With beautiful scenery, an abundance of historic temples, and lesser known ethnic groups, Nan Province has begun to draw a substantial number of Thai tourists, although many may roar through on giant tour buses just for a weekend. We’ll take our time with four nights in the city of Nan, a night in Bo Kluea, and three nights in Pua, the former center of power in the province. It appears that Chinese tourists also have discovered Nan; when will more Westerners divert from Chiang Mai and the Pai-Mae Hong Son loop? It’s only a matter of time.
Wednesday, January 8, 2020
I was surprised by how cold the water was in the shower this morning, but after making some volume adjustments — there is a trade-off between water pressure and temperature because water is heated on demand — it became apparent that the equipment wasn’t the problem. I have a fever. (I also confirmed this the usual way, with a thermometer.) I wonder whether this is related to waking up with terrible headaches the last two mornings?
Fortunately, I still had no problem taking advantage of the breakfast buffet. As a break from curry noodles, I tried the omelet station where they serve them custardy, borderline runny in the center. If you prefer firm eggs, make sure to have the cook leave them in the pan longer than he intends.
Our agenda for the morning was a walking tour of significant temples and residences (now museums) in downtown Phrae. Before reaching the central area, we stopped at Wat Chom Sawan, a small temple built of teak wood. Peaceful and beautiful in the early morning, we took numerous photos inside and out. Our second temple was Wat Phra Non, whose most attractive feature probably is a large reclining Buddha. There is a mural image of men discovering a reclining Buddha while hacking jungle vines. While this temple had fallen into disrepair and was reconstructed, it is difficult to imagine the jungle taking over this part of town.
Our third stop was the Vongburi House/Museum and their adjacent private temple, Wat Phong Sunan. While the homes of wealthy merchants and officials typically showcase numerous beautiful artifacts, I was personally grateful to finally find an open restroom. The most unusual of the large statuary at the temple was a huge golden tortoise with a Buddha standing on the top of its shell. I definitely don’t recall that from four years ago. At the Phra Wihan Mingmuang Museum, by contrast, everything looked quite old.
For a quick lunch, we visited Panjai Restaurant, which serves a set menu of dishes to share. Kasma supplemented those offerings so there was no risk of going hungry. Familiar favorites like grilled chicken, green papaya salad, and chicken satays were tasty; shrimp toasts and a salad of fried pork rinds were good, too. The local soupy dishes were less recognizable, ranging from something like a green curry to something like a stew of chunks of pork meat and pork blood. We made a valiant effort to finish it off, but got distracted by the crispy garlic, shallot and chilli condiment. I picked up a small jar while others made larger purchases. (Later, there turned out to be serious leakage issues with their packaging, so zip bags are highly recommended.)
After lunch we visited the residence of the former Prince of Phrae, who was forced to flee when the central government asserted control over Phrae. Judging by the number of treasures left behind, it’s possible there was a bit of graft. Our final stop was the City Pillar Shrine. A city pillar seems to be a kind of municipal phallic symbol that isn’t associated with a particular religion or region of Thailand. Anyway, nice artwork.
On our drive to Nan, we stopped at Huai Rong Waterfall. Due to drought conditions, the flow was rather pitiful, but it was a good opportunity to stretch our legs.
In Nan, we checked in to Khum Muang Min Boutique Hotel, a little two-story building located a short walk from the main temple and shopping area of the town. As it is located adjacent to the town jail, it might also be safer than some other areas, but I don’t imagine there is a lot of crime in this town. Note to those who travel heavy: there’s no elevator, so if you have a room on the second floor, you’ll have to hike your bags up the stairs. (Although everyone in our group was supposed to have a balcony room overlooking the street, they put one couple in the small room I was initially assigned on my last visit four years ago. Words were had, and the situation was corrected.)
For dinner, we headed to Sanian, a restaurant located by the Nan river. We started with an appetizer of fried chicken wings with mah-kwan peppercorn husks; not too numbing, but tasty nonetheless. My memory of our other dishes is not too clear, but the photos show a whole fried snakehead fish topped with a green mango or lemongrass salad; squid in red curry; a hot and sour fish soup; a salad; and stir-fried sunflower sprouts.
Tomorrow we start our temple tour in earnest, with Northern Thailand’s most famous murals.
Thursday, January 9, 2020
The Khum Muang Min offers a buffet with rice porridge, and you can add your choice of sliced fish or pork, or both in my case. With the usual toppings of fried garlic, cilantro, and ginger threads, it makes a filling foundation for a walking tour. Bonus: ripe papaya slices. Demerit: Lipton yellow label tea (although with a pot of hot water, I can brew somewhat tastier tea if I remember to bring teabags to the buffet with me).
We started by strolling to the visitor’s center to visit their coffee shop. At this early hour, they didn’t have many brochures out, but Kasma will fill in the details. Across the street, a huge tour bus had pulled up to Wat Phumin, but by the time all the coffees were prepared and we had taken advantage of the restrooms, they left. Perfect timing.
Wat Phumin is an unusual temple in many ways, starting with its square floor plan. It is best known for its murals, believed to be painted by a Tai Lue artist (or team of artists) who also painted the murals at Wat Nong Bua in Pua, which we plan to visit later. T-shirts and artworks are adorned with a reproduction of the “whispering love” section of the mural, but there are numerous images of the daily life of ordinary people, and not just the usual images of the life of the Buddha. Flash photography is not allowed, but we did our best with the limited natural light, and of course a book was available at the temple shop.
