Chiang Mai has a different kind of public transport system than in Bangkok, and it takes just a little gumpshun to get started and feeling comfortable getting around town. You will notice that around Chiang Mai, unlike Bangkok, the streets are not loaded with shiny new meter taxis, no sky trains, and very few buses That’s partly because Chiang Mai is really like an overgrown village, and it does not take much to get around. A lot of people call Chiang Mai a “twenty minute town”, because it takes only about 20 minutes to get anywhere in town, from one side to the other. Try that in Bangkok! Ha.
What you do see all over Chiang Mai are converted pickup trucks with a little cabin on back with two rows of wood bench to accommodate the passengers. These are called Songthaews (pronounced “song-tee-ow” – say it quickly). Most of them in the central part of Chiang Mai are painted red. Red Songthaews designate them to ply main streets of the central part of the city.
The other colors usually come from areas outside of central Chiang Mai. White Songthaews travel the Eastern Route to Sankampaeng, Yellow ones go North to Mae Rim and that area, Blue ones go South to Sarapee and Lamphun, and Green ones travel Northeast to Mae Jo. The Red Songthaews (going within the city) usually do not have a fixed route, but they do travel on just the main roads. The other color Songthaews have fixed routes, and are not appropriate for going too much within the center of town.
The writing on the Songthaews that show where they go is just in Thai language, but Chiang Mai people are very easy about giving assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most Chiang Mai people speak a little English.
If you stand on the sidewalk like you are looking for transportation, the Songthaew is likely to stop, or you can give a slight hand signal that you want him to stop. If they keep on going, don’t be alarmed. His vehicle is probably full, or perhaps temporarily charted for a specific group or family. There are so many of these Songthaews, that you will probably wait for less than a minute for the next one to come by. When one stops, you ask the driver if he is going to the place you want to go. Their English is usually not good, but they can probably understand basic English language. He is likely to respond by shaking his head yes or no. No worries if he says no, because another one will be coming to you in seconds. If he says yes, hop in the back. There may be a slight wait while the driver waits for other fares. Relax. It’s the Chiang Mai way.
How much does it cost? It is cheap. Usually, there is a flat rate of 15 to 20 Baht per person. Many times, people just give a 20 Baht note. Some drivers will try to get more if you are farang. If they say a large amount, like 80 to 100 Baht, just wave him off and pick up the next one. If you see that you are traveling an extraordinary distance, and especially if there is only you and companion on board, be prepared to give a little more. It should still be cheap. He may ask you for more when you board because it is a long distance. It probably should never exceed 50 Baht (about $1.60). (If it is much more, it gets into the price range of a private tuk-tuk). The driver of the Songthaew makes his money by volume, and will not argue or cheat one passenger. He’s always in a hurry to pick up more people.
When you see your destination, you can press a large button on the inside ceiling of the Songthaew to signal for him to stop. After jumping off, you go to the driver’s window and hand him your fare.
Probably the biggest problem for farangs is not knowing where they are going. Don’t expect to have a conversation with the driver of how to get somewhere. You have to know where you want to go. You may be on the wrong side of the street because where you want to go is the other way. If that’s the case, he is likely to tell you. But remember, these guys are always in a hurry. Volume of customers is what is important to them.
Be aware of the time of day. Just before school opens, the Songthaews are usually very full, and kids are stuffed inside to the point where it can be impossible for a big farang to hop on. Same goes for the late afternoon when school lets out. Don’t bother waving over a Songthaew that is stuffed with school kids. You won’t fit.
Also, women should be aware to give space inside to monks. They are not allowed to have women touch them, and you don’t want to be in that situation where you create a problem.
Once you get the hang of it after a few rides, you will be like a native Chiang Mai person, hoping on and off throughout the day.
This is the best map to have for Chiang Mai, and it is worth every penny that it costs. Highly recommended for your trip to Chiang Mai…