Transportation in Thailand | Getting Around Chiang Mai: Songtaews, Tuktuks & More
Not Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but Songthaews, Tuktuks & Motorbikes
Getting around the major cities of Thailand is easy and inexpensive. Here we will focus on our hometown of Chiang Mai, although what we talk about is equally applicable to other cities in Thailand.
Although there is always the option to buy or rent a motorbike or car (discussed below), you don’t need to do either one to get the benefit of convenient and cheap transportation around town. Thanks to Chiang Mai’s buses, songtaews, tuktuks and Grab, you will always have an easily available option. What are songtaews, tuktuks and Grab? You are about to find out, as we explore getting around Chiang Mai, and your many transportation options.
Driving in Thailand | Rules of the Road
Thailand has adopted the British system of driving on the left side of the road. While this poses no issues for people relocating from Great Britain, Australia and Japan (where driving on the left is the norm), it requires some readjustment for those from the United States and most European countries, who are accustomed to driving on the right. If you are like most Westerners, however, you will find the “change of sides” very doable, if for no other reason than you will simply be following the path of the drivers headed in the same direction, making it easier to not randomly start driving on the wrong side of the road. If a problem is likely to occur for you as a newcomer, it is when there is no traffic on the street to remind you which side is correct.
The Thai Way, The Kind Way
Most Thais are incredibly polite drivers and they put their trust in their fellow motorists, sharing the road with each other with a gentle spirit and philosophy that matches their country’s Buddhist faith (although this might be less true in huge metropolises like Bangkok, than in our smaller, friendlier city of Chiang Mai). Compared to Western drivers, Thais have a more relaxed and unhurried lifestyle that seems to carry over to their driving, with a relaxed and forgiving attitude. For example when a Thai is late for work, they won’t drive faster to get there on time; they just accept being late with no worry about it. Still, to the uninitiated, major roads are a buzz of activity with so many motorbikes and can take some getting used to.
Unlike farangs (the Thai word for Westerner), Thais do not have the same sense of possessiveness and ownership of their space and kindly make way to let vehicles merge. Slower traffic (such as the frequently seen mobile food stands transported as a motorcycle sidecar, or smaller-engine mopeds) stays to the far left so faster traffic can pass. You will virtually never hear drivers honk in anger at another, yell, or make obscene gestures, things that are sadly all too common in the Western world.
Traffic laws and right of way are flexible, with common sense and courtesy guiding most decisions. An example of such common sense is when inquiring “Who has the right of way?” Rather than a typically technical Western answer, such as “If all drivers arrive at the same time, the vehicle on the right has the right of way,” the usual Thai reasoning is: “Whoever is bigger gets to go first.” That is a somewhat comical and quaint reply, but the common-sense reasoning is indicative of Thai thinking. A motorbike yields to a car, and a car yields to a truck.
Getting Around Chiang Mai - Cheaply and Easily
Not owning transportation - with the worries of maintenance and insurance, not to mention the cost of the original purchase itself - is a luxury. If you dream of living in a city without having to own a car, this is very doable in Chiang Mai. It is truly a city where it is easy to get around, both easily and cheaply. In most parts of the city you are rarely more than one-minute away from hailing one of the transportation options.
The songthaew is to Thailand what the taxi is to New York City. Songtaews are literally everywhere in Chiang Mai. It is almost impossible to be on a street and not have at least one songtaew in view to flag down. If you are on a busy street, likely a dozen will pass by within a minute. They are easy to spot: bright red vans with two padded bench seats in the back facing each other. (The word Songtaew literally translates as “two benches.”) When you flag down a songtaew, or see one idling at the curb, you can tell the driver your destination and get a price for driving you there, usually 20 baht (70 cents). If he already has one or more passengers, you will be invited to hop on in you are going in the same general direction. Some songteaws stick to a semi-regular route while others are more free-roaming. A songtaew is not always the most speedy option because of other passengers who need to be dropped off along the way, maybe not exactly on your route. Many drivers will only speak Thai. There is a window between the driver and passenger compartment to communicate when you are ready to get off.
If you are a senior citizen, because Thais are quite courteous and respectful to the elderly, it is common for the driver to offer a seat next to him in front where there may be air conditioning, or simply a more comfortable seat than in back.
You will occasionally also see songtaews in other colors: yellow, orange, green, blue and white. Unlike the red songtaews which roam the central city, these other-colored songtaews have special routes, from various starting points in Chiang Mai to towns or areas of interest outside the city, ranging from five to twenty-five miles away. Most operate from early morning to early evening. Depending upon the distance they usually range from 15-80 baht (fifty cents to $2.65). Make sure you carry money in small bills or coins to avoid potential problems with the driver being able to make change for a large bill.
Tuktuks are popular with tourists as they are a zippy, fun, open-air ride with a roof above you for shade, the Thai version of a horse-drawn carriage. They are three-wheeled vehicles with the driver in the single front seat, and two seats for passengers in the back. They will negotiate a price with you for anywhere you want to go, usually within town. Tuktuks are much more expensive than a songtaew, about 100 baht ($3.35) for a ride of about ten minutes or so. Many tuktuk drivers don’t speak English, however. But if you have your destination written down, or another way to communicate where you want to go, they always seem very happy to work things out with you.
How to Hail a Songtaew or Tuktuk
Unlike in Western countries, in Thailand you don’t flag down a passing songtaew or tuktuk by raising your arm to extend your hand in a “stop” gesture, or holding up your hand or extending your index finger as if to get their attention. Although this will work as the drivers will understand your intent, these are seen as overly aggressive gestures by Thais. Instead, you extend your arm out and down, the back of your hand facing away from you, fingers pointed to the ground, and you rapidly wiggle your fingers.
