This trip to Nan, a small city in the far north, via the back roads of Thailand has been on my to-do list for a while now. I had originally planned it for late last year in the cool season but decided that it was a trip best done while the trees were in leaf and the rice pre-harvest. What many people don’t realise is that the north of Thailand has a cool dry season Nov/Dec – Feb and many trees are deciduous or “drop leaves” as a good friend of mine used to call them. Teak, mulberry and rubber trees are all deciduous and make parts of our region very bare in “winter”. Rice is harvested in November leaving paddies brown and boring until the next planting in June/July. Although we are currently (September) getting towards the end of the wet season and Nan has been experiencing floods I thought we would do the trip at this time and enjoy the green countryside while it was still happening.
I had a couple of reasons for why I wanted to make this journey in the first place. Firstly when checking the map of northern Thailand the trip to Nan looked really interesting if we stayed off the main highways. In our case the quickest but more boring route and the one recommended by Google Maps would be to join highway 12 at Chum Phae and at Phitsanulok turn right onto highway 11 until it joined the 101, which would take us straight to Nan calculated at 570 km and about 8 hours driving.
Here I am going to divert off topic but anyone either living here or visiting and planning to do some exploring by car then you might find the following useful.
NOTE: Do be careful with road numbers here. Once you get off the major highways you will find instances where Google Maps will show one number, your GPS another and any map you are using a third. My GPS tells me in a helpful and confident voice (Australian lady!) the road number I need while the sign I am actually looking at has a completely different number on it. The signs and any map you have may also conflict. It is best to relax and realise that you always get to see more of Thailand than you ever planned when driving here 🙂 The road numbers I give in this post are from my northern Thai map and matched to Google maps but no guarantees on accuracy.
Thinknet maps are bilingual, reasonably accurate and can be bought in many 7/11s and book stores for not much. Buy sticky tape too because they split along the folds in no time! GT Rider maps are wonderful but they only cover northern Thailand and not Nan. See HERE.
The other warning is that Thai signage is sometimes great but often it is useless. Don’t expect that you will find clear directions to the road you are looking for or if there are signs you may find them only in Thai script. Having said that the majority of signage has English as well as the Thai, which is a lifesaver. Thank you Thailand. When at a loss for where to next the GPS is a very handy tool. Using it purely as a guide to get you to a particular destination can be very hit and miss thing in Thailand. It WILL get you there but sometimes by the wierdest route and you end up missing the things you wanted to see on the way. However using the GPS as a search tool can work (not searching for places, names or road numbers where it usually returns a blank) but for a specific item on the screen. For example in the case of my Garmin if looking for highway 228 from my current location I would do the following:
OK back to the topic. The alternative route and what we did was to head in the opposite direction (north) to Google directions until we hit the Laos border and then we turned west (left on the map) to join up with highway 11 for an overnight stay in a town called Uttaradit. From here it would have been an easy drive up highway 101 to Nan, most of it dual carriageway, 200 km and three hours according to Google. However we turned back the way we came and took the back roads again heading north through the hills taking three times as long to get there but with three times the interest. I knew that the small roads followed the valleys through this very hilly part of Thailand and also the border with Laos for some distance. I was hoping to see some more interesting scenery than the pretty flat countryside around our home in Si Bun Ruang.
The other reason for the trip was to meet up with a long time reader of the blog an Australian called Vlodek and his lovely Thai wife Pu. Vlod arrived in Austalia from Poland 30 years ago with no English and little money. He has just retired from a senior position at the National Parliament building in Canberra, which is a testament to the drive and hard work of some of our immigrant citizens.
Vlod decided to retire to Thailand this year and build a house in his wife’s village just outside Nan. We thought a combined trip to explore the backroads of the north, a wander around Nan and the chance to meet Vlod and Pu made for a good reason to hit the road, which is what we did.
I will provide more detail of the mechanics of this journey than is necessary or maybe of interest to the casual reader. The reason I do this is because I know that when I went searching on the web for details about this route almost none exists so it will be useful for others who might be looking to do some variation of this journey. There’s plenty of non-tourist information here too so just skip to the bits that work for you.
