With its high elevation, mystic mountains and scenic lakes, Northern Thailand provides a pretty sanctuary from the hectic pace and heat of Bangkok or Phuket. But it is its ancient, almost otherworldly atmosphere, and the siren call of its shimmering temples, streets bursting with history, culture and tradition, and warm people that lures me back time and again. So much so that my partner and I, overseen by a coterie of village elders and wrapped in the melodious blessings of a ribbon of saffron robed monks, were married here.
But beyond the regional hotspots of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, both every bit deserving of their heavyweight tourist status, are Nan and Phrae, two smaller cities so delightfully off the radar most tourists have never even heard of them. These undeservingly overlooked towns are unhurried and unsullied treasures, fringed by tranquil paddy-filled valleys and mist-shrouded hills, and crammed with nineteenth century teak homes and elaborate temples.
Like a Phrae
Phrae, pronounced on a gentle breath of wind as ‘prayer’ is the answer to mine. After a week of Bangkok’s bustle and hum, this tranquil riverside town and its antique teak mansions, Lanna temples and fruit laden trees is so calming, it’s like downing a spiritual G&T
Slow and soul soothing, this is the Thailand less travelled. A compact town that is easily explored on foot or by samlors (three-wheel pedal tricycle), you’re unlikely to spot another foreign tourist. You are, however, likely to spot cats. Especially if you should visit Wat Chom Sawam, a Burmese-style teak wood temple that houses a glorious golden Buddha, decoratively stencilled coffered ceilings and a clowder of devout kitties who have made themselves quite at home, making this crazy cat lady very happy indeed.
At Wat Phra That Chang Kham, one of Nan’s oldest and most important temples, the cats are replaced by elephants. At least statues of them. Built in 1406, the large octagonal Lanna-style Chedi is supported by 24 stone elephants. Though the kitties do still represent, in the form of two white lions guarding the shrine entrance.
Though entirely devoid of felines, Wat Pong Sunan proves to be my favourite temple in Phrae. The elaborate and eclectic complex boasts a frozen forest of 108 gold-tipped white spires, a splendid reclining Buddha, a giganic gilded tortoise carrying an image of the Buddha, and two particularly ferocious naga (serpents). But the temple’s real charm comes in the form of a rather chatty abbot, who seems excited indeed to practise his (very good) English with us.
Later I dine at Vongburi House, an intricate architectural confection painted wedding cake pink. Built for the daughter of the local ruler and rocking a Barbie’s Colonial Dream Home vibe, the teak mansion, now a museum, provides a perfectly preserved snapshot of Phrae at the start of the 20th century. Set in a manicured garden, the teak mansion also provides me with an opportunity to sip on butterfly pea – a sweet purple drink that thankfully has little to do with butterflies or pee and is derived from a plant of the same name. Here my companions and I dine Lanna-style on bamboo mats from a khantoke, a pedestal tray heaving under the weight of a selection of shared northern Thai delights including a sublime northern style pork curry, crispy fried chicken, spicy coconut soup, crispy rice cakes and the all-important sticky rice that, in lieu of cutlery, we use to scoop up our meal.
Tangled up in blue
A couple of kilometres north of Phrae on the highway to Nan, a rural province bordering Laos, we stop at the village of Ban Thung Hom, streaked blue and white from fluttering indigo dyed fabrics. Here I find myself literally tangled up in blue as we plunge ourselves elbow deep into the mysteries of the magical indigo plant at a dipping and dying workshop.
The making of indigo dye in this village dates back several centuries and uses the hom indigo plant that grows wild throughout Southeast Asia. While there is no single method or formula to making the dye, conjuring the plant into serene shades of indigo blue dye that swathe the streets of Ban Thung Hom village involves a series of carefully managed chemical reactions and just the right quantities of lime (not the fruit) and wood. I can’t help but stock up on bundles of the vividly hued cloth before heading further northeast to Nan.
Smells like Nan Spirit
In Nan city I discover a different kind of alchemy, as I am swept up in a magical mystical tour of a selection of the town’s 475 temples. Wat Ming Muang, enshrining the city pillar, is embellished in ice white stucco like an extravagant wedding cake, while nearby Wat Sri Panton is a golden confection adorned with gleaming seven-headed naga.
But it is Wat Phumin that, despite its outward simplicity, is the most eye-popping. Its interior houses an important central Buddha that faces in four directions, while the walls are strewn with extravagant 19th century frescoes illustrating the everyday life and stories of the Thai people, as well as the Nimi Jatakas (the ten previous lives of the Buddha) and an appropriately discouraging representation of hell, complete with depictions of ritual torture and a rather unfortunate gentleman with massively engorged testicles. But it’s not all gloom and doom as the Wat’s walls are also adorned with the romantic, ‘Whisper of Love,’ where couples wishing for love and long marriages stop to pray.
A glimpse of swishing saffron and the ameliorating hum of Budhhist chant greets us as we stroll along a walkway flanked by two massive naga at Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, the most sacred wat in the Province due to its 55-metre spiral-shaped chedi, said to house seven relics of the Buddha. Dating back to 1355, the massive complex sits in a walled enclosure on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. Here we attach wishes to a Boddhi tree and purchase lotus flowers, incense and a candle from a kind-eyed lady with teeth stained red from betel quids. Barefoot, we enter the temple with our symbolic offerings, our progress observed only by the omnipotent all-seeing eyes of the Buddha images that fill the inner sanctum.
Sweet and salty
We dine hungrily on Northern Thailand’s spicy, salty and sour cuisine. Laden with Yuannanese, Shan and Burmese influences, this is Thai food with a difference and from the golden bowls of noodle stuffed Khao Soy curry to the crunch of a spicy green papaya salad and black sticky rice served with lusciously ripe mango, we gobble it all happily.
In keeping with our immersion to the spiritual side of Naan we’re taught how to prepare floral offerings at Noble House, a large, rambling teak house in classic Northern Thai style.
At dawn the following day we find ourselves offering alms – though these are purchased packets of rice, sweets and water – to Buddhist monks and their young novices as they stroll past the morning markets in exchange for blessings. And blessed we feel as we enter the markets afterwards, once again the only foreign tourists in town. The vendors smilingly greet us as we stumble into an ocular and olfactory wonderland of vibrant fruits and vegetables, pink shelled eggs, steaming white soy milk and golden pots of fragrant curries.
Of course, I try a little of everything, and I leave Nan with both belly and spiritual well very full indeed.
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