I’m from New Zealand. Deep down south on the globe, it’s a country regularly left off world maps (not for political reasons, but because it is simply forgotten, which is somehow more insulting).
Most places are unattainably far away for Kiwi travellers. When I was younger, I often daydreamed about going to Paris, but it was too huge a journey.
I’d seen baguettes and bikes with baskets in so many movies set in Paris, and had a sickeningly romantic vision of it. So, when I got there as a bright-eyed 25-year-old traveller, I discovered a fascinating place, but one that didn’t live up to the picture in my mind’s eye.
Julie Delpy hadn't been ridiculed by a French waiter for the way she pronounced croissant in 1995's Before Sunrise, but I was with my "un cross-aunt merci". And in a 2004 episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw stayed in a hotel room with a view of the Eiffel Tower and a flower-lined terrace – she did not, like me, have to share a shoebox with a view of a brick wall with two other people to afford to stay anywhere near the city's single-digit arrondissements.
A decade later and I've only just realised that having no expectation of a place, and doing very little research about it – which in my case is often down to laziness – can actually benefit a traveller. I recently visited Chiang Mai, which I knew almost nothing about before I went. I've been to Thailand a few times (it's further south than Paris), but I'd never been to, or even thought about, the north of the country.
In my five nights there, I did none of the "top five" experiences recommended by TripAdvisor. When I got back, people asked me, happy anticipation on their faces, if I had tried the gibbons zip line/bathed the elephants/been into the hills – and I sheepishly had to respond with a "no" every time. "What did you do?" they asked. Well, to be honest, not much – but I do feel like I know Chiang Mai now.
I treated the week as an opportunity to slowly imbibe a city, walking around the beautiful Old Town, crossing the river to explore art galleries and mini temples, and often merely sitting and observing.
I planned my days mostly around street food – and went to places recommended by people I met, rather than by Google or TripAdvisor. From deep-fried frog’s legs at the Hanging Restaurant to the best rotisserie I’ve ever eaten at SP Chicken, I woke up knowing what I was going to eat for lunch, and spent my morning walking there, stopping at whatever market, temple and coffee spot I found on the way. I was a modern-day female flaneur, and it was delightful.
The food was memorable, but the unplanned detours were, too. As a friendly Chiang Mai resident explained the Buddhist significance of the day I was born on, after I had wandered into a tiny temple that didn't feature on any online lists, I realised that it's often the things you don't plan, or imagine, that turn out to be the most enjoyable.