Tucked away in the valley of Thailand's northeastern corner connecting to Laos, Nan is a paradise for travelers searching for an escape to the backcountry.
With fresh air, isolation, a multi-ethnic society, speakeasies, and whispering lovers make Nan a magnificent off-grid destination. It’s one of the best places to step away from madding crowds. Best of all, you will meet the locals who are friendly, humble, humorous, considerate, and passionate.
1. "Whispering" Love Story at Wat Phumin
The big draw to the 400-year-old Buddhist temple of Wat Phumin is “Whispering Lovers” mural on the wall of the chapel hall. Painted by a local artist around the late 19th century, the romantic scene reveals a tattooed Thai Lue man in sarong whispering to a Lue woman dressed in traditional attire. What makes this mural intriguing is that nobody knows what he whispered to the girl. The coloring of the wall and the intimate vibe between the lovers make this scene unique. The paintings, using vegetable pigments, display vibrant and earthy colors. Besides the romantic scenes, the murals in other galleries are worth checking out, including a story of a local hero that travels through hell to save a beautiful princess. Some paintings also offer a glimpse of village life in the nineteenth-century.
Wat Phumin, Suriyapong Rd, Mueang Nan, Nan
Opening Hours: 6 am-7 pm
Telephone: +6654 771 897
2. The Iconic Wat Phra That Chae Haeng
Tucked away on the left bank of the Nan River, Wat Phra That Chae Haeng has been a standing testimony to the relationship between Nan and Sukhothai for at least 600 years. The historic temple and its gilded pagoda are Nan’s most sacred religious sites. It is believed that Wat Phra That Chae Haeng is a holy pagoda for those who were born in a Year of the Rabbit. With 20 meters in width and 80 meters in height, the bell-shaped stupa is constructed in Lanna architecture to house Lord Buddha relics and old silver Buddha votive tablets. Next to the stupa is a historic chapel hall designed in ethnic Thai Lue architecture with a triple-tiered gabled roof, carved wooden eaves, and Naga reliefs over the doors.
Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, Mahawong Rd, Mueang Nan, Nan.
Opening Hours: 6 am-6 pm
Telephone: +6654 601 146
3. The Amazing Nan National Museum
Housed in a royal residence of former lords of Nan, the Nan National Museum is home for ancient finds and cultural treasure. Visitors would be amazed to see Nan’s famous ‘black’ elephant tusks and an impressive collection of antique wooden Buddhas. It’s worth a visit to the tribal exhibition on the ground floor. The upper level features a spectacular showcase of Nan history, archaeology, local architecture, weapons, and religious art.
Nan National Museum, Phakong Rd, Mueang Nan, Nan
Opening Hours: 9 am-4 pm (closed on Monday and Tuesday)
Telephone: +6654 710 561
4. The Tranquil Wat Ton Laeng
The tranquility of nature and friendly locals are things to behold in Pua, where ethnic Thai Lue communities and small Buddhist temples are scattered around rice paddies. Located in the heart of Pua, Wat Ton Laeng draws visitors for its authentic beauty. The ordination hall was established in 1884 in Thai Lue architecture with two hipped lower roofs and a gabled roof on top. Small but beautiful, the roof is decorated with a colorful sun-rays motif. Naga finials mark the edge of lower hipped roofs, while two lion statues guard the entrance of the chapel hall. The best time to visit is in the morning when sunlight brings seated Buddha out of the shadow.
Wat Ton Laeng, Pua district, within an hour’s drive from the City of Nan.
5. A Living Museum of Nan Noble House
Four connecting houses make the perfect residence for Chao Fong Kham, who is a descendant of Nan’s ruler. With teak wood, high basement, the gabled roof made of clay tiles, the 200-year-old Nan Noble House was restored and converted into a living museum. The building was made in a traditional way by using different types of wood joints. The upper floor is a museum with an extensive collection of antique and valuable items such as silverware and old textiles.
Hong Chao Fong Kham (Nan Noble House), Sumon Thewarat 2 Alley, Mueang Nan.
Opening Hours: 9 am-4 pm (closed on Monday and Tuesday)
Telephone: +6654 710 537
6. Rafting Thrills on the Wa River
Rising near Thailand-Laos frontier, the Wa River offers one of Thailand’s great rafting and camping experiences. Rafting on the middle section of the wild river usually involves two to three nights of sleeping out at riverside camps. There you can see fireflies dance shimmering arabesques through the forest canopy and gibbons give you a morning wake-up call. The final stretch takes you through the tropical jungle where sometimes monkeys chatter and laugh at the soaked rafters from the treetops. Between October and February is the best time to raft in Nan, as the water is mighty and crystal-clear.
Visitors need local tour operators to organize rafting and camping in the national park, and there are authorized agents available in Nan.
For more information, call the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Nan Office) at +6654 711 217.
