Nan is a town of about 20,000 inhabitants in northern Thailand, very close to the Lao border, and is the capital of the province that bears the same name. Located halfway between the important cities of Chiang Mai, the center of the late Lanna Kingdom, and the former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, Nan has a long history as a semi-autonomous region until in 1931 it fell completely under the rule of the Kingdom of Siam -Thailand’s official name until 1939-. Nowadays Nan is visited mostly by Thai tourists, and although very few foreigners make it here, it is a great destination for those looking for a non-tourist alternative completely off the beaten track. Nan is a quiet town where you’ll find an authentic local atmosphere, many interesting temples both in the town and on top of nearby hilltops, and four beautiful National Parks spread throughout the province, which can be easily visited from the town if you have your own wheels.
ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Nan
The two most interesting temples in downtown Nan are Wat Phumin and Wat Phra That Chang Kham, located less than 200 metres from each other. Wat Phumin is the most famous of all temples in Nan, a nice little wat over 400 years old that. Its main chapel has the unusual feature of being presided by not one but four Buddha images, one facing each direction. But what makes this Wat Phumin so renowned is not this but a late 19th century addition: the exquisite murals painted by the Thai Lue artist Thit Buphan, a work that took over 20 years to complete. The most popular scene depicts a flirting Thai couple, which has become an icon of Nan and is reproduced in t-shirts and travel brochures. Some other interesting scenes include Buddhist passages and many depictions of local life, including one of the earliest depictions of a kathoey (transsexual). Wat Phra That Chang Kham is a 15th century temple containing a huge seated Buddha statue in Chiang Saen style, and an old bell-shaped chedi that features elephant supports similar to those found in Sukhothai.
There’s two local markets in Nan that shouldn’t be missed: the main day market and the weekend evening market. Nan day market is the best place to check the pulse of the town, just stroll along the stalls to observe local interaction and the usual fare of colourful fresh food that you can find in any Thai market. This is also a good option if you want to sample some authentic local dishes and snacks. If after wandering for a while you want to keep enjoying the market atmosphere more comfortably, you can sit on the terrace of Coffe Sound cafe and observe the bustle. If you’re in town on a weekend don’t miss the Weekend Evening Market that runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday next to Wat Phumin and is open from 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM. In addition to souvenirs and clothes, half of the market is devoted to food and drinks, an excellent dining option to sample local food varieties for dirt-cheap prices. There is a dining area with low tables and mats right in front of Wat Phumin, where you can sit down and eat whatever you bought in the market while a local singer plays well-known Thai pop songs.
Nan National Museum
Nan National Museum is one of the best provincial museums to be found in Thailand. It is located in the early 20th century feudal palace where the last ruler of Nan used to live, before Nan was assimilated into the kingdom of Siam (1932). The exhibitions are divided into two floors, and there are English labels for most of the items. The ground floor exhibits objects from the province’s different ethnic groups (Tai Lue, Hmong, Khamu, Yao and H’tin), including tribal costumes, handmade utensils and silverware. The first floor focuses on the history and archeology of Nan, dispaying royal regalia, weapons, pottery and Buddha images. The most prized object in the museum is a big black elephant tusk donated over 300 years ago by the ruler of Chiang Tung (Shan States, Myanmar) to a Nan lord. Nan National Museum is centrally located between the main downtown temples (Wat Phumin, Wat Hua Khang and Wat Phra That Chang Kham), and opens 09:00-16:00 from Wednesday to Sunday. Admission is 100 THB for foreigners.
In the vicinty of Nan town there are two hilltop Buddhist temples offering great views over the valley. The best panoramic views are the ones you’ll get from Wat Phra That Khao Noi, a 15th century temple on top of a small hill 5 km southwest from downtown. The main feature here is the elegant golden walking Buddha image that stands in the middle of a terrace overlooking the town and its surrounding areas. The amazing views are really worth the climb, and of course sunset is the best time to be up there. The other hillside temple is Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, located on a low hill about 4 kilometres to the southeast of the town centre. The hilltop is lower than the one where What Phra That Khao Noi stands, and accordingly the views are nos as spectacular, but still beautiful well worth the visit. This mid 14th century temple is one of the oldest and more revered in the region, with a beautiful main temple topped by a triple-tiered roof, standing next to an impressive gilded Lanna-style chedi that is supposed to contain a Buddha hair as a relic. The hilltop can be reached either by road or by climbing a naga staircase. To reach Wat Phra That Chae Haeng take Route 1168 southeast and it will drive you straight there.
