Listen, I hate writing travel blogs as much as you probably dislike reading them, but while you have the chance, I need to convince you to go and visit Nan province in the North of Thailand.
My wife and I recently returned from a four-day trip and loved every single moment of it. Damn! - that province is near perfection. I think this is the Thailand that many of us dream about - peaceful, orderly towns surrounded by incredible scenery, welcoming and friendly locals, not a scrap of litter in sight, and best of all - during the whole time I was there, I only saw four other foreigners to glare at. Travel in Thailand doesn't get any better than this.
The trip was meticulously planned by my wife, based on Thai travel blogs and trip reports that she had read on-line. We were following a well-trodden path because Nan Province has long been a popular destination for the more discerning Thai traveler.
Our plan was to drive north from Nan City to the ‘salt village' of Boklua, spend one night in the mountains, and then continue the loop back down to Nan City to finish off with a couple of nights in the provincial capital.
The holiday got off to a good start. Don Muang Airport has come in for a fair bit of stick lately for long immigration queues, etc but navigating the domestic terminal was a breeze. Despite being busy, even at six in the morning, check-in and security were as painless as it gets in these tiresome days of air travel. We even found time for a quick egg mcmuffin under the golden arches before our 7.40 Air Asia flight departed bang on time. The flight to Nan takes sixty-five minutes.
I'm not sure whether it's the ‘Welcome to Nan' sign that peeps out at you from beneath fastidiously-kept flower beds or the cute way you have to stroll across the tarmac from aircraft to terminal building (stopping for the odd selfie of course) or the smiles on the faces of the far-from-overworked security staff, but Nan Nakhon Airport gives a fair indication of the pace of life that awaits you. This is a far cry from the noisy, polluted sprawl you left behind an hour ago.
We hadn't pre-booked a hire car but that wasn't an issue. At least three or four car rental firms maintain counters in the small arrivals hall. We opted for a Thai rental firm over one of the big international names and their service was excellent. The paperwork was minimal, the staff drove our car around to the front of the terminal building, and all in all we felt that just over a thousand baht a day for a newish compact automatic was a fair deal. Within twenty minutes of landing, we were in our car and out on the open road - the road to Boklua.
It takes two hours to cover the 90 kilometres from Nan to Boklua; but that's only if you can resist stopping every few miles to get out and admire the scenery. And trust me you won't because those views are incredible. I remarked to my wife that the scenery was as good as anything we had seen on New Zealand's South Island. I can give it no higher praise than that. And on a damp day in low-season August, we felt as if we were the only souls on earth.
We asked a local about the best time to visit Nan Province and he conceded that it can get a tad crowded in high season, especially December and January. "You've come at a good time" he said, "but September is even better. Oh sure you might get soaked to the skin but everywhere just looks so wonderfully green"
As we rounded a bend and came upon yet another breathtaking vista, we instinctively pulled in at a roadside coffee shop, well it was more of a wooden shack if truth be told. The owner and his wife greeted us warmly. He was one of those interesting middle-aged Thai characters with a goatee beard, earrings and a wooly hat pulled down over his ears. One of those guys who always has a story to tell.
"We own this piece of land you're standing on" he told us. "Every morning for years, I came here to just sit on a chair, drink coffee and take in the view (and man, what a view it was!) I love the peace and solitude. But over time, travelers would stop and share the moment with me. Many of the regular passers-by pestered me to open a little coffee shop to make money"
He broke into a broad grin. "Why would I want to open a coffee shop? I'm not really a businessman. But I suppose I just weakened under the pressure"
He was clearly doing well. Every one of the four cars that passed during the half hour we were there, stopped to buy a coffee and no one seemed to mind waiting while the owner took his own sweet time to make sure every cup was perfect. I wondered how he would cope when punters are queuing five deep in peak season? He must hate it!
We reached the village of Boklua in the late afternoon. Famous for its ancient salt wells, it's a picturesque village with a river running through the centre. My wife reliably informed me that Boklua is the only place in the world that produces ‘mountain salt' as opposed to salt from seawater and by jove, are the locals proud of their salt.
