Thursday, February 12, 2009

Of Buses and Song Thaews in Thailand

When I have a ton of photos to download, some video, and lots and lots to write about, I find myself going for the simple posts as a way of avoiding the longer ones. So here are some short comments about Thailand's private bus lines and Song Thaews (the red pickups with two benches in the back that operate as jitneys in Chiang Mai and other places in Thailand).

First, the bus. I'd been told the bus to Chiang Mai left Kamphaengphet at 3pm. When we got to the bus station about 2:50pm a lady came right up to me to ask where I was going. "Chiang Mai." She grabbed me and pulled me to her counter.

"Ok, the bus leaves at 4pm."
"What about the 3pm bus"
"Already gone"
"It's not 3pm yet."

But I've played this game before and I'm thinking. Wait. This is a private bus company. She wants to sell tickets to her bus. Surely there's another company leaving before 4pm. And as I was thinking this, a woman who overheard us said that there's a 3pm bus right there that hasn't left yet. I don't even think she was with the company, just a customer. And sure enough, there was a bus waiting to go. I got my ticket, and much faster than I expected - 4 hours later - the bus was pulling into the the Chiang Mai bus station.

Then, I wasn't off the bus more than 30 seconds when a Song Thaew driver wanted to know where I was going.
"Near Maw Chaw (Mahawithayalai (University of) Chiang Mai)."
"150 Baht."

I just laughed and walked away.

The next hawker was a girl anywhere between 8 and 15 years old. A smooth talker, she started out at 50 Baht. I said 40, which is still a bit high, but for a farang (foreigner) it's sometimes not worth the effort to get it down further. We had fun arguing our positions, but neither of us would budge and I walked away again.

Now a decent looking young man asked where I was going and his first price was 40 Baht. I accepted, but he said he needed to pick up some more fares first. He did have on lady headed to Chiang Mai Gate already. I talked to his wife a bit, who was holding the 8 month old baby and then got some rice and stir fried vegetables to bring home for dinner. I already had some great bammi (yellow noodles) from Kamphaengphet for J. When I came back he had three girls who were looking for a place on Suthep Road (where I was going - it's the southern border of the university) to drink milk they'd heard about. I took this to mean milkshakes.

Anyway, shortly after they got off, I knocked the window and went up front to pay.
"You don't want to enter the campus?"
"No, this is good right here."
"Oh, then I owe you ten baht, it should only be 30 Baht to here."

While this is not unheard of, it isn't too common. I bargain for a good price, but only because I want to be treated fairly and it's a form of entertainment between driver and rider. The 10 baht difference between 50 and 40 means a lot less to me than to the people working hard to make a living driving Song Thaews. So if on a longer ride like this one, they give me a fair price from the beginning, I'm likely to add ten baht at the end. And with him giving me back ten baht, of course, I'm certainly going to reward that sort of behavior.

"Here, keep the ten baht for the baby."

One more good Thai story. In Bangkok, I was standing across the street from the farmers' demonstration to take a picture. I was right in front of the entrance to the zoo when I feel the gentlest of taps of my shoulder. It turned out to be the guard getting me to move a bit so a car could get by. It was such a gentle tap. Just barely enough to feel it. That's how most Thais are. I think about the same situation in the US. It would not have been as respectful and non-threatening.

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