The city of Chiang Mai was built in the year 1296 after King Mengrai and his advisors identified it as the ideal location for the stronghold of the Lanna Kingdom in Northern Thailand. The center was built in the shape of a square that was protected by a moat and tall stone walls. You can still see some of the ruins today as your travel around the city. Taking a Songthaew–the red truck rideshares–is one of the most budget-friendly ways to get around Chiang Mai.
What is a Songthaew?
A Songthaew is a licensed rideshare taxi. They actually come in multiple colors depending on the route, but the most common in the city center are the red ones, which predominantly drive around the main city square. The word Songthaew translates to ‘two rows’, which refer to the two benches on each side of the interior. During busy times, you might see a packed Songthaew with someone standing on the platform in back while holding onto the metal railing. Traffic in Chiang Mai is not quite as crazy as other places in Southeast Asia, like Ho Chi Minh City, but I recommend holding on to something even if you are seated!
I love taking a Songthaew because they’re everywhere, they’re inexpensive, and you’re less closed off from the city than in a car; Better for snapping photos on the ride.
How do you take one?
Make sure you’re on the left side of the road and traffic is in the direction you want to go. If you’re hailing a Songthaew headed in the opposite direction of your destination, they will most likely decline to pick you up.
Once you spot a red truck, just wave at the driver. Avoid raising your arm above your head or pointing, which can be seen as disrespectful. When they’ve pulled over, let them know where you would like to go. It might be helpful to show them on Google Maps if you have a local SIM. They may or may not agree to take you, depending on their route. Your odds are better if the truck is empty.
The route depends on who else has your driver has picked up. Your driver will build a route based on all the passengers’ destinations, so factor this into your travel time. Even with multiple passengers, most drivers will remember your stop. If they miss yours you can press the ‘stop’ button on the ceiling. A safe bet is to follow along on a map screenshot, or on Google Maps if you have a local data plan.
Pay when you get out. The standard fee is 20 baht, which is paid after you exit. If your route is a little outside the main one your driver may negotiate a slightly higher fare. At your stop, exit onto the sidewalk (on the left if you’re facing the driving cabin) and pay your driver at the window.
Pro tip: Taxis can be hard to find. It’s possible to negotiate a taxi ride with a some Songthaews. In this case you would sit up front.
Other ways to get around Chiang Mai
Rickshaws: Think of a motorbike and an additional passenger bench or seat encased by a metal cage. These are a fun, more private way to see the city but will be slightly more expensive than a Songthaew.
Uber: Uber is in Chiang Mai but technically illegal. I have used Uber here frequently to get around town and for airport pickup, but sometimes you may encounter drivers who ask where you’re going before heading to pick you up. Expect to pay around 50-80 Baht for around town. What’s different from other Uber markets, too, is that in the payments section of the app you have the option to select cash and pay at the end of your trip.
Grab: Grab is a rideshare company based in Singapore and they are legal in Chiang Mai. I haven’t used their service but they have an incentive program for frequent users, and you can pay in cash or plastic.
Walking: I was so used to walking everywhere in NYC but some days between the extreme humidity and sun, you might feel like you’ll melt. I recommend doing as the locals do and carrying an umbrella to block the sun. Don’t forget to pack a bottle of water!