Published/Last edited or updated: 12th September, 2016
With beautiful mountain scenery and sparsely frequented roads, Nan province offers some great circular motorbike routes. Though perhaps not quite comparable to the Mae Hong Son loop in scenery terms, and lacking the variety of stop-off points you find along the Chiang Rai loop, Nan itineraries have a very good compromise of the two, plus the remote province does have more of an off-the-beaten-track cachet to it. Our favourite route is a three-day trip minimising lengthy riding time and optimising interesting sites and pretty landscapes, while including overnight stays in perhaps the province’s two most interesting districts, Pua and Bo Kluea.
This circular itinerary, starting and finishing in Nan city, takes in the waterfalls of Santisuk, fascinating Bo Kluea, Doi Phuka National Park, the old Tai Lue village and temple at Nong Bua and the spectacular scenery of Tham Pha Tup Forest Park, with one night each in Bo Kluea village and Pua.
The first point is Santisuk village, lying 32 kilometres northeast of the provincial capital and site of a series of scenic waterfalls. Leave town by the Paknua Bridge over the Nan River, after which you need to take an immediate turn to the left. It looks like you’re turning into a suburban residential street but this is actually the start of Route 1160 and soon heads out across the rice-fields of the Nan Valley. (By the way, if you haven’t yet visited Wat Prathat Chae Haeng, now’s the time for a slight detour.)
On arrival in the small market town of Santisuk, follow directions for Pua and head north on Route 1081. A series of waterfalls lies close to the main highway on the east side between here and Pua, with the most popular ones indicated by English-language signs. According to our map, three or four falls flow down from the wooded hills on the east side of the valley. We checked out the best known ones: Tad (That) Leuang and Silaphet. First up, Tad Leuang is found just past the turn off for Bor Kleua and is the less busy of the two, but probably the more scenic. It’s easily accessed by a short track from the main highway. Silaphet is much busier, with a bunch of cafes, souvenir stalls and picnicking Thais. It’s found a few kilometres further north towards Pua and is also easily reached by a short side road. This is a good spot to grab some lunch.
Since our next waypoint is Bo Kluea and we’re saving Doi Phuka for the second leg of the itinerary, we now need to double back a kilometres to return to the junction south of Tad Leuang where a narrow but sealed road heads east to Bo Kluea. This involves scaling a range of hills — though nowhere near as steep as Doi Phuka — before arriving in Bo Kluea village by the scenic valley to the south. The distance is 50 kilometres or so, so you should arrive with plenty of time to check-in to some village accommodation, visit the famous salt wells and explore the little village a bit before heading up to Huan Saphan Bor Klua for a well earned beer and some spicy south Thai food. We describe this restaurant in our Bor Klua eat and drink section — the drive to Bo Kluea is almost worth it for dinner alone!
The following morning, after maybe coffee in one of the fine little shops by the salt wells, cross the bridge and head out of the village on Route 1256 towards Doi Phuka. This is a steep climb but a decent road surface. Pua is a total of some 60 kilometres away and the entrance to Doi Phuka National Park is roughly half way. A few kilometres short of the summit and park entrance is a viewpoint where you can conveniently see both the famous chomphu and tree ferns. There’s a good coffee shop here too plus a ticket desk for the national park. You can then pay here or at the main entrance but if you’re not planning on visiting the park itself we’re not sure how strict they are about you just stopping for a peek at what is an official park attraction.
Once in the park itself you’ll find a half-decent visitor centre with some English information and maps plus a restaurant and minimart for refreshments. If you do wish to do their four-kilometre nature trail then you need to arrive before midday. Some good accommodation options are on offer if you do wish to spend the night here or you can push on downhill into Pua town where there’s a wide choice of hotels. Pua’s not the most scenic spot around but aside from sleep options for most budgets it also has a good restaurant and even a couple of bars, so it makes for a practical overnight stop. This is a steep, up and downhill stretch so take it easy and make sure your brakes are up to it! If in doubt there is a motorbike repair shop close to the ATM on Bo Kluea village’s main street.
On day three a short drive down Route 101 in the direction of Nan will see you passing through the village of Tha Wang Pa with a turn-off for Nong Bua. Just before Tha Wang on the right side of the highway is a small modern mall housing a coffee shop, weaving workshop and retail stores. It’s worth a stop — perhaps not for the dodgy coffee but the chatty coffee shop owner and the interesting weaving display. Renowned for its traditional Tai Lue culture, Nong Bua is home to a very famous wat as well as being an interesting village to explore with more local handicrafts on display and a small Tai Lue museum. Total distance is three kilometres off the main highway and it’s definitely worthy of a detour.
From here, Nan lies less than 50 kilometres with the interesting Riverside Art Gallery and the wonderful scenery of Tham Pha Tup Forest Park available to break up your journey. Leaving Pua early you should have enough time to visit Nong Bua and the gallery and still have time to do a hike at the forest park. If you’re a bit short of time though do be careful at Tham Pha Tup since it’s easy to get lost and an hour’s hike can extend into a day-long one.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Nan