Ancient murals, friendly ethnic minorities, and an overriding sense of rural solitude keep Nan province a seductive secret, says MARCO FERRARESE.
An old farmer in a straw hat emerges from a paddy. Behind him trails a family of mud-caked water buffaloes. The man and his cattle lumber down the country road, passing the sedan – an appropriately-named Toyota Lanna – that I’ve parked on the shoulder.
In the rear-view mirror, I spot a woman carrying a child wrapped in a blanket tied behind her back. A man follows her on a motorbike, chugging along as if in slow-motion. When they draw near, I roll down the window and ask, “Excuse me, is this the way to Thai Lue village?” The woman says nothing in response, eyeing the car as if it were some kind of spacecraft. Her baby, on the contrary, smiles winningly.
To get around the secluded northern province of Nan, I’m equipped with a simple map. Given my inability to communicate in Thai, let alone in the vernacular spoken here, the map becomes like a play board for a game of Risk, with our fingers like plastic pieces tentatively jabbing at parts unknown. The mother finally understands that I’m looking for the Thai Lue village. She explains, with much gesticulating, that I must return to the main road, turn left, take the next side lane, and follow the signage. Roughly five minutes later, the car is barrelling down a narrow road flanked by bottle-green rice paddies with misty, undulating mountains on the horizon.
It doesn’t take long before I’m lost again. But just when I start to feel desperation sink in, the first signage I’ve seen for miles – in the familiar blue colour of a tourist signpost – suddenly appears. Only it’s written in Thai. I drive on anyway, passing a series of gated homes that seem to be part of a relatively modern neighbourhood. Soon it becomes clear that Thai Lue ‘village’ is this row of houses. Eventually, the road leads to a hidden parking lot outside one of Nan’s tourist attractions, the small Wat Nong Bua.
The distinguishing features of Nan’s temples are their elaborate and colourful murals, paintings that reveal key narratives from the late 19th century, like the secret histories of locals, clad in black berets, who mingled with rifle-toting colonists. Only the traditional demon-warrior figures, with their distinct pointed heads, suggest that Nan is in Thailand rather than a neighbouring country, where the days of colonialism are better documented.
As I’m staring up at the walls, mesmerized by the murals, good luck brings a small group of folk musicians to the entrance of the temple. To them, this is just a quiet place to sit down and practice. For me, it’s a unique opportunity to listen to previously unknown sounds. The music begins, swaying scales of high pitched notes produced by expert fingers pressing on the fat strings of a wooden ruan, a traditional Chinese guitar. For a moment, it feels as though I’ve been transported to another place and time. There’s a reason for that.
Nan’s roots run through China’s Yunnan province – in particular, the fertile rice-growing region, Sipsongbanna – rather than the canals of Krung Thep. Isolated for centuries, Nan only began to prosper when it became a mid-journey rest stop between Chiang Mai and Chiang Thong (modern-day Luang Prabang) under the Kingdom of Lanna. But after being ransacked by Burmese marauders, the province was practically deserted until the end of the 18th century. Today, the remoteness of those defining eras endures, from the vast, bucolic surroundings to the melancholy movements of Wat Nong Bua’s old guitarist.
After leaving the temple, I drive to Tha Wang Pha, a series of low, anonymous buildings about 40 kilometres north of the centre of town. There, a covered market gets the attention of my rumbling stomach. Its aisles are clean and populated by curious women who must not see many foreigners, because they start advertising the delicacies they have to offer as if I’m their very first customer. It’s hard to share their excitement for live toads stuffed in see-through plastic bags, or fat larvae in decaying pieces of honeycomb, but the smiling women insist it’s all mouthwatering, if only I’d be daring enough to try.
Before returning to the city, I make one last stop at the Nan Riverside Art Gallery along the highway. This treasure trove of contemporary Northern Thai art has permanent exhibits set in a pavilion that faces a bend in the Nan River. The walls are adorned with a plethora of vibrant paintings, and the floor space is haunted by ghostly sculptures made of clay, plastic, and iron. Despite the absence of other visitors, the Riverside Art Gallery shows that the area has more to offer than old folk tales.
As I roll into town, it’s hard to imagine the city at the height of its splendour, when it was a Lanna hub. The maze of narrow, busy streets doesn’t leave much to the imagination. And the bland, compact downtown, a setting punctuated by several temples, is not necessarily a traveller’s idea of a breath of fresh air; however, much of Nan’s charm lives in its religious imagery, and the ‘holy trinity’ of Wat Phumin, Wat Chang Kham, and Wat Mingmuang is indeed very special.
Built as if it were riding on top of two giant nagas, Wat Phumin is most indicative of the art and architecture of the Thai Lue. Groups of pale-faced Europeans adorn the walls here, too, representing the French rulers of Indochina, to whom Nan valley’s eastern basin was yielded at the end of the 19th century. Looking closely at the clumsy, moustachioed figures on the temple walls, it’s fairly easy to work out the Thai Lue opinion of its French ‘invaders.’ Among these figures is the famed ‘Poo Marn Yar Marn,’ or ‘Whispering of Love’ mural, which I’d been searching for from the start. It depicts a bare-chested, tattooed Thai Lue man murmuring a love spell in the ear of an enchanting local beauty. This confession of love is reproduced on all the tourist trinkets that are sold outside the temple, maybe as a suggestion to keep a visit to Nan a secret.
When dusk comes, it veils the town in a blue-black twilight spangled with blazing stars. Under cover of darkness, I roam the empty streets. Occasionally, a halfcrescent moon peeps out from behind a cloud to throw its pale light on the surroundings. Sidling past Wat Phumin’s closed gate, with the tacit agreement to keep its precious love whisper protected inside, I can’t help but feel nature and the elements are working in concert to keep this northern delight hush-hush.