A province rich in history and blessed with spectacular scenery, Nan is one of the most rewarding destinations to visit in North Thailand. And yet, despite its ample charms, Nan has managed to remain relatively unknown to overseas tourists. Most visitors to the north head instead to the better-known destinations of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
If you are keen to explore more of North Thailand, take a look at what Nan has to offer. And if you would like to discover more of ‘Unseen Thailand‘, you can combine a trip to Nan with visits to Phrae and Phayao. Shown here in no particular order, these are our suggestions for some of the best things to see and do in Nan.
1) Unwind into country life
Nan province is home to some of the most serene views anywhere in Thailand. That might be a big claim, but if you venture into the Nan countryside you’ll soon discover one of the main reasons that makes this such a special destination to visit.
The pace of life in rural Nan remains unhurried and with its gorgeous backdrop of mountains and rice fields, this is the ideal destination to unwind. Admire the views at any of Nan’s National Parks like Si Nan or Doi Khu Pha or travel to Pua and Sapan and discover the joys of country life.
2) Learn about Tai Lue culture
There are an estimated 83,000 members of the Tai Lue community in Thailand, most living in the northern provinces including Nan. The Tai Lue ethnic group originated from Yunnan province in China with many arriving to the Lanna kingdom (now part of north Thailand) during the reign of King Kawila in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
While those living in Nan are proudly Thai, they have not forgotten their culture and heritage. This can be seen in the traditional dress, music and way of life.
3) Visit Nan National Museum
Even if museums aren’t usually your thing, Nan National Museum is worth a visit. Conveniently located in the centre of Nan town a short walk from Wat Phumin, the photogenic museum was formerly the residence of a Nan nobleman before serving as the town hall and now a museum.
The picturesque grounds are reason enough to visit, but do make time to go inside and learn more about the fascinating history of Nan and the people who live here.
The grounds are also home to the smallest temple in Thailand, Wat Noy. At first glance, the diminutive structure appears to be a spirit house, but is in fact a temple. To find out the story behind Wat Noy, take a look here at #14 on our list of amazing temples in Thailand.
4) Admire the murals at Wat Phumin
Of all the attractions in Nan town, it is Wat Phumin which is the most famous for Thai visitors. The royal temple was built by a former ruler of Nan in the 16th century. Wat Phumin was renovated in the mid-late 1800s and it was during this period when the temple’s famous murals were painted by a local Tai Lue artist. The murals not only depict scenes from Buddhism, but also of life in Nan in the 1800s. This included the most famous mural scene known as ‘Whispers of Love’ or simply, the ‘Whispering’.
5) Take a tram tour
The city centre of Nan is compact enough to walk or cycle around, but taking a tram tour is an enjoyable alternative. Trams leave from the tourist information (office opposite Wat Phumin) twice a day at 10.30am and 3.30pm. The fare is 30 Baht.
6) Shop at the Walking Street Market
Nan’s delightful Walking Street Market (known locally as ‘Kad Khuang Mueang Nan‘) sets up each weekend in the area around Wat Phumin. With a relaxed and welcoming ambience, this is a lovely place to eat, shop and people watch.
You’ll find plenty of booths selling locally produced arts, crafts and souvenirs in addition to an array of food stalls. Open Friday-Sunday 5pm-10pm.
7) Sample northern Thai food
Khao soi lovers will be pleased to know there are plenty of venues in Nan to try this signature northern Thai dish. Look out too for khanom jeen nam ngiao, sai oua and a host of other northern Thai favourites. Try the stalls and restaurants around the morning market, take in the riverside views at Huen Chao Nang and try the signature khao soi dish at Khao Soi Ton Nam.
8) Climb the viewpoint at Wat Phra That Khao Noi
The temple of Wat Phra That Khao Noi is situated on a hill a few miles to the west of Nan city centre. Constructed in the 15th century, the temple is held in particularly high regard by local people because the main chedi houses a relic from Buddha. The temple is also the site of a beautiful Buddha statue. Erected in 1999 and standing 9 metres high, the elegant golden coloured statue looks out over the Nan valley.
You can cycle here, but the last part of the journey means leaving your bike at the foot of the stairs and making the climb up to the temple and viewpoint. Alternatively, hire a songthaew or taxi to take you there and back.
9) Wake up early for the morning market
Whichever Thai town or city you are in, paying a visit to the local morning market can be an enlightening experience. It can also be as good a place as any to get breakfast or stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables.
The morning market in Nan is also one of the best places to observe Buddhist monks on their early morning alms round. This provides a daily opportunity for working people to make merit by giving food or provisions to the monks. And with a cluster of temples in the compact city centre of Nan, it makes for a colourful scene in and around the morning market.
You don’t have to be Buddhist to take part in alms giving, but there are etiquette rules so follow the lead of Thai people if you aren’t sure what to do. Although you can take photos, obviously you need to use some discretion and always be respectful of the monks and the people offering alms.
10) Get arty
Whether you consider yourself an art lover or not, the Nan Riverside Arts Space is worth making time for on your Nan itinerary. The creation of local artist, Winai Prabripoo, this creative space on the banks of the Nan River features impressive indoor galleries and thought-provoking outdoor art installations.
11) Try your hand at making artisan chocolate
The climate and soil in Nan’s Pua district is well-suited to growing cacao trees which in turn means chocolate can be made here. Book a stay at Cocoa Valley Resort and you can visit the farm here and take part in a chocolate making workshop. The daily chocolate workshop costs around 350 Baht per person and includes the farm visit and the chocolate bar you make.
12) Visit the ancient salt wells
The village of Bo Kluea is the site of two ancient salt wells. Salt from here was once exported around Siam and even into China. Nowadays, the revenue comes mostly from Thai tourists visiting the area. It’s an interesting spot to visit and learn about the process all while enjoying the scenic district of Bo Kluea.
13) Pay your respects at Wat Phra That Chae Haeng
The 55-metre tall gold-coloured chedi of Wat Phra That Chae Haeng contains a relic of the Buddha making this one of the most revered temples in Nan. Located around 10-minutes drive south-east of Nan city centre, the easiest way to get here without your own transport is by hiring a taxi or songthaew.
14) Experience life on the water
Nan is famous for the longtail boat races that take place around September and October when river levels are at their highest. This old tradition dates back centuries with crowds gathering on the banks of the Nan River to watch the races.
If you’re adventurous, take a trip out into the Nan countryside where white-water rafting can be arranged on the Wa River. Ask at your hotel when you are in Nan or contact local tour company, Nan Adventure Tour (link in Thai) for details.
15) Visit the Noble House
Known locally as ‘Hong Chao Fong Kham’, this 200 year old teakwood mansion was the former home of a prominent Nan nobleman. This classic building now houses a museum featuring antique and cultural displays that showcase the traditional way of life in Nan. Open on Wednesday-Sunday from 9am-5pm with an entrance fee of 20 Baht.
How to get to Nan
Air Asia and Nok Air operate flights to Nan from Bangkok Don Muang airport. Travelling from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the reliable Green Bus Company offers a good choice of comfortable bus services that link Nan, Phrae and Phayao.