Down by the river there are still a couple of working wells, whilst around them you can browse a sprinkling of market stalls selling skin rubs and all manner of salty cosmetics and foodstuffs.
The whole area had a distinctly low season feel to it but to call it anything remotely approaching a ‘tourist industry' would be stretching the reality at any time of year. However, the locals were pleased to see us and enjoyed sharing their knowledge. But who wouldn't be proud of a unique salt industry that dates back over 800 years I believe?
Our accommodation in Boklua was the popular Boklua View Resort, a collection of a dozen or so wooden bungalows that go for just over a thousand baht a night (at least they do in August). I would love to say that the resort is in a wondrous green valley and nestling in the mountains in a picture postcard setting but I'm trying to avoid those awful travel blog clichés.
I'm probably being a little harsh here but the bungalows could perhaps do with a bit of tender loving care. The bathrooms are a bit mouldy and the bed-sheets a tad crispy but pull up a chair on the verandah with a mug of tea, look out over the mist-shrouded mountain-tops and all is forgiven.
Just be careful where you are putting your hands and feet though, because I spied insects that they probably haven't invented names for. Particularly intriguing was a huge black ant, which thankfully seemed to move independently and scurry along the balcony railing alone. I had no doubt that if a couple of dozen of these ‘super ants' got together and formed a group, they could carry me off screaming and throw me in the river with considerable ease.
As you would expect, lodgings in a small village like Boklua are pretty thin on the ground - and just one reason why the Boklua View Resort is extremely popular with Thais. "We are fully booked up for the next three months. Not a bungalow to be had" the receptionist told us. Another reason is the excellent on-site restaurant which serves tasty and good value Northern Thai food as well as a few Western dishes. My wife said that many Thai reviewers have commented that they stay at the Boklua View Resort for the food alone.
Even the resort breakfast buffet was decent, provided you got to it before the insects did. And let me tell you now, making toast on an old-style charcoal grill is far more effective than fannying around with a toaster.
Day two and our destination was Doi Puka, one of the highest points in Nan Province, and only reached by navigating miles of twisting, narrow road with just the occasional motorcyclist coming in the opposite direction. As we drove higher and higher, the mist became so thick it began to take on the feel of a Silent Hill movie set.
But about half-way between Boklua and Doi Puka is a hill-tribe village - and I mean a proper hill-tribe village, not one of those ‘tourist shows' a short drive from Chiang Mai where the villagers have brand-new pick-up trucks and satellite dishes and you're fending off grubby little urchins demanding twenty baht for a photo.
I would say that Baan Gorguang was the highlight of my Nan trip. These were the Lua People (as we later found out) - a hill-tribe who predominantly make a living by selling what plants and vegetables they can scavenge from the forest. They also rely totally on solar power.
On the morning we rolled into town, it was market day. A few of the village elders had set up a ramshackle stall with a display of about a dozen vegetables. I couldn't name a single one of them.
The villagers eyed us with a mix of curiosity and suspicion as we ambled around trying to take snaps as discreetly as possible. A few stopped to make hill-tribe small talk, but most thought it better to ignore us completely and I probably don't blame them. But I was in my element. Few things get my pulse racing quite like an eerie hill-tribe village, lost in time and shrouded in mist.
Continuing on to Doi Puka, we stopped off en route at the entrances to a couple of national parks. At both places the park rangers on gate duty told us that rainfall had been particularly heavy recently and it was too dangerous to proceed. So my wife saved her twenty baht admission fee and I saved two hundred (just thought I'd get that in) But double-pricing aside, the park rangers were the friendliest folk you could wish to meet. They don't make the rules.
When we reached Doi Puka, you could barely see a hand in front of your face. A giant thermometer indicated that the current temperature was a chilly sixteen degrees. "Don't forget to pack your raincoat" my wife had told me the day before we left Bangkok. I am so glad I had been paying attention for once.
