After my trip to the UK this past summer when my sister and I hired a little stick-shift Fiat Panda and explored the Welsh countryside for a week (best time I've had since we did that in Italy years before), I decided that it's a bit ridiculous that I haven't done something similar here in Thailand, especially now that I have a car.
Typically, my style is to just get in the car and wander around with little or no preparation beforehand, as spontaneous travel [to me] yields the most authentic experiences of a new place. Sorry, guide-book readers, but I'm just not interested.
When travelling with my like-minded sister, this isn't an option. We'll just go wherever we feel like (often just following signs to funny-named places or if using a map, going wherever the green is), and hope to get lucky and find a bed and breakfast or something in that area. Cheap this style of travel is not, but hey, that's what credit cards are for.
For this trip though, I was travelling with my lovely Thai lady and she's less appreciative of spontaneity; as such, I actually planned all of the hotels we'd stay in, but still left the rest to chance. Three cheers for Booking.com; let's just say we aren't 20-year-old backpackers anymore and although luxury isn't necessary, a fan-room in some scary Thai dungeon just doesn't cut it anymore. What's the point in travelling if you can't enjoy yourself a little along the way, eh?
Inspired by Phil's excellent blog here on ajarn.com a few months ago, I decided we had to go to Nan Province.
The only area north of Bangkok that I've really been to is Chiang Mai (and only for a few days), so I figured it was high time I experienced what the rest of Northern Thailand is all about. Sure I've been to parts of Issan and other areas for various reasons (work, visa runs, etc.), but I've never really experienced it, and figured a road trip was the best way to accomplish that. All things considered, a 2,200+ kilometers drive later, I'd have to say I was right.
I won't bore you with the details of these places, as they've been travel-blogged to death but we made several stops towards our prioritized destination (which just like Phil a few months back, was Doi Phu Kha National Park in Nan Province). We stayed a night in the mountains outside of Phitsanulok (lovely mountains and streams but not such a lovely town), Sukothai, the capital before Ayutthaya and a pleasant surprise (it was a truly impressive place for history buffs like myself), Phrae (incredible views en route to Nan), and Nan (the town itself, then the area around Doi Phu Kha).
Nan Province is truly beautiful, although I'm not sure it's quite Wales (and definitely not Switzerland) on a sunny day. But if I wasn't a beach person, I could see myself living there.
I had hoped the weather would be nicer. The third week in October should bring cooler weather but alas, it was just as hot as Bangkok everywhere except the very upper reaches of the mountains we drove around. I'm not sure my little low-horsepower LPG car will ever forgive me.
After a few days around Nan, we then made the surprisingly long drive to Chiang Mai (it honestly didn't look that far on the map!) to give it a few days of proper attention before the long trip back to Bangkok (with a stop at Bumibhol Dam in Tak Province, which was a cool find).
I will say this though - after Nan, Chiang Mai - although certainly having beautiful areas - was a bit anticlimactic. Call me Scrooge, and I'm sure travel fatigue after five days of driving/seeing at that point played a part, but the city itself just felt like a large version of Khao San Road (Bangkok; read touristy for the sake of being touristy). Surrounding areas though were extremely pretty.
Our objective here wasn't to see the cities/tourist attractions so much as to enjoy the scenery and random gems around the areas we went to and have some welcome coffees on the way. A road trip with no particular agenda you might say.
Along the way, we encountered no shortage of beautiful vistas (well, once we got north of the hell holes that are Saraburi, Chi Nat and other provinces in the area anyway) There were of course cute coffee shops a-plenty and - wait for it - temple upon temple upon temple. I daresay Thailand has as many temples per capita as Italy has churches.
I'm sure a road trip would be less doable if you don't have Thai skills or a Thai partner to help translate. Many places we went were stare-at-the-foreigner kind of places but honestly, I was impressed [for the most part] with the quality of the roads and availability of petrol/LPG/etc, and the whole trip, staying in decent "resorts" (ha, Thailand) and paying absolutely no mind to money whatsoever, only set us back maybe 25,000 baht (about $750).
I'm sure you could do the same trip on a quarter of that but it was a nice escape. Even in the rice paddies of Nan, there was real coffee with imported Italian espresso machines...and wi-fi. Thailand as a third-world country is truly a vision of the past.
All things considered, I'm glad we made the week-long trip and Thailand certainly has plenty of cool stuff to see (as well as-let's be honest-some utter crap as with anywhere else). The history of the northern provinces is interesting (for us history buffs), and the random little cafes and viewpoints are always fun to find and a nice reprieve from life in Bangkok.
Perhaps most importantly though, I now won't feel bad next time I have a week off...and go to the beach instead.