Our next stop was a temple with more religious than commercial importance, Wat Phra That Chang Kham Worawihan. “Chang Kham” refers to the chedi being borne on the backs of elephants, but due to renovations, we couldn’t get a full view of the chedi. Nevertheless, there was plenty to photograph here. Around the corner, 500-year-old Wat Hua Kuang demonstrates the classic Lanna architectural style. However, I supect the topiary rabbits are a more modern innovation. We proceeded to the Nan National Museum, which occupies a stately building filled with Buddha images and other religious objects.
For lunch, we stopped at noodle shop and had our choice of two Northern noodle dishes: Chiang Mai-style curry noodles (khao soi) or kanom jeen nam ngiow (or various other spellings, see the Wikipedia entry), a lesser known regional specialty featuring thin rice noodles in a brothy stew of tomatoes, pork ribs, pork blood cubes, and a dried flower bud. I chose the meal less eaten, and it wasn’t bad.
After a shopping stop, I think, we visited Wat Ming Muang, a “white temple” housing the city pillar before taking the rest of the afternoon off. We reassembled before dinner to take in sunset views from Wat Phra That Khao Noi, a hilltop temple with a commanding view of Nan. Kasma seems to have an inexhaustible patience for the magic moment of golden hour; most of the rest of us retreated to our vans after the sun faded out so we might have missed some amazing shots.
For dinner, we headed to Suriya Gardens for six more courses of Northern cuisines. Aside from the obligatory chicken wings, we had: a steamed snakehead fish served with green chilli dip (the meat was a bit dry); a spicy pork rib soup; stir-fried greens; what looks like a banana blossom salad; and an odd mixed seafood dish with fish balls that tasted like Japanese kamaboko.
Friday, January 10, 2020
Since my overnight fevers have not been declining, and in fact spiked up to 102.2, I’ve decided that however difficult the challenge, I want to try visiting the local hospital. In part this is because we are heading further into the hinterlands after we leave town, and this could be the best shot at English-speaking assistance (not counting Google Translate).
After a quick breakfast of rice porridge, we headed to the town’s oldest temple, and after we were set free, I hopped back in the van for a ride to the Nan Hospital. Sun and I exchanged mobile numbers so I could report when I was finished, and I headed toward the information table. They were very attuned to travelers reporting a fever due to an outbreak of viral pneumonia in China. After a brief wait, my history was taken and I was directed to a large waiting area supervised by two women in nurse’s caps. I wasn’t given a number, so I wasn’t sure how they would call me, but eventually it was my turn.
I was called into a room where a woman seated at a computer was speaking with another patient. Back home, privacy concerns would prohibit this, but considering that we probably knew almost none of the other’s language, it didn’t seem to be a problem in this case. After describing my symptoms and having her briefly check my lungs with a stethoscope, she concluded I had the flu and wrote up prescriptions for oseltamivir (Tamiflu), acetaminophen (Tylenol), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and glyceryl guiacolate (Mucinex). The pharmacy charge was 355 baht, or about $11.85, while the charge for the nurse consultation added only 50 baht, which is less than $2.00. That’s quite difficult to understand for someone familiar with U.S. healthcare, but I did double-check before leaving that I paid in full. Wow.
I walked a few blocks to meet the group at the Noble House, where they enjoyed a demonstration of traditional weaving (and shopped for textiles) while I napped in the van. I was able to join the group for lunch at a noodle shop in the shade of numerous old trees. Kasma prescribed savory pork broth with a double portion of pork and no noodles. (Tasty, but I wouldn’t mind some noodles, too!) After a long afternoon nap back at the hotel, I was treated to take-out and leftovers from Sanian. Kasma brought an enormous take-out order of rice porridge, which was delicious, supplemented by portions of spicy chicken and fish mousse in a young coconut that the group couldn’t finish. This was far too much for one meal, but you can imagine I did my best.
Saturday, January 11, 2020
Our agenda today involved hiking, so I bowed out and, after a rice porridge breakfast, napped in my room for a couple hours. But eventually I grew restless and wandered into town for a little light shopping (for example, I needed a permanent marker to label my boxes), editing photos at an air-conditioned coffee shop, and of course, finding some lunch.
The noodle shop from Thursday was closed, so I tried one around the corner that was graced with the “Clean Food Good Taste” sign indicating successful completion of health inspections, I think. The specialties here were again Khao Soi and Nam Ngiow, so I opted for the extra large Khao Soi which featured two meaty chicken legs. That would power me through an afternoon of blog updates until dinner.
Tonight we would dine at Huen Horm, a restaurant I remembered fondly from my trip four years ago. It seemed a bit sweeter and simpler, and pricier, than back in the day, perhaps due to its fortunate location in the heart of town. Still, it was nice to catch up with English speakers after a day of feeling a bit isolated.
After dinner, we wandered through the town’s weekend Night Market, spread over a plaza and a field across the street from one another. Families dined on mats while young people demonstrated their break dancing skills. Food vendors offered a range of savory and sweet treats, while others offered clothing and souvenirs. There was even a row of foot massage stations off to the side. This could merit further investigation in the future. But for now, we need to pack up because we are moving deeper into Nan province tomorrow.