Photo: Chanchai Duangdoosan/Shutterstock

Backpacker's Secret Guide: Nan, Thailand

Thailand Budget Travel
by Frank Johnson Jun 11, 2009
Get on a motorbike and away from the crowds in northern Thailand.

Tired of endless hassling from tour companies in northern Thailand’s overtouristed regions like Chiang Mai, the ones promising unique trekking experiences that are anything but? Leave them behind and check out the small province of Nan instead.

Base of Operations: Nan Town

The provincial capital of the same name is a small hub of urbanization tucked into a corner of Thailand’s northwestern bulge. Its main feature is that it doesn’t feature much of anything, just friendly people, straightforward service, and beautiful countryside at its doorstep.

Nan’s population of 24,000 sees just enough travelers to maintain a few well-run guesthouses and a solid travel agency. There are no guided tours here, no overpriced Western food, no feeling of walking on paths well worn.

One of Nan’s biggest pluses is its accommodations.

The Amazing Guesthouse, situated down a back alley a few blocks from the bus station, is a tiny, quaint place, but its management will embrace you as family.

The wooden floors and walls in the rooms give it a warm and inviting feel while the rates encourage a long stay.

Two older Thai women do all the cooking, cleaning, and advice-giving. Your new-found Thai grandmothers will hook you up with a bike (motored or otherwise), fix a mean omelet for breakfast, and always ask you how your day went.

Now that you’re settled in nice and cozy, take the map they provided and plan your day trips into unexplored territory.

Provincial Exploration

With a motorbike as your trusty steed, there are no limits to what you can see and do in Nan Province.

Journey along any of the roads radiating out of town and civilization quickly falls away. The region features the rough and rugged terrain northern Thailand is known for, but it also has flat agrarian stretches ideal for sunset cruising.

Several national parks are within a few hours’ drive of town and offer great venues for exploration. Directly north of Nan lies Tham Pha Tup Forest Park, filled with trails that scramble over and around the lush, rocky landscape.

On a sunny day, the area is a dazzling array of vivid greens and grays. Numerous caves dot the park, giving cool relief after a strenuous climb.

Waterfalls are also scattered throughout the region. The Sila Phet Waterfall, near the northern village of Pua, may not rival Niagara in terms of scale, but it makes up for it with charm.

The stream that feeds the waterfall follows a rocky route, where it often collects in small, clear pools. These watering holes are a favorite for local families, who flock to the area on warm afternoons for picnics and swimming.

Northern Thai Village Life

In between swaths of mountainous terrain, the land runs flat and level, flush with rice fields and villages caught halfway between modernization and tradition.

The houses in these tiny townships are constructed from both wood or bamboo and more modern materials. They line the roads that pass through them, alongside broad-leafed palm trees.

Relaxing adults populate the open storefronts and porches while packs of children walk along the road’s shoulders and teenagers on motorbikes of their own speed by you.

Just watch for the lazy dogs soaking up the sun on the pavement.

Any of the numerous villages you’ll cruise through are perfect for a stop at a local market. Find familiar items like ice cream and fried chicken along with strange vegetables and ripe, smelly fish spread out on long tables.

Those few words of Thai you may have learned are a good way to earn warm smiles from the various merchants.

South of Nan, the road twists and turns up a mountain pass for a ride that alternates between exhilarating and terrifying. On the other side, it smoothes out and coasts until hitting the fishing village of Pak Nai.

Here, you can try out local flavors or take in the surrounding green mountains on a leisurely raft ride.

Such day trips can be planned and executed for the cost of a few liters of gas — no expensive tour necessary. Ride slow or fast; walk through markets or hike up hills; buy handcrafted souvenirs or eat local specialties. Nan offers travelers the freedom to truly get lost and explore.

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