Chiang Mai's Smart Bus
The new “Smart Bus” was launched just last year as part of the Smart City vision, meaning all buses are modern and clean. With air-conditioned individual seats, the bus is the most comfortable and affordable option, especially for people traveling within the heart of the city (reaching as far east as the Night Bazaar and as far west as Maya mall). It conveniently stops at all major landmarks, including Chiang Mai International Airport, Suan Dok Hospital, Nimmanhaemin Road, Kad Suan Kaew, Chang Phueak Gate, Three Kings Monument, Tha Pae Gate, Kad Muang Mai, Wat Gate, Night Bazaar and Wua Lai Road - at a flat rate of 20 baht (less than $1)!
The Smart Bus is also great for travelers or those without a phone plan, featuring free wifi. The CM Transit by RTC app (available for iOS and Android) shows bus stops, but the lack of an English translation makes it difficult for expats and travelers to read. This is a great alternative to motorbikes and cars, and especially convenient for people living in the heart of the city. They have added additional stops since the initial launch so you can expect it to continue to grow and reach beyond the center.
Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber and Lyft. Just download the Grab app and you can immediately request rides. The cost is less than travelling the same distance in Western countries by Uber or Lyft. Many of the drivers speak some English and are usually quite chatty with foreigners. The cars are typically medium-sized, late-model sedans that are air-conditioned and in pristine condition (a common practice for Thais, whether it be their home, furniture, or belongings). This is the most luxurious and personalized option, yet still very affordable.
Buying or Renting Transportation
Despite the availability of so many low cost transportation options, if you are going to be a permanent resident of Chiang Mai, you might be considering buying your own transportation. Long-term renting of a car is not really an option (such as leasing) in Thailand, and you could buy a used motorcycle for about the same cost as renting one for a month, making buying a better option.
By far, the most common mode of transportation in Chiang Mai, and throughout Thailand, is by motorbike. There are approximately four times as many motorbikes registered in Thailand as cars, but it feels like much more. Most people ride 100-125cc motorbikes which are usually driven at 25 mph (40 km/hr) around the city and 40 mph (60 kph) on highways. Motorbikes usually stay to the left hand side so faster vehicles can pass on the right. Many food stands are transported by a side cart that is attached to a motorbike and is often driven at 10 mph to the far left of the lane.
The safety standards we are accustomed to in Western countries do not exist in Thailand and it is a culture shock to see people carrying babies and toddlers on their motorbikes, or as many as four people somehow crowded onto one. The amount of people and things the Thais can carry on a motorbike is astounding and always entertaining. Riding without a helmet and wearing shorts and flip flops is also quite common. (As amusing as it is to see the spectacle of what passes by on a motorbike, the sad reality is that Thailand has a high rate of road injuries/fatalities compared to Western countries, likely due to such disregard of safety considerations.)
Buying a used reliable motorbike will usually cost in the $400-800 range. Craigslist isn’t the institution in Thailand that it is in the U.S., so purchases are usually made in the many small businesses which repair and sell motorbikes.
Thailand has been a country dominated by motorbike transportation, but the Thai car market really started to grow in the last 10 years. The most popular cars tend to be Hondas and Toyotas. There are several reasons for this. Thais seem to see Japanese cars as more reliable, and both Honda and Toyota have manufacturing plants in Thailand, which can make them less expensive to buy and service.
You can buy new or used, with the obvious pros and cons of the reliability of a new car versus the lower cost of a used car. If you buy used, you can buy from a dealer or private party. One advantage to the private party option is you can plug into the expat network and buy from a native English speaker, perhaps making you more comfortable. Let us know if you're looking to drive a car in Thailand and we will connect you with our recommended renters and dealers.
Auto Insurance - Car and Motorbike Insurance for Under $20
Thailand requires motorbike and car insurance, which is included in the cost of the annual registration. One of the most costly bills we are used to as Westerners is the outrageous cost of auto insurance. Luckily Thailand does not have the same requirements and rates as the US and European countries.
The annual registration of a motorbike or car includes the compulsory third-party liability (CTPL) insurance. CTPL is the governmental mandatory insurance which is the minimum requirement and covers medical expenses. If it is not the drivers fault, CTPL covers up to 80,000 baht ($2,600) for injury and 300,000 baht ($9,725) for death. If the driver is the cause of the accident, the coverage decreases to 30,000 baht ($1,000) for injury and 35,000 baht ($1,140) for death. This does not cover damage to the motorbike, which would be out of pocket or in combination with elective insurance. The cost of registration and CTPL insurance is dependent on the make and model, but the annual fee for the average car or motorbike is only 650 baht ($20)! Though this covers very little, it is a great deal for those that want to pay the bare minimum.
Additional coverage is available through private insurance companies. The prices are affordable and offer coverage on the vehicle, injury, and death . Requirements for policies and terms of the coverage for expats can be confusing depending on the company, so be sure to read the fine print. Our auto insurance partner clearly states the liability policies and options available to you, depending on your budget and desired coverage. If you are in an accident, you will know the deductibles and the correct procedure when submitting a claim.
Hi, I’m Hailey, founder of Retire in Chiang Mai. I hope this information has been helpful to you. If you need assistance in relocating and retiring in Chiang Mai, my staff and I are here to help with the entire process, from getting your visa, to helping you find long-term housing, learn about the best healthcare and insurance option, and the hundreds of small things that go into making a new city your home.
I love my adopted country of Thailand and my life in Chiang Mai. My dedicated Thai staff and I would love to assist you in creating your best life in Chiang Mai.