We arrived in Nan City (‘city' being something of a misnomer) in mid-afternoon with the temperature a far more Thailand-like 26 degrees. My wife had booked us in to the delightful Khum Muang Min Boutique Hotel, an old colonial-style establishment just a short walk from the city centre. I began to wish I had packed a cream linen suit because there was surely no finer place than here to sip gin and tonics on the terrace with some batty, retired colonel.
Again, Khum Muang Min is a very popular place for Thai travelers and its dozen or so rooms are often booked out solid for months on end.
Interestingly, the hotel isn't just located ‘near' the provincial prison, you can practically reach out and touch the imposing outer walls and the barbed wire. I imagined being woken in the middle of the night by a burly, rough-shaven bank robber who had managed to tunnel his way out. But in the unlikely event of that happening, I was more than prepared - "Take my wife as hostage. I won't tell a soul"
I want to sing the praises of Nan City and tell you how wonderful it is but truth is, I don't know where to start. It's like a far more interesting version of Ayuthaya. It has the temples and all that historical and cultural stuff but so much more in-between.
For our first night in town, we decided to do the night market (there isn't really an awful lot else to do once darkness falls) and it was superb. Stretching the length of Nan's main street, the market is divided into two sections - the first part selling clothes, silk, souvenirs and nic-nacs and the second part focusing completely on food.
If you fancy something to eat, you can purchase your snacks and go and eat them in the temple grounds where both tables and mats to sit on have been thoughtfully provided. Under the neon lights of the temple, hundreds of Nan folk gorging on meatballs, crepes and sticky rice dishes creates a wonderful atmosphere.
Returning to the hotel, I had a rare urge to indulge in a beer or two. It was still fairly early and the idea of retiring to bed just didn't appeal so I made the fatal mistake of asking the young man on reception if there was a bar nearby. I had chatted to him earlier when we were checking in and his English was impeccable. He was also - how can I say this - a little bit fluffy and theatrical?
I realized as soon as I had finished the question that I had deeply offended him. He put a hand across his chest (rather reminiscent of the way John Inman or Larry Grayson used to do) and said "Ooooh, there are no bars in Nan sir. We are not that kind of place. Nan is a cultural city and we are very proud of it" In other words "piss off back to Pattaya you whore-monger before I call the police"
I slunk away cringing with embarrassment and left him with his thoughts. Possibly about what it would be like to be disturbed in the middle of the night by a burly, rough-shaven bank robber.
Saturday was our only full day in Nan City and my wife had promised me a day of temples. Now normally this would have me cowering under the bedclothes and refusing to come out but I'm genuinely glad I made the effort.
While my wife was showering and putting on her warpaint, I slipped out for a coffee on the main road and a bit of me time. I sat down at an outside table and made two lifelong friends within ten minutes but such was the nature of the Nan people. They just love to chat to foreigners and once they realize you can put some Thai together, that's it - you get a thousand questions and their life story in return. I have rarely enjoyed chatting and practicing my Thai so much. I would have happily sat at that coffee shop all day but the itinerary beckoned and there were temples to tick off.
Nan's go-to temple and the first one on any visitor's list is Wat Phumin. The temple is famous for its murals, particularly ‘the whisperer' - a painting depicting a husband whispering presumably sweet nothings into his wife's ear. The whisperer has over time become the symbol of Nan City and you can see it on just about every souvenir and then some.
The Nan tourist authority (and what a wonderful organization it is) arranges one-hour tram tours of the city for a very reasonable thirty baht a head. The trams leave approximately every hour from the tourist centre office. My wife dispatched me to make enquiries and book tickets, where my initial "can you speak English?" was met with a gasp of horror from the sweet girl behind the counter. So I switched to Thai and managed to ascertain the times of the trams, whether we should book in advance or not and some general banter about what a fine job everyone was doing. "Wow! your Thai is really good. How many years have you lived here?" the girl said.
I thanked her for the kind words and purchased two tickets for the 1.30 tram. Then I flashed her a Hollywood smile and gave her my best man-of-the-world wink that would no doubt have made her go weak at the knees had I been thirty years younger.
