One of the first things you will notice in Chiang Mai, Thailand is the thousands of red open-sided pick up trucks driving around city streets. These small burgundy-red pick up trucks are called ‘songtaews’ by the Thais and are the vehicle of choice locals use to get around.
The bus service in Chiang Mai is not as good as in other cities in Thailand, tuk-tuks are more expensive than you might think, and not everybody wants to ride a motorbike. So you won’t find a better way than the songtaew to get around the city.
Songtaew actually means “two rows” in Thai and refers to the two long benches that are placed in the back of each pick up truck for passengers to sit on.
Learning how to take a songtaew in Chiang Mai does take a little while to get used to but, once you are, you will wonder why you haven’t taken one before.
If you visit Chiang Mai and want to take a songtaew though, how do you get one to stop for you and how do you know if you are hailing the right one?
Hailing a Songtaew – It is easy to hail a songtaew in ChIang Mai. You will see one passing you on the street every minute or so. Just stick out your hand and wave one down.
Songtaews will often have other passengers in them too, but that doesn’t matter. The songtaew is a shared ride system, so whether there is nobody in one or it already has five passengers, the songtaew driver will stop when you wave him/her to stop.
Getting Where You Want To Go in a Songtaew – When the songtaew stops, tell the driver where you want to go. If you know your destination in Thai language it will often be easier but, if you don’t, most of the songtaew driver’s speak enough English they can figure it out.
If the songtaew is going near your destination, and he is not jam packed full, the driver will agree to take you.
Agree To the Fare Before You Go – Most trips within Chiang Mai city limits should be around 30 baht but, if you are not Thai, some of the drivers will try to get more money out of you. Try to insist on no more than 50 baht, depending on the distance and, if he wants more, just wave him on and try the next one.
At this point, most of the driver’s will just agree to 30 baht and tell you to get in. Hop in and off you go.
Stopping at Your Destination – When you see your destination coming up, press one of the buzzers in the roof of the truck and the driver will stop. Get out, walk around to the front of the songtaew and pay him your fare and that’s it.
You are no longer a songtaew virgin!
You Can Charter Songtaews – Songtaews in Chiang Mai will allow you to charter them if you want to go somewhere special. I have chartered a songtaew to go up to Doi Suthep (the famous Thai temple half way up a mountain just outside Chiang Mai), and also one to go to the umbrella factory.
When you do this, they don’t stop for any other passengers, just take you where you want to go. Expect to pay a few hundred baht for this service though, although they are usually cheaper than taxis. Just stop one on the street that doesn’t have any passengers in it, and ask if they will go there.
Agree on the fare up front (make sure you let him know you want him to wait for you too if you plan on doing a return trip with the same songtaew driver), and once you are in agreement you can go.
Many of the songtaew drivers will wait for you while you are sightseeing and then take you back to Chiang Mai when you have finished. Paying the fare plus a tip of between 50 and 100 baht, depending on the length of the journey, is fine.
Songtaews are a fabulous way of getting around Chiang Mai. They are cheap, they are fast and the drivers know their way around the city well.
It’s also fun watching Chiang Mai go by as you whizz through the streets. They are even surprisingly cool on a hot day as you get a nice breeze from all the open truck sides.
It is also possible to take a songtaew in Bangkok. As this cute video will show you.