Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Nan, the new Middle City - again.

Cars haven't been invented in Nan yet ...
There has been a lot of chatter of Thailand’s Nan becoming ‘the new Pai’, referring to the latter engaging – albeit somewhat over-touristed – hillside getaway in Mae Hong Son. But could the views be as beautiful? Could the people be as warm? Could the city possibly be as charming?

To my delight, yes, Yes, and YES.

Everywhere in the northern provincial capital finishing touches are being put on a new boutique hotel, or a cool café, restaurant, or market. Nan is clearly enjoying a renaissance.

You see, Nan has had an on again-off again history. By the 1500s it was one of the major Thai-Lao principalities forming the fabled Lanna Kingdom. And in the 1600s Nan became known as Chiang Klang, meaning ‘Middle City’, because it was roughly half way between the other powerhouses of the day, Chiang Mai and Chiang Thong (better known these days as Luang Prabang).

Wat Suan Tan: it's seen some changes since 1449
This heritage is clearly evident with a half kilometre of the battlemented old city wall still intact, and several distinctive Lanna-style wats, like Wat Suan Tan, dominating downtown. “It’s the best maintained town of Lanna culture left, because it was so inaccessible in the past, and less corrupted by outside influence,” a friend had ventured. Judging by the number of teak-wood houses with criss-cross galae motifs on their roofs, he is right.

Many developments in town leverage that quaint heritage, such as the 75-year-old Pukha Nanfa Hotel which stands in newly refurbished golden teakwood splendour, or the Jan Taeng Guesthouse, and little cafes like Nan Seeing Tour café with old bicycles out the front, and pockets of hanging flower baskets. Suddenly everything old is new again. And cool restaurants are blooming everywhere, like the minimalist Just Jazz, run by a couple who left Chiang Mai. 

Jan Taeng's airport limousine service waits you ...
“The rents here are about one quarter of Chiang Mai,” they explain. Jing Jing!

But all of that might change with the recent opening of the new Thai-Laos border crossing at Huay Kon, 138km north. Suddenly, Nan is the middle city gateway, again.

Nan is in pole position to capitalize on this new flow between Thailand, Laos and China. Stylish new hotels like the Nan Boutique Hotel are already running full, contemporary Kad Nan draws a crowd, and beer gardens like Na Na and nightclubs like Channel X and Fifth are already partying late into the night in anticipation of much better times ahead.

“Nan is pure,” says Khun Nine at the Nan Boutique Hotel, originally from Uttaradit then Chiang Mai. “Nan is real, not fake. If somebody smiles here, they are really smiling.”

I see this not so much as the new Pai, but as the renascent Nan.

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