Tired of Bangkok tourist markets that hawk the same cheap souveniers? Had enough of the fake Thai “cultural” shows? Tour buses got you down that take you and thousands of others to the same over-hyped, crowded tourist venues? Desperate for a fix of real Siamese culture? Then escape the madding crowds and take an overnight road trip to the old Northern Thai towns of Lampang, Prae and Nan.
These town are part of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, just like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and formed a loose alliance 800-900 years ago, which later became the Siamese Kingdom we know today.
You will find gobs of Thai culture in these 3 towns without the tourist crush. You can find “Old Siam” on this trip in the form of old teak houses, historic wats, provincial Thai cuisine, and a rural Lanna-style countryside.
If you like, from Nan you can go on to Chiang Rai for an extra night, and then back to Chiang Mai which will complete a circle.
This road trip is an easy overnighter, starting from Chiang Mai. Spend the night in Nan and return to Chiang Mai the next day.
In Chiang Mai, rent out a van and driver for $80-$100 per day. It’s very economical to travel in these vans as they can hold 9 people. The drivers will often speak limited English and will know the roads well. I recommend hiring a driver so you can spend your time observing Thai life, instead of dealing with Thai drivers and confusing roadways.
Yes, if you insist, you can ride your rented scooter from Chiang Mai to Lampang, Prae and Nan. Highway 11 is your beginning route from Chiang Mai to Lampang. Consult a good map of course. The driving time from Chiang Mai to Nan is about 4 hours.
Lampang is your first stop. It’s about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Chiang Mai. If you’ve only been to Bangkok, the beach resorts or Chiang Mai, Lampang will be the first non-tourist town you’ve ever visited in Thailand.
Lampang is an old traditional town known for it’s old teak houses, noodle shops and ornate wats. Some of the best rice cakes I’ve ever had were made in Lampang. But be careful when buying Lampang rice cakes-they make some versions of rice cakes with grasshoppers, which look very similar to the rice cakes I love that are made from rice with honey drizzed over them.
Lampang gets a few tourists, but not many. English signage is actually quite rare here which is a sure sign that you’re getting off the beaten Tourist trail. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the old part of town. (Again, just ask your driver to find the horse-drawn carriages and he will.) On your carriage ride, you’ll pass by very old teak houses that people still live in. As you clippity-clop by, little children will stare and point at you.
Throughout this trip, you will find food vendors set up along the streets preparing a varied assortment of Northern Thai foods such as banana wrapped fish and pork goodies, sticky rice deserts, Northern sausages and larb, the assortment is almost endless. Take time to sniff and enjoy their wonderful Northern cuisine.
Prae is the next stop about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Lampang. This medium-sized town is built on the banks of the Yom River and is home to several historic wats such as Wat Phra That Cho Hae, Wat Phra That Chom Chaeng, and Wat Sa Bo Kae to name a few.
Have lunch in Prae. The best guideow tom yum (Thai noodle soup) in the Kingdom is served in Prae.
Prae is where traditional Thai “denim” clothing is made. (It’s really not denim, but a heavy, course grade cotton fabric that looks like denim.) This is the clothing of choice for many Thai workers. You can get great deals on tunics, shirts and fisherman pants.
Stay away from the regretable Thai tourist trap called Baan Pratubjai as you head into town. But you may want to check out Vongburi House which is a turn-of-the-century Victorian teak house located near the entrance to Prae as you’re coming from Lampang.
Nan is your destination and the street vendor snack of kao lam is your prize. Nan (the province is also called Nan) is a small town with a very big heart. The Thai smile is sincere here.
Nan is about a 1 hour drive from Prae. This town doesn’t see many tourists. Wat Phumin is in Nan and is rightfully described as the “Sistine Chapel” of Thailand. Surrounding Wat Phumin are kao lahm vendors.
Kao Lam is made by stuffing sticky rice and black beans into a hollow bamboo tube and roasting it over charcoal. Thais love the stuff. In fact, if any Thais ask you why you came to Nan just tell them for the kao lam and they’ll nod in approval. Nan is known to Thais as the place to go for the best kao lam.
I highly recommend staying the night at the Pukha Nanfa Hotel, which is an old teak house converted to a small hotel in downtown Nan. (www.pukhananfahotel.com) Ask the wonderful hotel staff at Pukha Nanfa where to have dinner and they’ll give you some great places.
Nan has many historic wats. I mentioned Wat Phumin which is a must see, but there are others nearby which have historical importance.
Return to Chiang Mai the same way you came, or go on to Chiang Rai and make a complete circle from your starting point at Chiang Mai. Either way, you will have seen a part of the Kingdom that few tourists bother with. You’ll see Thailand as Thais experience it. You will have gotten glimpses of “Old Siam”.