Jan 142016

For a small town, Nan has a surprising number of temples, markets, fabric stores, and souvenir shops. Or maybe we’re getting a skewed sample because these are the things that interest Kasma the most? There are plenty of nature photo-ops, but it’s definitely not the kind of trip where you’ll find yourself ziplining through a teak forest. You’ll have to get your kicks in some other way, such as the spicy food.

January 12, 2016

For breakfast, the hotel offered rice porridge with a choice of sliced fish, ground pork, or both. Naturally, I got both. Other available toppings included crispy fried garlic, white pepper, vinegar infused with chillies, fish sauce, and so forth. You could make it as exciting as you liked. You also could get a fried egg and a salad if you desired. One thing that seemed in short supply was the papaya; I didn’t receive a plate of assorted fruit, probably because I showed up late.

Today we would be venturing on foot, starting with Wat Phumin, famous for its murals. Actually, we started at Phu Coffee across the street from the temple, since the coffee at the hotel buffet was nothing special. And vendor stalls selling Pashmina scarves and various local themed fabrics and brick-a-brac.

The main building of interest is unusual in many respects, beyond its Tai Lue architecture. It is not uncommon for the handrails of staircases into some temple buildings to be sculpted into the shape of a naga, a mythical serpent which may be depicted with one to seven heads. The naga guards the temple against evil. At Wat Phumin, instead of having the head of a naga at the beginning of each handrail, the back side of the building has a naga tail. Inside, the central Buddha image faces in four different directions and most importantly, from the perspective of its popularity, the walls are covered with murals. These depict the typical scenes from the life of the Buddha as well as activities of daily life. Throughout Nan, you see one element of the murals, a man, though to be the artist, whispering into the ear of a woman, thought to be his lover, printed on souvenirs of every description. I bought the t-shirt.

(A separate building on the grounds depicts scenes of “Buddhist hell” including gruesome blood spatter. I’m not sure why they dedicated a building to this unpleasant scene; is this where they take you if you don’t remove your shoes at the right places?)


We strolled a couple blocks to What Phra That Chang Kam Worawihan. “Chang Kam” or “Chong Khum” refers to the chedi being borne on the backs of elephants. The chedi (in other countries, stupa) houses a relic of the Buddha, and emerging from the base on all sides are the front halves of elephants. Another block over, we stopped to admire the handsome teak buildings at Wat Hua Khuang. One of the buildings was heavily laden with expensive-looking art, and there is a very fancy toilet by temple standards, so this wat seems to be well supported.

Before lunch, we stopped at a tiny store featuring locally made fabrics. Of the fourteen of us, the nine women were squeezed inside with the five men outside. This would become a bit of a pattern with fabric stops. We took a quick look at the town’s most famous curry noodle shop but it was a little too crowded, so we crossed the street to Huen Horm for a second visit. Their beef curry noodles were spicier than others we’ve tried, and the beef tender. Excellent choice. Now we can resume our local exploration.

Wat Ming Muang contains a hall with a large Buddha image, of course, but also the city pillar. This is a tall cylindrical object that worshippers decorated with colorful cloth ties. (Its origin may lie in more literal phallus statues, but the design has become less anatomically detailed over time.) Inside the main building, artists on scaffolds worked on completing the temple’s brightly colored murals.

After wandering over to a store featuring Hmong silver products, we were set free for the rest of the afternoon. Some shopped, some got coffee, and at least one got a foot massage. We met up again at the hotel for our largest happy hour yet. Tomorrow, we will need to move it downstairs to the dining room to avoid disturbing other guests.

For dinner, we walked to nearby Suan Sanian. They seated us outdoors with plenty of elbow room — most places arrange us cheek by jowl as though we were thin Thai people, not allowing for our larger American body dimensions. First up was a fish larb: a whole snake head fish was slit along the sides and deep fried, then smothered with shallots, herbs, and ground toasted rice. The fish was good, but the dressing was a bit salty in quantity, so it was best not to soak the pieces too long before eating. A tasty hot and sour shrimp soup (Tom Yum Kung) was slightly mellowed by slices of young coconut flesh. Tiny snails featured in a very pleasant (green?) curry. The snails were about the size of baby clams, but perhaps a bit tougher. A deep fried soft shelled crab was fresh-tasting and feather light. We could always use a larger portion of this dish. Our vegetable dish of Chinese broccoli was flavored with fermented soybean paste and was supposed to have bits of salted fish in it, but I didn’t find any.

