The Little Jazz Bar with Legendary Status in Chiang Mai, Thailand

From the warmth to the tunes, the North Gate Jazz Co-Op is a Chiang Mai institution.

It's just past 8 pm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sun has set and a cool mountain breeze from nearby Doi Suthep sweeps through the northern Thai city. Its moat sparkles from a scattering of lamp posts, a calming sight when compared with the neon LED signs that hang above the city's endless rows of shophouses.

Some temple-hopping travelers are ready for bed, while others are headed out for the night, stomachs filled with pad thai. Among them, no doubt, are those making a pilgrimage to the legendary North Gate Jazz Co-Op, which has become a mandatory stop on a night out in Chiang Mai. Open seven nights a week from 8 until midnight, the North Gate has grown to be an institution and a staple in the city’s cultural scene since it opened 15 years ago. Locals know it, and tourists from near and far make an effort to visit at least once while they’re in the area.

View from the balcony at North Gate Jazz Co-Op, Chian Mai, Thailand
Ai Han/Shutterstock

A live music venue like this one may seem like it's there for tourists' sake, but it's the local artists who drive its spirit. The North Gate is an embodiment of founder Pharadon "Por" Phonamnuai's vision of making jazz music accessible to all, and inspiring everyone who passes through this space along the way.

In 2009, with his saxophone in tow and just over $500 USD to his name, Phonamnuai made his way from Chiang Mai to Paris. He did the trip totally overland, and his purpose was simply to learn and see more of the world. A few years after returning home from his travels, the North Gate Jazz Co-Op was born.

musicians at North Gate Jazz Co-Op, Chiang Mai, Thailand
North Gate Jazz Co-Op

The establishment gets its name from its location on the corner of a busy intersection just across from the Chang Phuak Gate. Walk through its doors and you’ll see that a few framed pictures adorn the pale beige concrete walls of the interior; think portraits of John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong. A small black-and-white photo of musicians standing outside of a Harlem jazz and blues club from the 1950s hangs just beside the bar. Seating consists of a handful of long benches that face the stage, and a couple of tiny stools for good measure. Wander up to the cozy second floor that overlooks the stage and you'll find a few small tables and chairs. But most patrons choose to stand so they can catch as much of the action as possible, and the crowd typically spills onto the street corner as the night goes on.

Bar at North Street Jazz Co-Op, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ai Han/Shutterstock

Entrance is free, but buying drinks to support the cause is very much encouraged. Simple cocktails and ice cold bottles of Chang beer make their way across the room, a refreshingly humble offering compared to what you'll find at the glitzy rooftop bars and lounges just a mile north in the expat-friendly Nimman district.

You never know exactly what you'll get during a night out at the North Gate, and that's kind of the point. Tuesday is open mic night, Sunday night is usually slow jazz, and on Fridays you can catch local musicians belting out some of their favorite hip-hop or rock tunes. Stay until closing time and you'll end up dancing with strangers from all walks of life. The music isn't always jazz, but the vibe usually is.

Crowd outside the North Gate Jazz Co-Op, Chiang Mai, Thailand
North Gate Jazz Co-Op

I first visited the North gate in the summer of 2014 and found myself drawn in by the warm and welcoming environment. Almost six years later, I made sure to return. Its warmth remained, as did its enthusiastic crowd. The same picture of Thai King Rama IX hung high above the stage, looking over the musicians as if in blessing.

I find myself searching for something like the North Gate in every new city that I visit, but nothing really compares to the one in Chiang Mai. It's a small piece of jazz in a part of the world where a concept like "jazz" might not be your first thought, but it just works. And its uniqueness is really part of the appeal—after all, it means you’ll always find yourself drawn back for another night.

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Jennifer Richardson is a contributor for Thrillist. She first visited the North Gate in 2014, and returned in 2020.