With its abundance of gifted Thai and foreign musicians and an easy-going approach to virtually everything, Chiang Mai is probably the best place to enjoy (and play) improvised music in Thailand. Though Bangkok may boast a more polished and professional music scene, it is in Chiang Mai that Thailand’s jam culture truly jells. Most nights of the week funky, unrehearsed, and bravely spontaneous musical mash-ups rock various bars across the city. Visiting musicians arriving at these so-called “open mic” events generally receive a red carpet welcome, even if they aren’t world-class players. That’s because, like everything else in Chiang Mai, the music scene tends to be more about frisson than finesse. It doesn’t have to be fine—it just has to be fun. Here are some highlights:
Boy’s Blues Bar
Monday night, starting at 9.30pm with an opening band at 8.30pm
Styles: Blues, Oldies, Folk
Boy’s offers what is probably the liveliest and most welcoming vibe in town, both for players and the audience. The open-air deck upstairs ensures that the sound is never uncomfortably loud, no matter how blotto a drummer may be. Performances can be sloppy at times, but that’s part of the fun—the artists are playing without a net, usually having met just five minutes before.
A constant rotation of jammers is expertly presided over by Boy, the owner, one the nicest guys in town and Chiang Mai’s current bishop of the blues guitar. Boy is the nephew of the legendary Took of The Brasserie, which used to be the only place in town to go for true Western blues. Since The Brasserie closed down, Boy’s has picked up the slack. The rest of the week Boy plays a straight up set of blues-rock with his expert band, and jammers are occasionally welcome if they arrange something beforehand.
North Gate Jazz Co-op
Tuesday night, starting at 9pm
Styles: Modern Jazz, Funk, World Music
The longest running open mic night in Chiang Mai also features the highest standard of musicianship. Some truly world-class players show up at the North Gate Jazz Co-op regularly, from the former trumpeter for The Waterboys to the saxophonist for The Sun Ra orchestra. Though the scene is mostly modern jazz, they also let more plebeian players grab the mic (or amp cable). This may not be the place to do crusty mainstream songs like “Walking on Heaven’s Door” and “Hotel California,” but anything with a little spring in its step should be acceptable for the horn-heavy participants. The rest of the week, North Gate features a slew of eclectic bands populated by a mix of both Thai and foreign virtuosos.
Mojo Café and Gallery
Thursday night, starting at 9pm
Styles: Funk, Oldies, Rock, Speed Metal, Flamenco, you name it.
Run by the former editor of the Pai Post—Nui, a great player in his own right—Mojo’s has an intimate and funky vibe, largely due to its small size. It also features more Thai musicians than most other places, some of which can appear a bit foreign-heavy. Moreover, a kaleidoscopic selection of musical genres is often on display here. Fancy speed metal with saxophones? Isaan-ese Mor Lam meets James Brown? You’ll find it at Mojo. Some good bands play throughout the weekend, as well.
The Tea Tree Cafe
Thursday night, starting at 8pm
Styles: Acoustic Pop, Oldies, Folk, Reggae, World Music
If Hippieland existed and it had an embassy in Chiang Mai, its offices would be located here. Aside from serving health tonics, vegan food, and raw desserts, it also features a friendly acoustic jam session every Thursday night. However, this is less like playing in a bar to an audience and more like lounging with friends in someone’s living room, spontaneously joining in for a sing-along. Got a didgeridoo or a ukulele? This would be the place to whip it out.
Thursday night, starting at 8pm/every other Sunday afternoon, starting around 2.30pm
Styles: Rock, naturally. And other stuff, too.
Aside from acoustic jams with a great sound system and brand-new stage, Papa Rock also has some of the best Western food in town, courtesy of Nicky, the British chef/rocker/owner who used to run the famous Guitarman Pub and Restaurant. Many residents insist this place has the best pizzas, burgers, and shawarma in town, so you might get distracted by the generous platters of nourishment. Papa Rock also plays host to a very popular daytime jam (arrange to join beforehand) every other Sunday afternoon.
Gossip Bar and Gallery
Friday night, starting around 9pm
Styles: Oldies, Folk, Thai Folk, Reggae.
The old-fashioned furniture and casual décor make this tiny place feel like a languid artist’s living room, even more so than the Tea Tree Café. An unplugged sort of situation makes every performance seem charmingly familiar, helped along by the toy-sized, but functional, drum set. The lack of a sound system enhances the relaxed ambiance, and helps explain why it’s popular with young expats and Thai artists.
Wednesday night, starting at 8pm
Styles: Pop, Old-fashioned Rock
Run by Aus-talian Toni, a talented chef and musician (Chiang Mai boasts a lot of musicians who cook), Yummy Pizza not only offers some of the best and most affordable Italian food in town, but also an informal jam session. Note that it’s a bit far from the centre of town, but it’s worth the drive for the baked pasta dishes and appreciative audience.