A woman demonstrates a traditional weaving method in Thailand’s Nan province. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Thailand’s Nan province offers clients the opportunity to see several temples, including Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng. // © 2015 iStock
The red brick steps leading up to the temple entrance at Wat Phumin were hot on my feet, and though I was sporting a pair of ankle-high socks, I still found myself jumping from the sun-drenched side of the stairs to the shaded section, hoping for a little relief.
A visit to the Nan province of Thailand in mid-June may not be the best idea for folks who don’t enjoy hot weather, but the sweltering summer heat certainly wasn’t keeping me from enjoying my first trip to the region. Thanks to Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Discover Thainess” campaign, which recommends the area as one of the nation’s “12 hidden gems” that tourists shouldn’t miss, Nan has received a recent boost in destination marketing.
Located on Thailand’s northern border with Laos, east of the nation’s better-known Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai destinations, Nan offers travelers an impressive collection of rich culture and gorgeous natural beauty, highlighted in the region’s several national parks.
My recent visit, however, focused on Nan city, which is about 350 miles north of Bangkok and home to around 80,000 people. Lying mostly west of the Nan River, the sleepy little town provides quite a contrast from the chaotic energy of Thailand’s bustling capital. It offers travelers a diverse collection of temples — all of which adhere to a strict no-shoes policy — along with terrific restaurants and the chance to scoop up some of the region’s artisanal handicrafts.
Built about 400 years ago, Wat Phumin is one of Nan city’s sites well worth visiting. It holds not only four gilded Buddhas, each facing North, East, South and West, respectively, but also some of Thailand’s most famous painted wall murals. Known as the Pu Man, Ya Man works, the vivid imagery depicts an array of Buddha stories and local legends, evoking a kind of Southeast-Asia-Sistine-Chapel feel.
Another Nan city highlight is the 750-year-old Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng. The hilltop temple on the outskirts of town features a towering, 180-foot golden “chedi” (stupa) in a complex loaded with ornate, spiritual structures reflecting a range of architectural influences. Visitors will also want to set aside time for the town’s National Museum of Nan, home to a remarkable gathering of treasures and a celebrated black-ivory elephant tusk important to regional history.
Folks looking to get an introductory feel for Nan city may want to hop on one of the town’s regularly scheduled tram tours, departing from a location across the street from the centrally-situated Wat Phumin temple. The trip includes a number of temple stops, along with a traditional weaving visit and a chance to tour a historical teak-wood home in the city.
When you’re ready for something to eat, U dee Kin dee Cafe serves up terrific Thai food with a contemporary flair. I loved the restaurant’s signature baked rice with pineapple dish, and I also sampled a terrific pad thai with delicious crispy wontons. Those with a sweet tooth will want to head to Nan’s famous Raan Kong Wan Pa Nim dessert restaurant, well-known for a traditional and tasty “khanom bua loi” dish, made with coconut milk, sweet rice and sweet egg that draws crowds of local Thai people. There, I enjoyed a coconut ice-cream dish topped with sweet black rice, taro and ripe mango.
Wandering through the town’s night market, which runs along Phakong Road near Wat Phumin, is a wonderful way to sample a wide variety of street food, as well as browse through everything from designer knockoffs to local artisanal creations such as hand-woven textiles and artwork.
Westerners will be comfortable at the small Nan Boutique Hotel, located just a short drive from the city center and home to spacious rooms with firm beds, televisions and refrigerators. The ample en suite bathrooms in each guestroom provide a great place to shower off a full day’s worth of exploring, and the hotel’s open-air Tazs Cafe offers up a terrific buffet breakfast each morning. Guests can also take advantage of free Wi-Fi access and complimentary bicycles to explore the city.