The first time I ever visited, I bumped into an old university friend, fellow travel blogger Fi Barrows of A Very Hungry Londoner, and we caught up briefly over a fresh coconut on Moonmuang Soi 6, which is where I was staying (& now where I always stay). We chatted about Bangkok, which she adored, and I wanted to know what it was that she loved so much. Her answer was that it was "just like London", and interestingly she described Chiang Mai as like Brighton, which is a town that found a permanent place in my heart after I stayed there with friends recently (read the blog post here).
Sure, it's not overrun with seagulls, nor does it have a pier, but Chiang Mai does have lots and lots of lanes...
1. Go Shopping
Duck in and out of back alleys and quaint winding streets by bike or on foot and you'll begin to understand the Brighton comparison; cafés, small live music venues, street art and hippie clothing joints fill Moonmuang and other parts of the old city. There's even a large 70s vintage store on Singharat Road, which is worth a look if you're that way inclined. Whilst you're in the mood to spend money, don't miss the Sunday night market, but be prepared for the crowds. If you fancy something a bit more air conditioned, head down to Central Department Store on Huay Kaew Road and visit Mate on the 4th floor, a reliable, talented and pleasant tattoo artist, if you fancy something permanent by which to remember your trip. Take in a picture or check out his work on Facebook; he claims to be able to do any style, and I must admit I was impressed. He's even adding some decent watercolour tattoos to his portfolio. 3 hours work is about 3000 baht (roughly £60) at the time of writing (2015).
2. Eat Food
Chiang Mai, like Brighton, has a plethora of great food options, from the street sellers at Sompet Market on Moonmuang Soi 6 to some of the best sushi I've tasted at Tsunami, which is out of town, just by the canal on Huay Kaew Road. Order the Salmon Tempura Maki, the Spider Roll (or several) and the crispy Salmon Skin Roll. The guy who set it up is a sushi master, trained in Japan, and this place is well worth the trek out there. But don't just take my word for it, just check out the queues at around 7-8pm. They don't take reservations, so if you don't want to wait get there when it opens at 5pm. You're WELCOME. If you're into your food markets, make sure you check out Muang Mai by the river, just outside the northeast corner of the old city; it's a sight to behold, as the main wholesale food market of Chiang Mai with truckloads of fruit and veg, meat and other produce, though you can still grab a bag of 5 dim sum for 10 baht if you just fancy a nibble.
3. Walk It Off
There is some hiking to be had not far from the city in the form of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui. A tuk-tuk can take you to the start of the trail, and there are temples and waterfalls to see on the way up, which is easy enough if you're fit and healthy and not at all dangerous. But if you're pooped by the time you reach Wat Phra That at the top, you can send one of your party back to get the bike (which is what I did) and drive the rest of the way to Doi Pui for a well earned coffee at the remote plantation there. In high season, this is likely to be (in the words of my good American friend) "a shit show", but during low season you'll have room to breathe. And if inclines aren't your thing, get into the nature at Suan Buak Had, Chiang Mai's only park according to Travelfish, which is conveniently located by the psychiatric hospital in the southwest corner of the old city and home to one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen; green and red bark, quite remarkable. The park is tiny, so do a few laps, and whatever you do DON'T get a fruit juice in the park café; they're all syrup and artificial flavour, quite revolting.
Don't assume that because it's a city, you won't get bitten. If you're anything like me, you will. And not just at dawn and dusk either. There's a green balm they sell here that you might want to try. Tiger Balm-esque, it tingles your bites into numbness. I dig it.
Don't turn your nose up at the backpacker part of town because you want to 'do as the locals do'. Alot of the monied locals go to bars in Nimmanheiman that blare out Thai pop music. Again, if you're anything like me, AVOID. Backpackers-ville is a far more chilled affair, and you can actually hear yourself think. (Fuck you, yes I am still the right side of 30.)
Don't stay at the first guesthouse you come across. There are tonnes here and different courses will suit different horses. Some of you will die without air conditioning, others won't consider anywhere without cool artwork and ethnic shit in the cafe-come-reception; that's fine, just figure out what your priorities are and search accordingly. In my case, I didn't want to share but was used to a single bed and no air con, so a decent single with a fan in a quiet guesthouse, sharing a bathroom with just one other, is what I got for 200 baht per night: Amy's on Moonmuang Soi 6, and I recommend it.