are pickup trucks that function as taxis in Thailand
The trucks have a large metal framed unit fitted onto the back. Ever had a neighbor with one of those things in the flatbed of his truck that makes it into a “camper”? They’re kinda like that.
The mostly-enclosed back area protects passengers from rain or, more often, from the hot Thai sun. Long pieces of tinted plastic serve as thin windows on each side. Running the length of the inside are two long cushioned benches. This is where the name comes from; songthaew is Thai for “two bench(s)”.
Passengers enter through a doorway-like opening in the very back. Where the tail-gate would normally be there is a step or two to help you get in. To the left and right of the opening on the outside there are places for people to stand and hold on if the truck’s really full. More rurally-based songthaews may also have a small “luggage rack” on top useful for transporting big bags of goods to and from market.
In the mornings or afternoons (especially in smaller/rural towns) you may see custom songthaews used for ferrying kids to and from school. Students being smaller, and there being a lot of them, these trucks usually have a third thin bench running up the middle as well (even with three benches these are still referred to as songthaews).
Songthaew you say... just how do they operate?
Songthaews are a little like buses in that they generally follow a set looping course. Unlike buses, if your destination falls reasonably close to the loop (like, not more than a couple of minutes in or outside of that loop) they’ll take you there. Try getting the driver of the brown line to take you to your doorstep in Evanston hah, I say!
Cheaper than tuk tuks, songthaews are great, but not always the fastest way of getting somewhere. They work a bit of like those story problems back in math class. Gotch’yer scratch paper ready?
You are a driver of a songthaew with five passengers.
Noy wants to go to her house two minutes east of the loop,
Boonmee and Lek want to go to the airport, five minutes southwest.
strawberry wants to go to Kad San Kaew to see a movie.
Somchai, with the bag of durian stinking up your vehicle, wants to go to Warorot Road Market.
Keeping in mind your basic looped route, what is the best way of getting these people to their destinations using the least amount of petrol?
I find a good rule of thumb
for songthaews is:
Everyone who’s in the truck when you get in will be gone by the time you get to where you want to go.
Sometimes, you get lucky and your destination is the easiest/closest to go to. But generally, if you’re in a hurry, a crowded songthaew is not the horse to bet on.
Which songthaew is right for you?
Just so you know, there are different colored trucks. These different colors give you an idea as to where the particular songthaew goes. If you’re a visitor to, say, Chiang Mai, most likely you’re going to be using the red songthaews. Reds circle around the moat, serving both the old city (that is, inside the moat) as well as popular outlaying spots (Central Airport Plaza, Kad San Kaew, maybe Tesco-Lotus). Depending on the time of day, the red ones may also swing by the airport, the bus depot, or the train station.
Yellow songthaews in Chiang Mai are the ones that head to smaller towns twenty, thirty kilometers away. These are more like your commuter trains; long straight trips with just a few stops. I don’t think they take people exactly where they want to go. Rather, they take everyone to a central place in a town and then head on to the next one.
I’ve heard tell of blue songthaews in Chiang Mai, but like Nessie, never actually seen them. It makes sense that they’d have the third primary color, but I don’t want to go telling tales outta school.
Ready? Set? Songthaew!
Now, when you want a taxi you usually have two choices: you can call the taxi company or you can try hailing one. Songthaews are old school offering only the latter option.
Okay, you’re standing on the sidewalk. You see a songthaew coming a block or two away. Is it the color you want? If so, extend one arm out towards the street (usually this would be your left arm). Now don’t go raising you arm all like “Taxi!”; but rather, put it down at a 45 degree angle as if you were pointing to a crab on the ground seven feet away from you. With your palm facing down, swing your four fingers towards your palm a couple of times (kinda like how kids wave when they’re really little or Bart Simpson demonstrating the sound of one hand clapping).
The truck will pull over if he can; if traffic’s too heavy he might not be able to stop right there. Go to wherever he stops, but don’t get in yet. Walk up to the passenger window of the cab (in Thailand cars drive on the left-hand side of the street, the right-hand side of the car like England) which will be open at least a little bit. Tell the driver where you want to go, poised more as a question. “Airport?..”