7. The Valley of Salt Wells, Bo Kluea
In an extensive nature reserve and the valley of the Bo Kluea district of Nan outpost, these ancient salt wells were once Nan’s great resource and asset, drawing ancient salt traders from around the world. Visiting the salt wells in the valley makes for a good day trip. Stroll in the small village and observe the locals harvesting salt in the old way by dumping buckets of brine into a large pan to evaporate water with low heat. Bo Kluea is also a great place to stop for lunch. A professional Thai chef left Bangkok and a five-star hotel behind to open his resort “Boklua View” (+66 54 778 140) in the district. The resort is the best in the valley and serves excellent local and international food with a stunning valley view. Down in the valley, Oun I Mang resort (+ 66 97 036 2450) offers a cozy and comfortable stay in the rustic-chic stilted cottage.
If you want to travel there, rent a car in Nan and enjoy the views during your drive. Bo Kluea is about 100 kilometers, or a 2-hour drive, from downtown Nan. There is also a van that you can hire to drive you there.
8. The Best Bed & Breakfasts & Bar
Cocoa Valley Resort
In the peaceful Pua valley lies an organic cocoa plantation and boutique hideaway called “Cocoa Valley Resort.” No matter if you are a pair of lovers looking for quiet seclusion, a group of friends in need of an escape from hectic daily life, or a soloist on an off-road motorcycle looking for adventure from the high roads, you will find peace in this resort. Cocoa Valley Resort promises guests plenty of space to get away and connect with nature. You can visit temples, local villages, and laze around the peaceful valley. This 16-room property is located on a working cocoa plantation, and many things you taste here are infused with raw and original cocoa. All guest rooms are stylish with a loft design plus bare concrete beams, wood wall, floral tiles, high ceiling, and balcony overlooking lush cocoa trees. Visit the Cocoa Valley Café for a “tree-to-bar” experience, where visitors can make their chocolate bars and take them home.
Room rates are around Bt1,000 – Bt2,800 per night for two sharing in peak season.
Cocoa Valley Resort, 339 Pua, Nan
Telephone: +6663 791 1619
Toobna Farm Stay
With beautiful rice paddies stretching across Pua valley, Toobna is a place to stop and unwind. In the middle of this breathtaking scenery, you eat delicious, healthy food from a bamboo tray before sleeping in the cozy farmhouse. This is the perfect place to reinvigorate yourself in the beautiful countryside.
Telephone: +6694 143 1969
This speakeasy answers your call for a strong sense of discovery. Located in Sumon Thewarat Road, Mueang Nan, the Bitter Bar is hard to spot at first glance. From the basement of the old-fashioned wooden house, follow the light to the second story. There you will find the watering hole with a long list of drinks– craft beer, cocktails, draft beer, Scotch whiskey, and bourbon. It’s an unexpected treat to find this sophisticated bar in a remote location like Nan. However, the Bitter Bar is often closed for private parties.
Bitter Bar, Sumon Thewarat Road, Mueang Nan, Nan
Opening Hours: 7 pm-midnight
9. Shopping Fun
Want to bring home a little piece of Nan with you? Pha Lai Nam Lai, a homespun cotton textile with a wavy pattern of flowing water, is the perfect souvenir. The design is adapted from Thai Lue sarong – where artisans use silver and black threads to intertwine wavy patterns, telling a tale of flowing water and fertility. Here are the best places to support local artisans – let alone to satisfy your shopping spree.
Ban Tai Lue Cafe, Pua
Lamduan Pha Thor (+6654 792 317), a local textile shop in Pua district, transforms traditional Thai Lue houses, spectacular countryside, and coffee into a culture and lifestyle destination. Visitors can stop by for refreshments and indulge themselves with a little luxury in endless paddy fields, bamboo walkways, and thatched farmhouse. While watching artisans working in the weaving loom, you can browse through a collection of Thai Lue textiles. Homestay, with basic accommodation and food, lets you live in Thai Lue culture.
Nan Walking Street
Next-door to Wat Phumin, Nan City Square (or Khuang Mueang) has been the heart of culture and trade shows for hundreds of years, and that tradition holds strong today. On the weekend, the corner of Suriyaphong and Phakong is closed to traffic between 4pm – 9pm. The chaotic, crowded, colorful malls are stacked side by side. Food vendors, along with artisans and cloth merchants, ply their trade for local products. Amidst the mix, you will find several stalls selling hand-woven and Pha Lai Nam Lai fabrics.
How To Get There
Flights operate daily from Don Mueang International Airport and Nan Airport, therefore traveling to Nan is fairly easy for travelers.
Nan connects to Chiang Rai, Lampang, and Phrae via public bus lines. Buses head travel daily from Bangkok Bus Terminal (Chatuchak) to Nan (10 hours/510 Baht).
Nan doesn’t have a taxi or tuk-tuk. Since the city is small, you can rely on a motorcycle taxi and “songthaew” vehicle, which can be hired like a tuk-tuk to get around Nan.
Car rental is available at Nan Airport if you want to drive yourself around Nan and beyond. You’ll need a valid driver’s license to rent a vehicle.