Ask anybody who has been to Thailand to name their favourite location in the north of the country and there’s a good chance they may reply Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Or they may plump for Pai or Mae Hong Son. And it’s difficult to argue with any of these choices because they are all wonderful destinations in their own right. There are, though, so many other locations waiting to be discovered in the north of the country. If you are looking to try somewhere different on your next trip to Thailand or want to see areas of the country that most foreign tourists miss out on, check out this trio of northern Thai provinces: Nan, Phrae, and Phayao. Make the journey to these less well-known destinations and you will be rewarded with scenic lakes, mountain views and a warm northern Thai welcome.
Steeped in history and home to some epic scenery, Nan has to be one of the north’s most underrated locations. Despite the undeniable charms of the area, most overseas tourists tend to bypass Nan in favour of more developed tourist locations such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. If your itinerary is flexible and you are already planning a trip to northern Thailand, do consider finding time for Nan.
The charming and compact city of Nan is a pleasure to explore. Many of the main historical sites such as Wat Phumin and the National Museum are within easy walking distance of each other or you can hire a bicycle and make use of the dedicated bike lanes. There is also a sightseeing tram that covers most of the main attractions.
Get up early and hit the morning market to get a feel for the city and to watch monks on their morning alms round. Enjoy a hearty breakfast at any of the eateries near the market and then stroll around Nan’s historic central zone. Wat Phumin is the main draw for Thai tourists with the temple’s ‘Whispering’ mural a scene you will see reproduced on souvenirs and t-shirts. Visit the various temples in the centre of Nan and then sit down to lunch at one of the riverside restaurants like Huen Chao Nang. After dining on tasty northern Thai specialties, make the short trip outside of the city centre to see the famous walking Buddha image on the hill at Wat Phra That Khao Noi. Art lovers will enjoy the Nan Riverside Arts Space while nature lovers should take the opportunity to explore the remote beauty of Si Nan National Park and Doi Samer Dao.
Nan marks the end of Buddhist Lent (usually in October) with a series of longtail boat races which are always fun to watch. If you’d prefer to be active on the water rather than just a spectator, Nan is a good place to go white-water rafting. Contact local tour company, Nan Adventure Tour (link in Thai) to arrange an exhilarating trip on the Wa River.
Phrae is famous for its teak forests and from the late 1880s through until the 1940s this was a major trading hub for the precious commodity. During the timber industry boom years, hundreds of teakwood houses and mansions were built in Phrae. Outstanding examples of these teakwood buildings can be found at the Governor’s House (Khum Chao Luang), Wongburi House and Ban Pratup Chai. Anybody interested in wartime history should spend time at the excellent Seri Thai (Free Thai) Museum. The museum is located in the former home of one of the leaders of the Siamese resistance movement, a group who helped the Allies in their fight against the Japanese army during the Second World War.
Many of the more interesting buildings in Phrae are located in the Old Town area. Spend the day walking around the quiet streets and admiring the beautiful wooden buildings. Feast on northern Thai food at the night market close to Pratu Chai (Victory Gate) and if you’re in town at the weekend take in the Saturday Walking Street Market. Just outside of town you can visit the handicraft villages with the Phrae area being particularly renowned for the production of the blue ‘mo hom’ farmers’ shirts and ‘tin chok’ fabric.
If you’ve already visited Chiang Mai you’re probably familiar with the temple at Doi Suthep. The equivalent site in Phrae is Wat Phra That Choe Hae, a temple which contains relics of the Lord Buddha. Local people will tell you that you haven’t been to Phrae until you’ve been to Wat Phra That Choe Hae. The temple hosts a huge annual festival (in March/April) where locals gather to pay their respects.
With an attractive lakeside setting and good access to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the town of Phayao is an appealing location to spend a day or two. The surrounding area is characterised by hills and valleys and although Phayao isn’t packed with tourist attractions, it’s a friendly and relaxing place to visit.
Phayao’s main attraction is Kwan Phayao, the largest freshwater lake in north Thailand. The picturesque stretch of water is at the heart of local festivals including Loy Krathong and important Buddhist holidays. Beneath the lake are the remains of an ancient temple, Wat Tilok Aram, which was built during the late 1400s long before the lake was created. A small island with a shrine and Buddha statue sits above the site of the temple. Boats ferry monks and devotees out to the island to pay their respects. A pleasant promenade stretches along the south side of the lake with a number of restaurants and cafes where you can sit down and enjoy the view. Try the local speciality which is tilapia fish caught from the lake and grilled with salt and herbs. Add some grilled chicken, sticky rice, and an ice-cold beer for the complete Phayao dining experience. Aroy mak, as they say in Thailand!
Nok Air operate flights to Nan and Phrae from Bangkok Don Muang airport. Air Asia also fly from Don Muang to Nan. There is no airport in Phayao, but the reliable Green Bus Company (link in Thai) run frequent services from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The same company also offer a good choice of services that link Nan and Phrae with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.