kon with Pua, Nan, Phrae and even Den Chai railway station further south so you don’t even need to overnight at the border anymore. (There are a few options if you’re stuck but it’s much better to hop on a bus heading south.)

However on the Lao side, there is at present no public transport so you’re stuck with trying to negotiate with a Lao taxi or tuk tuk driver who realises that he holds all the trumps. We heard reports of travellers being charged 2,000 baht for the less than 40 kilometre ride to Hong Sa. Saturday mornings, when a large border market takes place, ought to be much easier since you should be able to find a seat on a shared tuk tuk or songthaew heading to Muang Ngeun --where your negotiating position will have improved -- or with luck even Hong Sa. Hong Sa, as with Muang Ngeun, is in Sayabouri province but has guesthouses and connections to either Luang Prabang or Pakbeng so once you reach there things are easy. The crossing is open from 08:00-20:00 and Lao visas are available on arrival but as usual, please double check details for your particular nationality beforehand.

Coming from Laos the minibus stop is around 100 metres on your left next to some bamboo market stalls. The official timetable has minibuses leaving Huay Kon at 09:00, 10:00, 11:45, 12:45 and 15:00 arriving at Nan some three hours later before continuing on to Phrae and Den Chai station. Pua or Nan are 100 baht and Den Chai or Phrae 200 baht. Minibus schedules are never reliable but it does mean that worst case you ought to be able to hire a whole minibus to Nan for around 1,500 baht.

Nan town and its current population of some 25,000 people lie in a northeast-southwest orientation along the right bank of the Nan River. Sections of the old city wall dating to the Lanna period can still be seen, with the older part of the town being situated to the south around Wat Phumin and what is today the National Museum. Newer sections are to the north, towards the airport, while eastwards the compact town abruptly dissolves into farmland on the opposite bank of the river.

Sumondhewaraj (pronounced Sumon-tewarat) is the main north-south drag and hosts some of the town’s main banks plus several hotels. The large and bustling city market is between this street and the river. The post office and police station are also just off the same street at its southern end while the main public hospital is located north of the centre near the airport. The bus station is set up on the Nan-Ban Loung road west of the centre towards all the main municipal and provincial office blocks.

The awkwardly pronounced Anantaworarittidet, plus Mahawong and Suriyaphong Roads, are the main thoroughfares leading into the city from the west and the former also has banks and convenience stores plus restaurants and hotels as well as evening food stalls and a small night market. Unlike certain neighbouring towns (yes, we mean you Lampang), Nan is simple to navigate and most sites are within short walking access of each other and of most downtown hotels and guesthouses. Several of these offer bicycle and motorbike hire as well and there are a couple of independent agents along Sumondhewaraj Road.

Heading out of town, across the river a sharp left takes you onto Route 1169 leading to Santisuk district while continuing past Wat Prathat Chae Hang takes you to Mae Charim district on Route 1168. South is the four-lane Route 101 heading to Phrae while north Route 1080 leads past the airport to Pua and eventually the border. Westwards Route 1091 carries on past the bus station over the mountains to Phayao.

Back in town there’s a useful tourist information centre on Phakong Road, opposite the entrance to Wat Phumin. They provide English-language maps and pamphlets and have some good cycling route maps, though the latter are in Thai. With the two combined you ought to be able to work it out and they propose four well thought out routes, both in and around town.

Tourist Centre: Phakong Rd; T: (054) 751 169, (054) 750 247;; open daily 08:30-16:30.
Nan Hospital: Worawichai Rd; T: (054) 710 138, (054) 710 182.
Police: Suriyaphong Rd; T: (054) 751 681, (054) 710 032; Tourist police (054) 710 216.

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