The first part of the trip was very familiar to us because it was the route we drove from Chiang Mai to Isaan and return when we lived in Chiang Mai back in 2014. It is a trip we have done six times previously. From Si Bun Ruang we headed north 30 km to Nong Bua Lamphu and then picked up highway 210 going west (left) towards Loei, provincial capital of a province with the same name. When the 210 ended in a town called Wang Saphung we turned north (right) onto the 201 signposted to Loei. On the outskirts of Wang Saphung we turned onto the 2140 as shown below:
The 2140 is a small country road (the theme of this post) and it wanders through some little moo bans (villages) and photogenic country both farming land and hills. At one point the road runs along the ridgeline and you get glimpses into the valleys below. Well worth a photo stop.
The 2140, which has since turned into the 3002 according to Google maps but it’s the same road whatever, ends at a T junction with the 203 as you can see from my map above marked with a circle. Turn west (left) and shortly after turn north (right) onto the 2399, which maybe signposted to Tha Li. The alternative is to continue on the 203 and turn right onto the 2294 after Phu Ruea, a plant nursery centre which we will cover in our return from Nan. a shorter route to the one we took.
You might get an idea from the photo above but these roads are a little more basic than the ones you have recently left. Still pretty good though, fully sealed and not too many potholes. You eventually end up in Tha Li, which is a typical small Thai town with lots of wooden houses some opening almost straight onto the road.
It is here you leave the 2399 turning left onto the 2099, which isn’t signposted that I could see. Helpfully there is a sign with the road number once you actually get on the 2099. Better late than never. GPS is your friend in these circumstances.
Soon after you get onto the 2099 you will see Wat Lat Pu Song Tham on the right (I have marked it above). This place is worth a quick stop. The temple has two entrances. The first one takes you to a Chedi (a sort of tower), which looks like this:
The second entrance is one you drive through 100 metres further on and end up at the buildings to the left of the chedi. This includes a cafe so it is worth a break.
Back on the road we arrived at a T junction with the 2195 at a small village, which may or may not be called either Chum Chon or just Hi. Who cares 🙂
Gaun as always immediately spots food growing while I sort of glaze over the details in true farang style or is that just a bloke thing? She not only knows the eating potential of things but their medicinal properties as well. She will point out a plant and call it “medicinal”, “sweet”, “sour” or “spinach” (which I take to mean bitter). Gaun didn’t know the western name for this fruit but on our return home Peng, my stepdaughter, was called to internet action and the Thai name translated to English is Noni. I have never heard of it but others have:
Polynesian healers have used noni fruits for thousands of years to help treat a variety of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, aches, pains, burns, arthritis, inflammation, tumours, the effects of aging, and parasitic, viral, and bacterial infections. Ancient healing manuscripts cite the fruit as a primary ingredient in natural healing formulations. Today, fruit preparations are sold as juice, in dried “fruit-leather” form, and as a dry extract in capsules.
You can read more HERE.
Meanwhile we turned left here to get on the 2195, which runs alongside the border for a while with the river acting as the boundary. You get the idea from the Google maps image below.
This photo was taken from a shine to Ruesi, a hermit monk that seems to follow me around Thailand ever since I found out his origins, which I wrote about in a previous post called Wat Kham Chanot and Salt HERE.
The Ruesi are Hermit sages who spend their time meditating and developing psychic powers and collecting magical herbs, minerals, rarities and other substances. They use the magical ingredients to make special love charms, spells and protective amulets. They wish to help other beings to be happier in life, and do this by telling fortunes, making rituals and spells to reduce bad karma, chase evil influences and spirits away, protect from ones enemies, or even increase one’s luck and wealth with a spell for wealth and good fortune.
We took a slight detour onto the 2113 to have a look at an old (for Thailand) wat called Pho/Poe Chai. Remember we were on the 2195 (the red line). You can see the wat marked on this map halfway up the 2113 on the way to a town called Dan Sai, which has a great spirit festival June/July each year that you can read about HERE.
