Tired of large bottles of Chang and buckets of SangSom? While sinking shots with the rest of the backpackers is a rite of passage for many travelling in the Land of Smiles, Chiang Mai boasts a thriving, lesser-known bar scene – with a distinctly local flavour – that may be more to some travellers' tastes.

You just need someone to point you in the right direction (and be willing to spend a little more than your average bottle of Singha) to uncover some of Chiang Mai’s coolest drinking dens. As with many small-scale venues in Thailand, opening times and even locations often change randomly or without notice, so check the bars’ Facebook pages before you plan your evening to make sure they’re open.

Bartender preparing a cocktail at Drinksmith bar in Chiang Mai
Mixing up signature cocktails at Drinksmith in Chiang Mai © Alana Morgan / Lonely Planet

Sip on some of Chiang Mai’s best cocktails at Drinksmith

A relatively recent addition to Chiang Mai nightlife, Drinksmith has quickly made a name for itself, pouring some of the most creative and highest-quality cocktails in town. Though in an odd location at a Thai strip mall towards the airport, the bar has managed to wow not only with its drinks but also with its moody ambience. Here, delicately balanced cocktails are made to perfection using hard-to-find spirits, bitters, tonics and ice that’s been cut by hand in house. Choose classic cocktails that are elevated by using unique liquors or try one of Drinksmith’s signature concoctions, like the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ with Yukari salt, smoked thyme, Japanese yuzu orange, rum, and hand-carved ice that’s stamped with their logo.

Watch the sunset from the rooftop bar at Hotel Yayee

While Bangkok wins for its sheer number of rooftop bars, you’d be hard-pressed to find any bar as darling as the one at Chiang Mai’s Hotel Yayee. The decor of this chic rooftop bar, and adjoining Hungry Heart Cafe, looks like it was lifted straight from Pinterest, complete with hanging ferns, succulents and marble bar tops. This is another cocktail bar, so you’ll find a variety of creative signature drinks that tickle the taste buds and loosen the lips – though it's worth noting that some of their offerings are a little on the weaker side. The mountain views complement the drinks perfectly.

A cocktail next to a potted plant at rooftop bar of Hotel Yayee in Chiang Mai
Refreshing cocktails at rooftop bar of Chiang Mai's Hotel Yayee © Alana Morgan / Lonely Planet

Choose from a range of microbrews at Namton’s House Bar

In a wooden house on the east side of the river, Namton’s House Bar is the go-to spot for beer lovers with a wide range of microbrews from around the world available on tap and by the bottle or can. The welcoming, low-key bar also serves a menu of standard Westen pub favourites to go with your cold brews, including salads, burritos and burgers. While Thai beer giants Singha, Chang and Leo are known for their low cost, imported beers have a high markup due to high tax laws – don’t be surprised to be paying just as much (or more) for a bottle than you would back at home.

Hang with the locals at We Didn’t Land on the Moon Since 1987

Just learning the name of We Didn’t Land on the Moon Since 1987 will make you feel like part of an exclusive club. This small, quirky bar down Th Tha Pae Soi 2 is equal parts grunge, artsy, minimalist and fabulous. While drinks are standard (Singha, SangSom and mojitos), it’s the eclectic crowd that guarantees a good time.

Locals enjoying a night out at We Didn't Land on the Moon Since 1987 bar in Chiang Mai
Mingle with the cool crowd at We Didn't Land on the Moon Since 1987 © Alana Morgan / Lonely Planet

Find the expat crowd at Small House Kafe

Small House Kafe has long been a favourite amongst expats in Chiang Mai, and propping up the bar you'll find English teachers, digital nomads, NGO workers and former gap-year travellers who have put their flights home on hold for yet another week. While the bar itself is relatively small, there’s ample outdoor seating, which makes it a popular spot to meet with friends for an evening of beers and chat while watching the sun go down. Conveniently, the bar is just across the street from another expat hangout, Corner Bistro. Patrons easily move between the two, especially on Friday nights when Corner Bistro draws a crowd with its weekly Fries & Hip Hop evenings.

Try Thai-inspired cocktails at Nophaburi Bar

Fitting only around 10 people, Nophaburi Bar is the epitome of Thai hipster cool complete with a white scallop-tiled bar, hot pink neon sign and attached vintage clothing shop. Signature cocktails here are built around Thai-made spirits, such as Mekhong rum, and often feature local aromatics and fruits.

The chalkboard beer menu at Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon bar in Chiang Mai
Local and global beers are available on tap at Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon © Alana Morgan / Lonely Planet

Enjoy craft beer at Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon

Another venue whose unusual name draws a grin, Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon serves up craft beers with floor-to-ceiling views and balconies overlooking Doi Suthep and Th Nimmanhaemin. The partially open rooftop bar located in the One Nimman shopping centre makes a strong first impression thanks to the elevator opening right into the small but airy space. Named by creatively combining the different owners’ favourite English words, Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon features 10 local and international craft beers along with a wide selection of bottles. Go early during the week (the bar opens at 5pm) and chances are you’ll have the space all to yourself.

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