Nan developed as an isolated kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries. It fell under the influence of the Sukothai and Lanna kingdoms, then surrendered to Burmese control in 1558. In 1788 the town became a vassal state of Bangkok, though it kept its autonomy and independent rulers until it officially became part of Thailand in 1931. Today, Nan is a prosperous town on the Nan River.
Wat Phumin, in the south of town, is without doubt the most important sight in Nan. Just north of it (on Highway 101) is the Nan National Museum, which is housed in an impressive former royal palace dating from 1903. The ground floor is dedicated to the ethnic groups of Nan province, including the Hmong and Mien hill tribes. The second floor has a comprehensive selection of artifacts relating to the history of the region, including weapons. Notable items include a “black” elephant tusk weighing 40 lb (18 kg), supported by a sculpted khut (mythological eagle). Thought to date from the 17th century, the tusk is actually dark brown.
The collection of Buddhas includes some rare Lanna and Lao images. Also exhibited are skyrockets made by local farmers for the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) held each May in Northeast and parts of Northern Thailand.
Unusually for Thai museums, many of the exhibits are labeled in English. Nearby is Wat Chang Kham Wora Wihan, with a magnificent 14th-century chedi resting on sculpted elephant heads. The bot and the wihan are guarded by singhas (mythological lions). Among Nan’s other temples is Wat Suan Tan, in the northwest of town, with a 130-ft (40-m) chedi, crowned by a white prang – a rounded, Khmer-style tower that is very rarely seen in Northern Thailand. Housed in the wihan is a bronze Buddha image, Phra Chao Thong Thip. The image was made to the order of the king of Chiang Mai in 1449 after he conquered Nan. According to legend, the monarch gave the city’s craftsmen just one week to make it.
Just southeast of Nan is the revered Wat Phra That Chae Haeng. Dating from 1355, the temple is set in a square compound on a hill top overlooking the Nan valley. Its gilded Lanna chedi is just over 180 ft (55 m) high. This, and the huge nagas (serpents) flanking the staircase, can be seen from several miles around. The multilayered roof of the wihan is Lao in style.
Despite its many attractions, the mountainous province of Nan was once one of the most remote and inaccessible areas in Thailand. Better roads have now greatly improved connections to the province, making it one of the country’s fastest-growing tourist destinations. To the north of Nan is Tham Pha Tup Forest Reserve, a limestone cave complex set in a forested area. There are some 17 caves here, which are impressive for their stalactites and stalagmites. About half of them can be reached by marked trails.
Another natural feature of the region is Sao Din, literally “earth pillars,” which are located off Highway 1026, about 19 miles (30 km) to the south of Nan. These sculpted clay columns, created by erosion, stick out of depressions in the ground. The pillars have the same eerie appearance as those at Phea Muang Phi in Phrae province and have been used as a backdrop for many Thai films.