After we were done in Mae La Oop, we came back to Chiang Mai for a little rest. For me, “rest” meant coming down with a nasty cold that put me in bed for three days, and made me light-headed for a couple of days after that. Because travel, right?
Once I felt not-quite-up-to-a-travel-day, we decided to go. We thought it would be pretty easy to get to Mae Chaem from Chiang Mai.
Here is how you go:
- Take a red songtaew to the Chiang Mai “bus station” (tell the songtaew driver you want the bus station to get a songtaew to Chong Thom). A songtaew is a pickup truck with a covered bed and two rows of benches bolted to the floor (“songtaew” means “two rows”). These are the most commonly used way to get around northern Thailand. Red songtaews cover local routes in Chiang Mai. Yellow songtaews go from town to town. The cost of a red songtaew anywhere around the center of Chiang Mai is 20 baht per person (a little over US$0.50).
- At the bus station, get on a yellow songtaew to Chong Thom (just tell the first person you see when you get there “Chong Thom” and he or she will point you in the right way). These should leave every half hour or so and cost 35 baht per person (a little over US$1).
- Transfer to another yellow songtaew from Chong Thom to Mae Chaem. These leave rather irregularly. In theory they leave every two hours from 9:30 to 5:30, but that did not match what we found when we got to Chong Thom. Just turn up, make sure you are there well before 5:30, and be prepared to wait for as much as two hours. They cost 70 baht per person (a little over US$2).
Everything worked smoothly for us at the start. For the last half of the ride to Chong Thom, our family had the whole songtaew to ourselves. We spread out, kicked back, and relaxed.
Local travel through northern Thailand was a breeze.
But did I mention it was a holiday? It was the start of Buddhist Lent, and it turned out every person who was from Mae Chaem but living elsewhere was headed back home, through Chong Thom.
Once we got to Chong Thom, our driver let us off right where the songtaews to Mae Chaem leave from. A yellow songtaew was sitting right in front of a small, covered seating area. Since it wasn’t scheduled to leave for a little over an hour, we walked around, bought some snacks, and sat in the waiting area.
About 45 minutes before the songtaew was scheduled to leave, we took a look in the back.
It was full.
Hmmmm. What to do? We decided to simply wait a bit and see what happened. We estimated there was room for about 4 more people to squeeze into the back so we didn’t worry too much. We could have gotten in right then, but the thought of cramming in to the back and then waiting 45 more minutes seemed less than pleasant. So we went to the waiting area confident that no other sane people would climb into that songtaew this early and that our spaces were secure.
Then 8 more people got in.
Yikes! We checked a piece of paper tacked up in the waiting area with the day’s schedule on it and saw another songtaew would leave about an hour after the crammed full one left. So we figured the worst case scenario was we would miss the first one, and when the next songtaew pulled up we would immediately get in and claim some space.
We chanted the travelers’ mantra: everything always works out.
Five minutes before the songtaew was scheduled to leave, the driver grabbed our bags, stacked in a neat pile in the waiting area, hucked them on top of the songtaew, and tied them down along with a few large bags of produce.
Well, I guess we are getting on this one.
Michelle and the girls edged their way, slowly, carefully, but still stepping on the feet of everyone they passed by getting into the back of the truck.
I am not sure where they thought they were going. There was no room in there. They would have had to spend the three-hour trip squatted down in the isle. There wouldn’t have even been room to sit on the floor!
One of the locals in the back suggested that the girls might be more comfortable riding in the cab of the truck. So all four of them duck-walked back out of the truck, once again doing significant bodily damage to the feet of all those wise enough to claim their seats early.
All four of them then jammed themselves into the back seat of the cab. It was tight, but they made it.
That left me.
A fun thing about songtaews is that they all have a metal grill protruding from the very back. When songtaews get full, people can stand on this grill in the back, holding on to hand rails for dear life.
This is where I ended up. With five other people. FIVE! Hanging off the back of a pickup truck!
Remember that I was just recovering from an illness and was light headed. As the songtaew pulled out, I wondered what would happen to me if I got too light headed and dizzy. Then I tried not to think about it.
Just hold on.
There were 26 people piled into that songtaew: 6 in the cab, 6 on the back, and 14 crammed into the bed.
To tell you the truth, riding on the back wasn’t as bad as I had thought it might be. Eventually my hand that was holding on for dear life started to cramp up, and then it got a little dicey. But by that point we were well outside the city, so, while the truck was going full speed through the mountains of Thailand, I simply climbed up to the roof. There I nestled among the the bags of produce, making a sort of nest for myself.
Now, travel horror stories often make, in my opinion, the best travel stories. They tell the other side of travel. The real side. The difficult side. But again, to tell the honest truth, I had a great time riding on the roof through the mountains, watching the little villages pass by, and reveling in the laughs and waves of all the locals amused by the sight of a large white guy on top of a very local form of transportation.
It was fun!
And then it started raining.
I had to decide whether to climb back down (again, while the truck was going full speed through the mountains) or to just stay there and get soaked. Had I climbed down, I would not have been out of the rain. I would have still been stuck on the back of the truck, still getting the full force of the rain. And I wasn’t worried about the rain making the top of the songtaew slippery and therefore dangerous as I was tucked into my nest of produce.
And it was still pretty fun.
So I stayed. After months of sweating and roasting in SE Asia, I even enjoyed being cold for a bit (just a little cold, mind you). The blinding rain did make it more difficult to see all the low-hanging tree branches I needed to duck, and I got hit a couple of times. But nothing serious.
At the end of the ride, we pulled into the Mae Chaem bus station in a downpour, and I was thoroughly soaked. But my ride may have been better than that of Michelle and the girls, who had been packed like sardines in the hot and stuffy cab.
Here is what I learned: you don’t get car sick in the slightest riding on the roof of a truck. Another piece of wisdom gained because travel.