Visiting Nan in northern Thailand (a confusing name for a town, since my son calls his grandmother Nan – just pronounced slightly differently!) was another wonderful Thai experience, following on from my trip to Phrae as part of the Australian Society of Travel Writers convention.
For me, travel is often less about the destination itself and more about my experience of being somewhere different and new. Nan was a gorgeous place to visit, with very few western tourists, and it was made more special by the particular experiences I had there.
Drinking in the beauty of Nan’s temples
I truly love temple-hopping – lots of travellers seem to get temple fatigue but I’m constantly fascinated by them and can’t see enough. Perhaps it’s from living in Japan for two years where I never wanted to miss out on a temple and was always trying to find out the stories behind them – that might have started when one of my first students told me they’d just got a new car and they’d been to the “new car” temple to pray (okay, not exactly how they described it, but that’s how I remember it!).
In Nan, Thailand, there are a heap of temples and because we were there for a short time, some we only got to see from our tourist trolley-bus ride around town. But we did get to spend some extended time at a couple, and on the first day in Nan our special temple visit was to Wat Phra Tat Chat Haeng.
It was a hot day and with our shoes taken off to walk inside the temple there were some ouchy moments as we made our way around – the ground had been heated to painfully hot levels by the sun, but it was worth it, because it was one of those temple complexes with so many different corners to explore.
Outside we were able to write good wishes to be stood in poles at the bodhi tree – I love this kind of ritual, like the ema wooden plaques you can write on at Shinto shrines in Japan.
On our second day in Nan, we were taken to the Wat Phumin, Nan’s most famous temple and one many Thai people travel here to visit. I could quickly see why, as it’s a beautiful temple with amazing paintings and murals on all the inside walls – I was mesmerised by all the stories you could encounter in these paintings. It also has a really impressive four-sided Buddha statue at its centre, and in another building a little separate, a pretty gory depiction of hell. It was the murals depicting all kinds of everyday life and stories from the time it was built a few hundred years ago that impressed me most, though.
Remembering to be grateful when I travel
Back in Bangkok a few days earlier, I’d started to hear rumours about Nan being flooded and it not being certain whether our trip would make it there or not. We were being hosted by the Thai tourism authority so I had full confidence that they would only take us up there if it was sensible to do so, but still, it turned out to be a close call – when we arrived in Nan, plenty of locals were still cleaning up from some fairly extreme flooding.
A couple of our plans were rearranged (mostly without us really being told) – because some of the people involved were still very busy cleaning up their homes post-flooding. If I hadn’t tried to ask more, I think I would have been quite unaware, so I’m extra grateful for wonderful hosts who managed to make our trip memorable despite nature trying to intervene. Funnily enough, we watched the Instagram and Facebook feeds of our other travel writer friends who’d gone on trips to various other parts of Thailand and it looked like we’d actually ended up with the perfect weather while they all had rain!
We got up pretty early on our final morning in Nan to go into town and give alms to the monks at 6.00am. This is a special experience and one that I’ve heard has become overly touristy in some parts of south-east Asia, so I felt very grateful to be able to do this here in Nan, as one of very few tourists – in fact, we didn’t see any non-Thai tourists at all. And because of this, I guess, when we wandered around the morning markets of Nan after giving alms to the monks, all the stall holders were so friendly and not at all jaded by having hordes of tourists come through.
Getting to know people – both travellers and locals
Given that our time in Nan came at the end of our small group trip, and that I had only known one of our group before we’d set off together from Bangkok, it was by this time that we’d all started to bond as a lovely travelling group. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy group travel, although that’s probably because I’ve never agreed to the kind of group travel I suspect I’d hate (I’m fairly sure a Contiki ten-countries-in-eight-days trip around Europe would fall in that category, for example).
By the time we came to our final dinner, I had got to know all of our group members well enough to decide that I would miss them horribly when our trip came to an end the next day! We managed to go out with a bang though, having a delicious meal. The drinks decisions caused hilarity though, because it turned out the restaurant had a very limited supply of alcohol (another sign that not many western tourists come by) and their (single bottle of) white wine was warm and their red wine was cold … all part of the fun! Half of us continued on to dessert afterwards and the driver of our minibus – decked out with lights and other decorations – turned it into a disco bus, something all of us will remember forever. I love those moments of weird incongruity – a bunch of Aussies in a little bus in the middle of nowhere in Thailand, singing and dancing to Gangnam style …
We also had some special moments getting to know the locals, and my favourite of these – in fact, one of my favourite moments of the whole trip – was at Hong Chao Fong Kham Folklore Museum. We were taught to make flower cone offerings to leave at the temple, by folding banana leaves and arranging flowers. The folding part was rather tricky – let’s call it Thai origami – but I was determined to master with it, and sat with Aunty Pat, the boss of this gorgeous Lanna-style house, for a long time, getting her to show me over and over. We became good buddies (especially once I mastered it!) and it was a lovely moment – and something I’ve carried over to home, because she mentioned to me that back in Australia I could create the same kind of offering by folding origami paper instead of banana leaves, and it’s become a little ritual in our house to gather flowers for our own version of a flower cone offering.
Sadly, that was nearly our final stop for Nan – apart from a quick lunch and a drive to the airport to return to Bangkok – but the stay has certainly lingered in my since and along with Phrae, I’d highly recommend this part of Thailand to anyone who wants to escape the heavily touristed spots and experience some special Thai culture.