Doi Phu Kha National Park
Whatever direction you take from Nan to the outskirts, after driving about an hour you will run into a National Park, covering low mountains with lush forests and pleasantly cooler temperatures. Most of these parks offer camping areas and guided activities such as trekking and rafting (the high season for these activities are the coolest months of November to February). The most popular and possibly best park in the area is Doi Phu Kha National Park, that contains the highest peak in the province (Phu Kha) and the sources of both Nan and Wa rivers. You can visit either as a daytrip from Nan or spend the night camping in a park. Just driving on the roads within the park, surrounded by lush green vegetation and occasional good panoramic views, crossing small mountain villages near the Laos border that hardly any tourists pass through, is already a rewarding experience in itself. If you visit on your own wheels, there’s a few well signposted hiking trails that you can walk on your own with the help of a map that you can pick at the headquarters. Otherwise, travel agencies in Nan offer one-day trekkings for a price that usually ranges between 1000 and 1500 THB/person, depending on the number of trekkers. Doi Phu Kha entrance is located 85 km northeast from Nan, and to get there you need to take Route 101 north for 60 km until Pua town, and then turn right and take Route 1256 for 26 km until reaching the Park main entrance.
Tham Pha Tup Forest Park
While in Nan, Tham Pha Tup Forest Park is the best half day trip option if you want to immerge yourself in nature for just a few hours, as it is located only 10 km north from Nan town, while reaching and exploring any National Park in the province takes much longer. Covering a total area of over 80 hectares, the park consisits of a flat round valley completely surrounded by jagged karst cliffs, a landscape similar to the one Krabi is famous for. There are numerous hiking trails through the lush jungle that lead to over a dozen caves and viewpoints. You can either hike on your own (the trails are pretty well marked, and there are good maps at the park office that you can take a picture of), or by hiring the services of one of the park rangers you’ll find at the park entrance. Tham Phra is the largest cave in the Park, and is conveniently located just about 300 metres from the park office, despite the fact that the trail leading there is quite steep. What makes this cave special is a natural opening in the ceiling that lets sunlight shine on a golden Buddha statue. Bring a flashlight to visit the caves, as some have deep drops and require to be careful.
🏨 Where to stay in Nan
There’s plenty of tourist accommodation in Nan, mainly catering to domestic tourism as very few international travelers visit here. Thai tourists come basically on weekends and public holidays, so it is advisable to book in advance, but in weekdays there’s very few tourists and no need to do so.
Centre of Nan
Best for: All kinds of travelers
Accommodation available: Hostels & guest houses, Hotels ranging from basic to midrange 4*.
✔️ Wider range of accommodation options.
✔️ Easy access to all kinds of restaurants ans services.
✔️ Choose central area if you don’t have your own wheels.
✔️ Urban but rather quiet.
Best for: Midrange travelers looking for a green surrounding
Accommodation available: 3* and 4* Resorts
✔️ Surrounded by green and nature.
✔️ Quieter area.
✔️ Only if you have your own wheels.
🧭 Itinerary to visit Nan
Provided you have your own wheels, one full day is enough to explore the most outstanding sites near Buriram:
✈️ Arriving to Nan
You can only get to Sangkhlaburi by road, and almost all travelers do either from Bangkok or Kanchanaburi:
✈️ By plane
📍 From Bangkok
➡️ 4 or 5 daily flights connecting Nan (NNT) with Bangkok with Air Asia, Nok Air (from DMK airport) and Thai Smile (from BKK airport).
➡️ 2 weekly flights (Friday and Sunday) connecting with Chiang Mai with Kan Air.
➡️ Nan’s small airport is located only 3 km north of the town centre. A taxi to your hotel in town should cost about 100 THB.
🚌 By bus
Cheaper and slower option
📍 From Bangkok or Chiang Mai
➡️ From Bangkok’s Mo Chit (Northern Bus Terminal) there are a dozen daily buses bound for Nan, departing both in the morning (from 06:00 to 08:30) and in the evening (from 18:00 to 20:30).
➡️ The trip takes between 10 and 11 hours, price between 400 THB and 900 THB depending on class.
➡️ To reach Mo Chit bus terminal you can take the Skytrain until Mo Chit stop, and then a motorcycle taxi to the bus terminal (60-80 THB).
➡️ From Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal there are 7 daily departures to Nan, from 07:00 to 22:30 (6-7 hours, 224-450 THB).