Since it seemed we might not have any dessert, I suggested we return to Raan Kong Wan Pa Nim (or Pa Nim, Aunty Nim’s) for another selection from their huge menu. Fortunately, we arrived just before a huge two-story bus disgorged dozens of hungry diners. This time I got the floating lotus dessert with a poached egg. The egg was delicious but seemed completely out-of-place in a salty-sweet coconut milk soup. Or maybe this is the way I should start cooking eggs at home?

After dinner, upon seeing and smelling my room, Kasma imposed on the desk staff to make a change. The only room available seemed to be an enormous family room with a separate sitting area and both king and twin sized beds. It’s definitely more than I need, but it’s comfortable and does not smell like mentholated socks, so I’m happy.

Tomorrow we will drive out of town to a park to see the local unusual rock formations, then fabrics, noodles, temples, etc.

January 13, 2016

Another rice porridge breakfast and coffee shop stop, but this time we sped out of town to Sao Din Na Noi, in Sri Nan National Park, where we could hike around among mysterious “mud pillars” at a couple different spots and get ourselves coated in red dust. This was similar to the Phae Muang Pee park in Phrae, except that there didn’t seem to be any official trails, so tourists taking photos or selfies could be seen in various random places.


For lunch, we stopped at a local noodle shop for our choice of pad thai with shrimp or pad see ew(stir-fried chow fun noodles with soy sauce) with pork. We marveled at the cook’s efficiency in the open kitchen, and challenged ourselves to take any useful photos of the cooking process. The noodles were basic and needed spicing up with sauces on the table.

During our afternoon break, I spent most of my time catching up on the computer, but since my right foot was stubbornly swollen, I headed around the corner to a massage place another trip member recommended. Unfortunately, I had to cut short the squeezing and poking to rush over to Ban Bor Nam (or Ban Bo Nam) for dinner. Remarkably, we managed not to order any pork dishes tonight.

A hot and sour seafood soup was heavy on the fishcakes, in various shapes. A fluffy catfish salad featured the light fried catfish flakes on top of a tangy green mango salad. Fired fish fillets were stir-fried pad cha style with krachai and green peppercorns. Fried chicken wings with fragrant makwen pepper were tasty but still not numbing; we’ll have this dish again in Bo Klua. Mixed vegetables with shrimp were not very compelling, but we could use a little relief from the heat. Finally, we got fried fish fillets in curry sauce (I didn’t record the type)

Tomorrow, we will resume our tour of temples and mansions, and add an art gallery to the mix. Our time in Nan is coming to a close, so we’ll have to cross our fingers that the weather cooperates for a panoramic sunset over the valley from the temple on the hill.

January 14, 2016

After the usual hotel breakfast, we headed downtown to the market. Or should I say, markets, because vendors are set up not only inside various buildings but all along the sidewalks. A sprinkle of rain did not deter us from ogling fruits and vegetables, and sampling fried balls of taro, coconut and corn; various meats on a stick (I turned down the liver); khanom krok, delicious barely set salty-sweet coconut milk-rice flour pancakes (in this case flavored with bits of green onion); and more. We also picked up a few fiberglass storage bags for stashing various purchases and possible use as checked baggage (suitably reinforced by the shrink-wrap process before check-in).

Our first temple stop, Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, featured a long uphill walkway protected on both sides by long, low walls topped by unudulating nagas. The natural mildew-over-off-white color scheme on the whitewashed wall, chedi, and animal statues near the walkway seemed suited to the overcast skies. Everywhere we saw images of rabbits; this zodiac sign might be a special focus here. This is a school and meditation retreat as well as a temple, and within the ornately decorated open air lecture hall, the immense seated Buddha is partially obscured by two whiteboards. We did not stay for today’s lecture.

