Sweet nothings in Nan

Thailand February 19, 2014 00:00

By Carleton Col
Special to The N

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The quiet, rural northern province offers laid-back, rustic Tai charms and the thrills of a chillier cool season

Thai tourists chasing an imposing cold front blasting in from China headed north for the New Year not just to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, but also in smaller, though perhaps savvier numbers, to remote Nan province. Beyond the novelty of downright cold, they were also on a quest for a quieter, subtler, more elusive Thai culture of old that had also swept into the area from the north, centuries earlier.
From the stark whitewashed Tai Lue temples with minimal glitter to a post-sunset scene that is more nganwat (temple fair) than night market, the less-visited but culturally rich town of Nan confirms that less is often a whole lot more.
Travellers who in the early 2000s went to Luang Prabang and elsewhere in Laos to get a taste of what upcountry Thailand was like a few decades ago can today savour the slowness without crossing the border.
Within Nan’s cruciform Wat Phumin, fading murals reflect a local folksiness that remains very much part and parcel of the Nan of today. The playfulness of women attired in colourfully patterned pha-sin sarongs depicted in murals here can be seen on nearby footpaths, where schoolgirls whose skirts closely match this classical dress of Tai Lue women laugh with each other while making their way to morning classes. But the temple’s most admired of these decades-old murals is that of a sweet nothing being shared between a local couple, a simple scene that follows travellers around town in the likes of T-shirts and paintings for sale, graffiti near the old city wall and even a tourism campaign poster of the pair tagged with the slogan “This cool season…whispers of love in Nan.”
Besides love, briskness is also in the air of Nan – at least in mornings and evenings until mid-February or so, when the cool season gradually gives way to the hotter days ahead. And there’s no better way to appreciate the slower northern rhythms of Nan than walking northwards from Wat Phumin on Phakong Road when the sun sets and the modern world recedes even further into memory, Here as dusk falls, vendors in a night-time market start selling “sai-oua” sausages, “khao-soi” curry noodles and more Northern delights.
In a small park set alongside the market, long mats are rolled out and topped with Northern-style khan tok tables for locals and travellers to enjoy their snacks in front of a stage where performers in traditional attire enhance the atmosphere. Local singers croon in the local dialect about the slow rhythms of daily life, while other entertainers sway in that uniquely gymnastically Lanna way, leaning over backwards in a demonstration of the “Forn Ngaen” dance. The simple combination of spectacularly spotlighted temples, a lively but far cry from over-the-top market artistry all adds up to something that is classically Thai, yet seems difficult to find elsewhere.
On the other side of Suriyapong Road across from the park, Wat Chiang Kham, highlighted by a soaring, gilded pagoda, stays open late into the night. A resident kitten darts out of a dark corner to greet newly arrived visitors, while another feline curls up on a cushion usually reserved for monks. The feeling of tranquil openness extends throughout the city and across the street to the park-like environs of the Nan National Museum, the gates of which stay open long after the museum officially closes, with strollers and bicyclists making use of the peaceful, uncrowded environs. The histories and cultures of peoples inhabiting the diverse population of the province – Tai Lue, Hmong, Mien, Thin and others– can be appreciated here in ethnographic displays including black-and-white photos of life in the villages of Nan as it once was.
Low white walls outlining the grounds of the museum and temples plus spacious footpaths and bicycle lanes lend the uncrowded city centre an air of accessibility. Various kinds of fresh coffee can be sipped in chic temple-side cafes and sticky rice cooked in bamboo can be purchased from a smiling “khao lam” vendor.
Even during peak season, this part of Nan town seems marked by blissful emptiness and it is common to see some locals attired in sports gear bearing traditional patterns – the wavy “Lai Namlai” pattern is especially popular. 
West of Wat Chiang Kham on Suriyapong Road, a nascent traveller’s nexus is taking shape, with old wooden homes morphing into coffee shops and restaurants serving Northern cuisine. There’s also an Otop shop full of local cultural and agricultural products, shops selling silver crafts made in nearby villages, a simple shop ladling out bowls of khao-soi next door to a Himalayan-accented cafe complete with Tibetan prayer flags and offering both Nepali and Indian versions of chai. 
Sipping it here is a fine way to warm up and contemplate the rising sun battling to emerge from cool season’s thicker fog, behind which lies the province’s great topographical allure. Outside Nan town, in a province blessed by one of the country’s lowest population densities, many mountains await, especially to the north and east towards the Lao border in spectacular settings such as Doi Phu Kha National Park.
The unique ethnic and earthy appeal of the province perhaps best crystalises 30 kilometres north of Nan town in the Tai Lue village of Ban Nong Bua, where long and ethereal Lanna-style banner-like flags gently flutter in Wat Nong Bua. The temple, highlighted by a magnificent wooden portico in the muted pastel blue, brown and gold of Tai culture, stills serves a Tai Lue community that descends from migrants who came here in 1862.
Outside in its leafy courtyard, four men play traditional music that fades into silence as visitors wander through a preserved warren of wooden homes behind the temple. Elders sitting in the shade underneath their homes on stilts greet passing visitors.
An even more pastoral scene awaits for those who take to a nearby path behind Ban Nong Bua School, where bunches of Nan’s deep-red, signature prik yai hang. A languid river with a tiny temple beyond it  completes an alluring scene matching what appeals about Pai, but without the business of that beautiful if now touristy region of Mae Hong Son province. 
The appeal of nature and freshness of the fields is simply idyllic. Stop here for a moment to let it all sink in, and you may find yourself whispering to your companion, “We’ll have to return to Nan, someday.”
If you go
_ Nok Air (www.NokAir.com) operates direct flights between Bangkok and Nan. Air-conditioned overnight buses leaves Bangkok’s Northern Terminal daily for the province.