If you're looking for some new and relatively untraveled territory in the North, you might want to consider two provinces east of Chiangmai, Prae and Naan. Whether you like to explore new terrain, enjoy the beauty of nature, discover special places that few tourists have ever seen before, or get closer to the people of northern Thailand, these two provinces offer you all of that and more. Both Prae and Naan are along the same route from Chiangmai and easy to travel to. A drive, or bus, directly to the most distant of these two, Naan is 6-7 hours.
Prae is a major center of Thailand's timber industry. The city of Prae is a 4-5 hour trip from Chiangmai, and the province is home to the Mae Yom National Park, a huge natural reserve of forests, reservoirs, and wild life. Part of Mae Yom National Park is Thailand's last remaining giant teak forest. This forest covers an incredible example of what most of northern Thailand was once like. Prae and the teak forest are not yet on Thailand's official list of tourist attractions, but the subject is under discussion as of this writing and may well become one in the near future.
The teak forest is certainly worth a visit, but there is more to Prae than that. The farming villages that cover the Prae countryside are beautiful dots in a broad farming landscape. The people of these villages are uniquely Prae, which means that their manner and lifestyle is gently northern Thai but much different from Chiangmai. In as much as the traditional industry in this province has always been timber, in addition to farming, the people are undergoing a change which for many is not so easy. In accordance with Thailand's environmental conservation projects, people are putting away their chain saws and axes and attempting to make their living on farming only.
One might say that the people of Prae are poor -- not all, by any means: there are the very wealthy timber tycoons -- and the people are very friendly and hospitable.
It is expected that more attractions will be developed in the Prae area, in terms of organized tourism. For the time being however, for you more adventurous types, there's no need to wait. The teak forest is sitting there just waiting for your camera (trees are not shy), and Prae's village people may not exactly be sitting there waiting for you but they'll be glad to see you (and they are shy).
Naan is the easternmost province in northern Thailand and is bordered on the far side by the Mae Khong River. Very few comparisons can be drawn between Naan and Prae except perhaps that Naan also has timber. Generally speaking, Naan is exotic.
Naan is a province of mountains and lowland farming areas. The people of the province are most definitely Thai, but this province is also the home of many Hmong hilltribe people, and the very small nomadic tribal group often referred to as "The People of the Yellow Leaves." While the other groups are easy to see while you're in Naan, this last group got its name from their patterns of movement. The People of the Yellow Leaves are a small minority ethnic group -- not Thai and not hilltribes -- who live in huts made of fresh green leaves and who believe that as soon as the leaves turn yellow they must move on and find new fresh leaves to build new huts.
Naan is the perfect place for a people with such a lifestyle. The area is lush and green, and quite remote by the standards of present-day Thailand. Some people who have visited Naan say they feel like they were in Thailand the way most of the country was 20 years ago.
When you go, plan to make your first destination the town of Naan. This is a small town with two guest houses, both of which were just recently opened: no night life: but a rich village culture. From the town, you might be able to find a local to take you to some of the outer areas in the outer areas in the province. Naan is not the type of place where you'll find trekking outfits and tour guides advertising themselves, so if you want either of these you'll have to ask around. Our advice is that you plan to do it yourself or ask at one of the two guest houses.
We found our trip to Naan breathtaking and refreshing. We stayed at one of the guest houses and were the only guests -- and we were there for five days. As we walked around the town during the day and early evening, we found the people to be genuinely warm and nearly as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We visited a silver workshop and although the workers were happy to let us watch, they were a bit dumfounded as to why we would be interested. There also was no shopping counter at this factory and no one seemed to think we'd be the least bit interested in buying their silver. We later found that this was true everywhere we went in Naan.
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