The following words come from this tourism site HERE. My photos though:
Wat Pho Chai is located in Baan Na Pung, Na Pung Sub-District, Na Haew District, Loei Province. It is the old temple established before the village was settled. It was built in the 22nd-23rd Buddhist century. There are ancient wall paintings by local artists. It was announced to be the national ancient place in the government gazette book 104, section 18 on 1 February 1987.
The chapel is in rectangle shape. The wall was made from bricks and cement. It faces the northern direction. There are 3 entrances including eastern, western, and northern sides. Each door has a pair of animals in Himmapan Forest in crouching position.
The wall at the southern direction is dense. The gable roof was made from flake-shaped wood with wing-shaped eaves and wood pillars. The roof is very low which is the unique local architecture of Loei. It also helps to protect the wall paintings.
Wall paintings are both inside and outside the chapel. The wall inside the chapel is about the biography of Buddha and Vessantara. The wall paintings outside the chapel are about the story of Nemi Jataka, Sang Sinxay, and Karaket, reflecting lifestyle and religion of people in Baan Na Pung. The lines and colors imply real freedom and local art.
There are also the monastery, the tripitaka hall, the sermon hall, the golden pillar, pagodas, and walls in that period for study. In the house of the abbot, there is Ong Saen Buddha statue or Pha Chao Fon Ha, the ancient Buddha statue of the city. The Buddha statue is in the position of sitting cross-legged. His face is oval-shaped. His hair is fire-shaped. His cloth is copper gold. It is assumed that it was built in Chiang Saen City before locating in Lamphun. Then it was moved to Luang Phrabang, Laos. Finally, it was relocated in Wat Pho Chai in Baan Na Bung, Na Kaew District, Loei.
Travelling to the temple is not difficult. From Dan Sai District, enter Na Haew District via the Public Highway No. 2113.
You will often see them built like this in the north and on columns elsewhere sometimes over ponds. This was to try and preserve the manuscripts inside from insects and animals. As the documents were traditionally written on palm leaves you can see that they were vulnerable. A little more Wikipedia information HERE.
Leaving the temple behind we returned to our planned route and joined the 1268 heading west passing this large lotus lake. Depending on the size of the screen you are using to view this post you may or may not see a tiny dot in the middle of the lake.
Almost next door to the lake was this mulberry plantation.
Another of these old temples. They look as if a good gust of wind would knock them down. They weren’t built to last long time originally.
We met a nun who let us into the main building. She told us the columns were original and over 400 years old. The Buddha had just been refurbished in gold at a cost of 300,000 baht (A$12,000). I personally would be putting my money into making sure the whole place didn’t fall down but it will probably outlast me.
We are the red line the 1268 coming in halfway up on the right. The 1268 heads north (straight up) and then does a sort of U turn in the top right hand corner of the map and becomes the 1239 until it reaches the town of Nam Pat (above and to the right of the big Uttaradit name – Uttaradit is a province as well as a city). From there it becomes the 1047, which takes you into Uttaradit city marked in yellow on the far left. That big road coming into Uttaradit is Highway 11, which ends at the well know Nimmanhaemin Road in the centre of Chiang Mai. Read my posts about Nimmanhaemin HERE and HERE.
It ended up being a ten hour day instead of the five hours quoted by Google. As you can see the variety of the scenery and the stops along the way made it an interesting and worthwhile excursion. If you can relax into trips like this, keep your eyes open for photo moment and drop into anything that looks unusual then the drive itself becomes just as much of the journey as the destination.
I doubt that many readers will even pass through Uttaradit, but if you do and want to stay the night then I can recommend the Hobby Hotel HERE. Reasonably priced, modern and very comfortable it is a good choice. Breakfast is useless but get used to that in Thailand. The GPS location given on Booking.com is spot on too.
I will write about another huge drive on day 2 where we once again keep off the main roads and explore the backroads of northern Thailand leading into Nan. A Tuscan winery, the largest teak tree in the world, the disappearance of our road into a large lake and other excitements will be shared.
Thanks for reading.