Spend some time in Chiangmai and you will soon realize that there is no bus system, metro or sky train that you can jump into to get from Point A to Point B. Here, the two most common options to choose from are tuk-tuks and songthaews. Tuk-tuks are the small, trike-like vehicles that can carry up to three or four people and are a more expensive way to get around town. They are more commonly used by tourists, especially those that don’t feel comfortable climbing into the back of one of the hundreds of songthaews that continually roam the city looking for passengers.
Riding in the back of a songthaew is the most common way to get around Chiangmai. These red pickups are highly visible and very easy to flag down from the side of almost any street in the city. The covered back of each truck consists of two wooden benches facing each other and,other than scooters, these vehicles are the primary means of transportation around the city. Usually, along with the benches, you’ll also find a variety of ads posted inside for the dozens of tourist sites in and around the city. The only problem many newcomers have is getting up the nerve to flag one down and talk to the driver.
Usually, if you are standing on the side of the road looking like you want to go somewhere, one will stop for you. Or you can motion to them as they approach that you are interested. The drivers don’t always speak a lot of English but they will usually be able to understand where you want to go. Sometimes a map will help, but you need to know how to say exactly where you are going or have a card with the address on it. They are usually very polite and patient but they don’t have the time, or the English skills, to explain directions to you. Their daily income depends on how many people they can pick up each day.
Once you have told the driver where you want to go, he will either agree or not agree to take you. If he agrees, just jump in the back and find a place to sit. Sometimes, if the benches are full, the driver may motion you to sit up front with him. It is not unusual to get to your destination in an around-about way so don’t panic if they don’t beeline to your desired drop-off spot. Many have a route they follow and eventually it will go past your stopping point. They will tell you if they are not going where you want to but don’t despair; there will be another truck passing by very soon. Unless you are going from one end of the city to the other, it is rare to pay more than 20 or 30 baht. That amount should get you to anywhere you would probably want to go. If they ask more than that, walk away and grab the next one that passes.
The drivers are really good at letting you know when you have arrived at your destination. Once you have stopped and been let out, just walk up to the front window and pay the driver. You should have decided on a price at the beginning, so don’t start trying to negotiate when you pay at the end. We sat and watched a tourist argue with the driver a couple of days ago. The agreed price had been 30 baht but after unsuccessfully trying to lower the price, the person threw 20 baht in the window and stormed away. It was upsetting for the driver, who managed to maintain his composure, and a little embarrassing for us as we were next in line to pay him.
With a little experience, you will soon be jumping off and on these “taxis” like a local. They are fun to take and you often get a mini-tour along the way of places you probably wouldn’t see or know about otherwise. If you come across something interesting, try to remember where it was so you can return and check it out at a later time! We love keeping our cellphone GPS maps on so we can mark spots along the way that we want to revisit. And if you are really feeling adventuresome, you can try to practice your Thai with the other passengers!