In addition to the tuk-tuks, Thailand can have traditional numbers of wheels on its taxis. Phone-based apps like GrabTaxi and even Uber are making inroads. The latter was just launching while we were there, and if we are honest, there were still some kinks to work out. Often as not, our Uber drivers (who had been brought in from Bangkok for the launch) would never arrive. You would watch their progress on the app as their little icon would crawl almost to your location, then make a wrong turn and wander off, never to return.
That said, what good is a car that seats four when you could have a pickup with benches down the bed that seats 15 or more? Therein lies the wonder of the songtheaw.
Chiang Mai is littered with these color-coded, light-duty pickups. You never had to wait long before one would come growling along, usually belching out a trail of diesel smoke. They operate as something between a bus line and a taxi service. Colors denote their general route, but tell the driver your destination and the route would be modified to fit your needs. For enough money, one would take you nearly anywhere you wanted to go.
The seating in a songtheaw is down the back in two long benches running from the cab to the open back door. The step off the back and twin ladders leading to the roof were allegedly fair game too, though we only saw the Thai use them in the extremity of rush hour traffic.
One sneaky feature of the songtheaw was that the price depended on how many people were already aboard. Start with an empty truck from a taxi stand and you would pay 200 baht or more to reach even a nearby destination. Hop in one already headed somewhere and you might pay 20 baht to join the fun. A friend tipped us off that the best way to get a good rate was wait for a truck to be stopped at a light, and then run out into the street for some quick negotiations before the light turned green. If you didn’t like the rate, just move down the line to the next songtheaw. Crazy as it sounded, it worked every time.
All prices are negotiated through the passenger-side window of the cab, so you never knew who got what rate. There were even rumors you could ride for free if you were headed to one of the big shopping malls who paid the drivers to bring people their way.
They could also be had for a personal hire. For the equivalent of 30 USD, one could be had for an entire day to do whatever you wanted for as many people as it would carry. In our case this included a driver who would make unscheduled stops at great photo lookouts simply because he knew the view was outstanding.
It could be weirdly hypnotic, even meditative, to sit against the back wall in the warm air of evening, watching the traffic weave back and forth behind you out the open back door. The rest of life would fade away as you watched the street rushing by through the steps at the back, scooters hiding behind you then zooming ahead like little fish in the current of civilization, tangled wires and the golden sky overhead. Like so many things, there was a visceral quality to going for a drive that glass and air conditioning drive away.
The songtheaw is also a social experience. It is a common area, a meeting place unlike a normal city bus. Sharing a bench with friends or strangers, facing the person on the other side, you could not slide so easily into the solitary world of your own thoughts. Conversations, even when language barriers were in the way, were nearly inevitable.
But then, like the snarled power lines and the scooters on the sidewalks, the mixed up, thrown together nature of the ride was a reminder that whether a little truck or a country or even a world, we are all in this together.