When my wife and I presented ourselves at the tourist office in readiness for the 1.30 tram, the girl at the counter pointed out that I had asked for tickets on the 3.30, which would be leaving in two hours. I looked at the tickets. They had 3.30 clearly printed on them. I'm saying nothing.
The tram ride was well worth doing it must be said. You get to stop off at a couple of temples on the way for ten minutes and by skirting the outer neighborhoods, you gain a new perspective and an even deeper appreciation for this wonderful little city in Northern Thailand.
Darkness fell and with it the dilemma of what to do for the evening. I told my wife - in a low almost hushed tone of voice - that Man United were playing away at Swansea and the match kicked off in an hour. I merely threw it out there as an option. My wife didn't have to say anything. Her expression alone indicated that whatever the evening's activities may involve, under no circumstances would they include Man United playing Swansea. But it was worth a try.
There seemed few other options available apart from walking around the night market a second time but as we left the hotel, Fluffy the Receptionist came bounding up the path, waving his arms and shouting "fon ja dtok, fon ja dtok" or as we say in Birmingham - "it's gone black over Bill's Mother's"
The night market had become an early evening frenzy of activity as stall-holders frantically packed away their wares. There was a hell of a storm brewing and sure enough, right on cue, the heavens opened and it chucked it down. We sheltered under an awning in the temple grounds for an hour before deciding to make a dash back for the hotel. We got back drenched.
Sunday dawned hot and sunny - our final day in Nan and that always disagreeable situation of having to check out of a hotel at noon and killing time before a 4.00 pm flight back to Bangkok. But to make the most of the morning hours, we took a couple of free bikes from the hotel and enjoyed a leisurely cycle around the city. There are very few cars and motorcycles on the roads in Nan so it's about as safe as cycling in Thailand gets. It was a most enjoyable couple of hours.
Now then, if you read any article or blog on places to eat in Nan City, there is one name that seems to top almost every list - The Hot Bread Café. We rode past it on our bicycles and decided to stop and see what the fuss was all about.
If you crave the opportunity to meet other foreigners in Nan, then the Hot Bread Café is probably as good a place as any to start. And therein lies the problem, because to me Nan really didn't need a place like this. A bookshelf rammed with second-hand Lonely Planet guides, full English breakfasts for 250 baht. You get the picture. The Hot Bread Café felt completely out of place. One of the joys of being in Nan was that you were exposed 100% to Thailand and its culture. If you wanted some Western comforts and tastes of home, well there weren't any. Tough luck! It felt liberating.
That's only my opinion though. In fairness to The Hot Bread Café, the service was good, the peanut butter and chocolate smoothies were excellent, as was the banana pancake drenched in maple syrup. If that's what you are looking for, then make the scene by all means. To me it just didn't feel right.
There was one more place we wanted to visit - The Riverside Art Gallery, which is about 25 kilometres out of the city. We had already stopped by there on our way down from Doi Puka but the gallery had closed for the day. It had looked an interesting place, hence our eagerness to see it before we left town.
Public transport is virtually non-existent in Nan and because we had already returned our hire car the day before, we had no alternative but to call a taxi. Taxis are a straight 200 baht an hour and chatting with our driver, he told us that there are actually only ten taxis for hire in the whole of the city. Isn't that wonderful?
"You're quite lucky to find one of us available on Sundays" our driver said, "most of us are out doing family things"
But anyway, he drove us out to The Riverside Art Gallery and it was well worth the expense. It was my kind of art gallery - an eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures by talented local artists. As I stood and admired some of the artwork, I was approached by a very nice fellow clearly eager for a chat. We talked about where I was from and how long I had lived here and in return, I told him how impressive I thought the gallery was.
I later did a Google image search and found out he was the gallery owner, Winai Prabripoo, a famous Thai artist and a native of Nan. Winai graduated from Silkaporn University and after 25 years living in Bangkok decided to do something for regional artists and provide them with both a gallery and centre.
I suppose the Riverside Art Gallery was the realization of a dream. It was also a fine way for us to end our four-day trip to Nan Province.
I'll leave you on this final note. Please go to Nan Province. I'm begging you. You'll love it!