Back in town, we continued our exploration of traditional teak buildings at the “Noble House,” a museum preserving the lifestyle of an important local family, whose gleaming locally made silver bowls and artworks hinted at their significant wealth. Spaces between the wall and floor boards allowed for air circulation to keep the temperature tolerable; the large trees probably helped as well. The traditional furniture and rainwater catchment system looked functional, but the tiny dark kitchen, hardly larger than a street vendor stall and outfitted with rudimentary implements, looked as though it would be hard pressed to turn out meals for a noble family. Under the house is an open air area where weavers demonstrate traditional cotton spinning and hand-loom techniques and, of course, you can support the museum with your purchases.

Nearby, we visited a museum located at a small temple. Upstairs, statues and wood carvings evoked traditional Buddhist themes. Downstairs, dusty manual typewriters, phonographs, and sixty-year-old vinyl records represented a time capsule of foreign influence. With few English signs, I missed the significance of this collection. (Later I heard there was an English brochure available for the curious.)

There was time for one more temple before lunch, and it’s difficult not to use terms garish and gaudy when it comes to the overwrought, gold-colored exterior — even the roof gleams at Wat Sri Pan Ton. Filled inside with riotously colorful modern murals, perhaps the most interesting feature was out front: a slim wooden racing boat so long I couldn’t figure out how to get it all in one photo. Across the street was Aunty Nim’s dessert shop. So close and yet so far…

When we arrived at our lunch spot, we were surprised to see the familiar faces of the staff of our hotel, Khum Muang Min. When they aren’t busy attending to guests there, they operate this restaurant across the street whose name translates to Golden Bell. I enjoyed the Khao Soi Gai, curry noodles with chicken, but they also got high marks from Kasma and Michael for their green curry rice noodles. Perhaps I’ll try that next time.

Under clearer skies, we headed to the Riverside Art Gallery, where proprietor Winai Prabripoo greeted us and provided a little orientation to the works on display. The first floor features his recent paintings, and the second floor a more diverse collection from a few years ago, including some whimsical drawings, paintings and prints by the crown princess, who champions local arts and crafts. Many of these works were appealing, but not something I could imagine displaying back home. In a separate building were photos of many of Nan’s famous temple murals with comments drawn from a book that was for sale in the gift shop. Someone must have spent a lot of time on a ladder or scaffold to capture these detailed photos; one less project for me to undertake. Speaking of the gift shop, I did find an interesting t-shirt here, but managed to resist other temptations. One trip member bought a lute!

Back at the hotel, we considered the challenge of repacking our items so that we could more easily live out of one bag the next night. As the sun sank in the sky, we headed up to

Soon it was time to catch the sunset from Wat Phra That Kai Noi on the first night clear enough to justify the drive. Popular with Thai tourists wielding selfie-sticks as well as those toting heavy dSLRs, this hilltop temple has a panoramic view of Nan. One challenge was to place a very tall walking Buddha image in an East-facing photo with the attractive colors of dusk reflected in the clouds. Until the moment was right, we could try to find our hotel or Wat Phumin; the thing that stood out most clearly was the gold top of Wat Sri Pan Ton.


Once our cameras had their fill of sunset shots, we headed back into town to return to Huen Horm for one final Nan dinner. We avoided repeats by starting with deep fried dishes featuring soured pork ribs and crispy fog. Both had a fairly high bone-to-meat ratio, requiring careful chewing. A whole steamed fish was amazingly tender and light in flavor, benefiting from a dollop of mashed green chillies. Yet another variation on hot and sour fish soup was good as usual. Our two salads were delicious, if imperfect: ferns were joined by ground pork and shrimp and nicely dressed, but the stems were slightly tough; chunks of sweet apple, watermelon, and pineapple joined pounded green papaya, carrot shreds, tomatoes, and peanuts in a hot and sour dressing, but it was a bit tame. (There is a belief among Nan restaurateurs that if you serve foreigners food as spicy as they say they want, it will be too hot for them and they won’t pay for it. This isn’t really a problem with us, but it’s rare that we get anything truly searing.) We finished up with some sweets from the market.

Tomorrow we will check out early and head to our first hill tribe village. Then onto the isolated town of Bo Klua (also spelled Bo Kluea), known since ancient times for its salt wells, and more recently as a day trip destination.

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Comments (2)
  1. Maybe I missed what happened, but is your foot OK?

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