I have two modes of transport in Chiang Mai; a good pair of shoes and a bike. Both travel at a speed that suites my leisurely pace and are perfectly designed to spot people and places I wouldn’t see if I was by skittering by on or in motorised transport. So I set out to try the more usual ways of crossing Chiang Mai, just so long as it isn’t on a motorcycle, the name the Thai use for motor scooters, a death-trap on two wheels.

The songthaew is the workhorse of local transport, its name translating as ‘two benches’, taken from the fact that is a covered pick-up with a bench running either side. The biggest failing of the songthaew is that it has no predictable route, it simply goes in a rough direction and picks up anyone who may be going vaguely his way and will wander at will and paying passengers, eventually arriving at where you want to go but with no timescale in mind. If you are going any distance don’t expect to get there in time for that important appointment you have.

Even though the fleet is reasonably modern, the first one I flag down probably came out the same year as the driver, an ancient wearing a week’s stubble and shirt that’s seen better days. He stares vacantly into the distance when I say ‘University,’ mulling over what I could possibly mean. It’s about the biggest building on a straight road in the direction he’s facing, so I’m pretty sure he can’t miss it. I’m heading for the Saturday second-hand market near Payap University but as my Thai doesn’t extend to ‘second-hand market’ and I assumed ‘university’ was reasonably universal, I’d plumped for that.

The only other passenger is a young girl with an oversized rucksack, deeply engrossed in texting on her smartphone. After a ten-minute ride I go to press the buzzer in the ceiling to signal the driver to stop and my finger goes straight into a hole. I interrupt my travelling companion’s texting to ask her to press the buzzer above her head, which she does without taking her eyes off the screen.


A brief scout around the market and I flag down a tuk-tuk to take me to Warorot Market. The tuk-tuk is noisy, windy, rattling and rolling, and takes its name from the noise of the engine that chugs it along.

A tuk-tuk is of no use for taking a tourist ride because it is so low-slung and the canopy keeping the weather off your head at such a so low pitch that all you see is the side of the road and pedestrians legs as you wiz along. They may look as if they are built for two but the driver will keep loading adults, kids and shopping bags until bums are sticking out the side. There’s probably some sort of legal limit, but in a country where a two-seater motor scooter is the transport for a family of five, who’s going to complain?

Uncomfortable, rackety and fumey they may be but, like riding a camel, an animal designed by a committee who set out to design a horse but got into some pretty powerful weed before the pencil and paper came out, you have to try it once – but only once. You’ll pay at least twice the price you would for a ride in a songthaew so be prepared to barter, but he’s yours for the duration of the ride and will take you directly to where you want to go.

I’ve got an aged boy racer with a ponytail and a weird style in vehicular decor. To help the ventilation and cooling system open-sided vehicles naturally have, there are two four-inch computer fans wired to the car battery that I assume also runs the TV installed for passenger entertainment (although I can’t guarantee that because it isn’t switched on). Whirling at a blurring rate, whatever cooling they provide is blown away by the hot air streaming in from the open sides. This time I’m glad to have a vehicle of character, and look down my nose at the pristine new models without badges, Buddhas and spinning computer fans that we wiz by.

We buzz and splutter into the tuk-tuk rank beside Wararot Market. There are two official bus stations in Chiang Mai, but Warorat Market is the transport hub of most other forms of transport. Songthaews stand in a colourful line, each colour identifying its destination; yellow goes south to Hang Dong, blue to Lamphun, dark green to Mae Hong, and red circulates anywhere in the city.

The heat of the day is building and while the songthaew and bicycle rickshaw drivers wait for clients they stretch out as best they can on the passenger seat of their respective vehicles.

I’ve set my mind on lunch at a restaurant inside the narrow streets of the moat, so I ask my rickshaw driver to take me to Tha Pae Gate, the nearest entrance to the moat and lunch. For a fare of fifty baht I don’t even argue, but climb up and lounge back in the plastic-covered seat with ‘Old Glory’, the spread-winged design of the American eagle, printed on the backrest.

With hand-signals and mild remonstrations from my driver to more hasty vehicles, we work our way through the tight streets surrounding the market onto Tha Pae Road. Cars, pick-ups, songthaews, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and even bicycles overtake us as we gently perambulate along the busy street. My driver, and now personal guide, points out the few remaining wooden building with their ornate fretwork decoration and pillared balconies, jewels set amid the sad excretions of more mundane modernity.

We arrive at Tha Pae Gate and I’m going to get out on the road on the opposite side of the paved area so my driver can look for another punter, but no, Tha Pae Gate is Tha Pae Gate, right to the arch of its entrance. My driver jumps off, flags down the traffic, and in front of four-wheel-drives, revving motorbikes and honking songthaews, casually pushes his rickshaw across the rowdy road with me still in it and up the ramp onto the paved area to set me safely at my destination.



Chiang Mai uncovered magazine