If he (I’ve yet to see a female songthaew driver, although I have seen one female tuk tuk driver) shakes his head, that’s too far out of his way or not an area he covers. If, however, you get a nod then he’ll take you there. Songthaews don’t have any sort of meter like a taxi, so (especially if you’re a farang) you’ll want to agree on a price before getting in. Fifteen baht? Ok. Once that’s sorted, get moving and get yourself into the back.
Stepping into the back you’ll want to quickly grab a seat on one of the benches. Songthaews often jump into traffic when there’s the slightest hint of an opening, so you don’t want to get thrown off balance if the truck suddenly takes off. This may be a no-brainer but you’ll want to sit on the side with the most free space; in addition to giving everyone more elbow room, it keeps the weight more evenly balanced.
Okay, so you’re inside the songthaew and heading wherever. Good for you. Take a chance to look around, familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Is there a frothy-mouthed wolverine in the corner? No? Good, ’cause there shouldn’t be. Sometimes there’s a non-opening window in the back of the actual cab. I suppose this could be useful for miming emergency information to the driver. “I lost my retainer at that last intersection!” Good luck with that. A bit stuffy back there? The tinted windows on the side can usually be slid open allowing for a bit more airflow. If you want to look out, watch stuff go by, the windows are a little low so you may need to bend down a little. Of course you can always look out the mostly-open back trade funny faces with kids riding in their parent’s car.
Along the inside of the roof of the cab are a couple of bars you can use as hand holds. Between the bars there should be at least one, probably two, doorbell like buttons. Each about the size of a “fun-size” Halloween Snickers, these buttons are what you press when you want the truck to stop.
Sometimes the buzzer is upfront in the cab and just buzzes. Sometimes the buzzer is actually like an alarm bell and is back there with you, perhaps just inches from your head. Keep this in mind when you press the button just one quick tap will do; don’t be going all crazy trying to play Axel F on the damn thing.
When you ring the buzzer you probably want to be holding on to the bar because you’re going to be stopping soon, perhaps abruptly. When the truck stops, get out the back and again go around to the passenger window. Hand the driver your fare exact change if you have it and say thank you (khap-khun-khrap if you’re male, khap-khun-kha if you’re female). Sometimes the drivers wife is up there riding shotgun so you can hand it to her.
Congratulations, you’re now an accomplished songthaew rider.
In Bangkok, which has actual taxis, the tuk tuk seems to take the place of the songthaew. You’ll see tuk tuks loaded for bear with goods; looking like the post-heart-enlargement Grinch’s sled rolling over his ever-faithful Max. I’m sure there are songthaews in Bangkok the city is huge but you just don’t see ’em downtown. And with taxi’s, tuk tuks, and the motorcycle-taxis, all racing around there really isn’t much room for songthaews.
On the flip-side, most everywhere else in Thailand does not have taxis. Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, has neither taxis nor motorcycle-taxis, although it does have tuk tuks.
Update: As of October 2004, I have seen two yellow-top/blue-bottomed taxis in Chiang Mai (same same, but different as the yellow-top/green bottom and blue-top/red-bottom taxis in Bangkok). Looking at the license plates, one had a "4" and one a "5", so I'm thinking there are probably five taxis in Chaing Mai and I just haven't seen the other three yet.
If you’re following a songthaew, say on a motorbike, you’ll want to give them plenty of room. Often they’ll suddenly veer over to the left curb if someone gives them “the hi sign” or wants to get out. Also, although Thailand has many world class hospitals, you should probably never try to pass a songthaew on the left.
You can see photos of a songthaew at
wertperch says "I thought it was going to be something Welsh! These are like the pok-pok or whatever in Malaya. Oh, and in answer to your puzzle - get Somchai out first :)"
(this write-up was originally listed under "song taew (thing)")
Update (June 22, 2005): the red songthaew's go around Chiang Mai city, the blue ones go Chiang Mai to Lamphun, the green ones Chiang Mai to Mae Jo, the yellow ones Chiang Mai to Mae Rim, and the white ones go from Chiang Mai to Mae Tang.