Nan and Phrae, Cultured Pearls of the North

By John Borthwick

“But where are they?” is the first response you get to most mentions of Nan or Phrae, two Thai gems of the north, up county and off most tour maps. The short answer is head 560 kilometers straight up the map from the Big Mango and you’ll hit Phrae. Take a breather and Nan is another 130 km further northeast, just short of Lao. 
But why go there? Succinctly, to see Thailand-of-the-Thais: two historic towns of Lanna temples, teak mansions and good manners. Up-to-date places that haven’t lost their dignity to mall-sprawl and double-pricing for foreigners. 
Phrae, Thailand’s former teak logging capital, still has some 20 beautiful wooden mansions, remnants of a century ago when it was home to the Bombay Burmah Trading Co, the East Asiatic Co and Louis T. Leonowens, son of the controversial Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame.
Take a samlor cycle rickshaw tour around town to see a few of these filigreed, colonial darlings. The best-known mansion, Khum Chao Luang, belonged to Phrae’s last independent ruler, who fled in 1902. His two-storey, Italianate palace, built in 1892, is now a museum where you can see the household fineries of the governor and his family, but beneath its polished teak floor squats a grim past.
“Walk backwards into the cellar, so you can come out safely again,” says our local guide, with a grin that’s more a grimace. She adds, “And ask permission from the ghost before you take photo inside.”
The cellar was a prison where the feudal lord once kept slaves and other miscreants confined in darkness, awaiting torture or eternity. We see small panels in the ceiling through which food was lowered to the wretches, although how the aristocrats went about their refined daily affairs with condemned men raging just below them is a mystery.
Up to 300 prisoners might have died here. Given Thais’ attraction/repulsion relationship with ghosts, people inevitably whisper about spooks in the cellar. To reinforce the morbid fascination, a gallery there features surprisingly frank illustrations of good, old-time Thai ways of execution: garrote, skull crush, chin hook to the brain, coffin in the sun and that sporting, arms-length doozy, squeezing a prisoner inside a large rattan ball and then letting elephants play terminal soccer with it. 
That said, there is a much lighter side to Phrae. On our rickshaw ride to admire its temples and mansions of more sunny provenance — such as Vichairacha House — we pass a police station where a sign advertises online assistance via the wonderfully titled website, Not actually praying for a cop, I consult it, only to learn that “This domain name has already expired.” 
“The northern language they talk sounds so sweet and soft. I love to hear it. And smelling the grilled chicken and hot sticky rice in bamboo for breakfast …” My Thai friend Sam trails off nostalgically as she recalls a youthful journey to this region which still seems to embody the best of rural Thailand: prosperity without bling vanity, a rich Lanna past, uncluttered streets, polite people and temple visits minus the tour coach crush.
If Nan is a heaven for history buffs, it’s possibly hell for party animals. No flash-bang nightlife here, but who cares? Instead you can dine on the banks of the Nan River, beneath the stars, on khao soy ghai plus banana flower salad, crisp-fried freshwater fish and much more. Six of us do, drinking well and eating even better, all for under a thousand baht.
There are 475 temples in Nan province, so you’re guaranteed to bump into few in the capital. At Wat Suantan local schoolkids, training to be guides, give us a breathless singsong recitation about the temple and its contents. No matter that it’s all in Thai, it’s still a charming initiative.
Wat Phumin, built in 1569, is Nan’s signature icon. Its central golden Buddha faces in four directions but the real fascination is its vivid murals that depict scenes from the lives of the Buddha, plus secular Nan life in transition in the late 19th century, including images of foreign sailing ships and costumes.
White-water rafting is big in Nan during June and July but instead we decide to head to a famous sweet shop called Khong Wan Pa Nim where the black sticky rice with ice-cream, sago and coconut milk is, I swear, the best in the Kingdom.
Nan is both modern and ancient. Established in 1282 it was long the capital of an independent kingdom that, located midway between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, absorbed the cultures of both over hundreds of years. You can still spot the old city walls, especially if you hop on the town’s tourist tram for a slow spin around the sights, including Nan’s own share of teak mansions. 
During our tour the guide announces that Nan has been declared “the 137th safest city in the world.” Something lost in translation? Or, given the world’s vast number of cities, perhaps an enviable title?
Getting there. Nok Air flies to both Phrae Nan from Bangkok Don Mueang, Air-conditioned coaches depart from Bangkok’s Mo Chit terminal.