Just Your Average Songthaew Ride

Umphang Travel Blog

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Mae Sot bus terminal. They all look like this.
On Wednesday I took a songthaew from Mae Sot to Umphang.  For those of you who don't know, a songthaew is a pickup truck that has been converted to seat many people, with two benches running down the length of its trunk and an open air rooftop for piling luggage and/or more passengers above.  Songthaews are popular throughout Thailand; they're the main source of public transportation for short distances.  The ride from Mae Sot to Umphang isn't exactly what I'd term "short," but no matter; a songthaew is the ONLY form of transportation between the two.
My songthaew to Umphang.

I was told the ride was four hours, and woke up bright and early, fresh from my migraine and the drum thumping from the night before, hoping to get a jumpstart on my day and get to Umphang with plenty of time to scope out the town and plan my method of attack.  I figured on the songthaew before 9am, to Umphang by lunch, entire afternoon to go about things at my leisure.  That's what we call too good to be true.

So rather than cough up the motorbike taxi fare to be taken to the bus terminal where I arrived the day before from Sukhothai, where I knew the songthaew picked up passengers for Umphang, I figured I'd save myself the money and walk to a stop closer to my guesthouse.
Refugee village en route to Umphang.
  At least, that's what the guidebook said.  And the nifty little map made it seem right down the street, no more than a kilometer away.  It was early, the hippopotamus was manageable, I'm a do-it-yourselfer, why not.  I'll tell you why not.  Because the guidebook has been WRONG about so many things in Thailand so far, that's why.  Because I KNEW where the songthaew stop was.  Because I'm an idiot for trying to save myself the measly motorbike fare and instead walked for AGES in the blazing sun sweating my butt off looking for a songthaew stop that didn't exist.  Finally I stopped and asked for directions, the dude pointed me toward the main bus terminal, the one I already knew about, the one I'd been walking in the exact opposite direction of, the one nowhere near where I was.
  Motorbike taxi it was.  That'll teach me.

So I missed the 8:30 songthaew but made it in time for the 9:30 one, just one hour's difference, no sweat.  We left on time, and I was the only person in the back.  I debated asking the driver if I could sit up front with him; I mean, if I'm going to be the only passenger there's no reason for the chauffer and cattle pen charade.  But he pulled out before I had given it much thought, and I figured at least this way I'd have plenty of room to stretch out.  Full on "authentic" experience with legroom to boot.  Clearly I had NO idea what the hell a songthaew is all about.

I'll tell you what they're about.  They're about idling around town picking up passengers until they're full and THEN getting on the road.  You really think I'm going to drive you to Umphang all by yourself?  You silly little girl.  Don't they teach you things like common sense where you come from?

By 10:30 we still weren't on the highway, and I keep checking the watch on the dude sitting next to me going shouldn't we be on the road by now?  But I keep reassuring myself that this is all part of the four hours, that they factor this kind of sit and idle at various points around town crap into the overall schedule, and that there's no reason to think we're wasting ungodly amounts of time just because this dude wants to cram more fares than his fair western passenger thinks is comfortable into his pickup.  What's that?  You're sitting shoulder to shoulder but not quite squeezed like sardines?  Let me round up another passenger or two and see if we can amend that.

So we finally take off, and it turns out we're on the world' slowest songthaew ever driven.  No, really.  There were points where I could have walked alongside the truck at my usual pace and made it up the hill quicker.  I mean, this thing was BEATEN.  It would chug and groan and protest and crawl up those hills so slowly it was painful.  Dude kept it in first or second almost the entire way.  You've GOT to be kidding me.

The motley crew that made up my fellow comrades in the clown-car-cum-songthaew were four dudes, presumably in their late 30s or 40s, two older women wearing traditional garb and weathered faces, like they were on their way to a National Geographic photo shoot, and two women with young sons, one I'd ballpark around three years old and the other about five.  By the time we reached Umphang we picked up a monk (the Thai laws of physics dictate it's not a true songthaew ride until you've acquired a monk or two), a very young mother with an infant who seemed to be whipping out a fresh boob to feed every time I looked her way, a broken down motorbike and its two riders (Yes, motorbike. Wedged right down the center between the two benches, like we had the room), and at least four other locals along the way.  And of course everyone had to stare at the funny looking foreigner with the bandanna wrapped around her head to keep her hair under control, which was being whipped every which way seeing as she was first in line and hence nominated to be the human windshield for the day.  CLOWN CAR.

Oh yes, it also poured twice en route.  Poured.  Because that's what you need when you're crammed past maximum capacity, your bags are strapped on top, there are dudes hanging off the rear, there's a motorbike wedged in the mix, and there are no walls or windows to keep you dry.  Poured.

It was a long ride.  By 1:30 I was hopeful yet skeptical that the four hours were up, and wondering how I'd make it another full hour.  By 2:30 I figured he had to stop any minute now.  By 3:30 I was despondent and couldn't feel my ass, let alone my back or shoulders or neck or really any muscle in my body, and by 4:30, when we finally pulled into Umphang, I was over trying to keep up with wiping all the gnats and dirt and grime off my face and glasses.  Which brings me to a short aside: Have you ever thought about how many millions of bugs must die by being smacked into windshields on highways across the planet every day?  Millions.  It's mind boggling.  (I was a human windshield for HOURS.  It gave me more than enough time to think about all sorts of weird things.)  Naturally I was the last person he dropped off, which put me to my guesthouse just before 5pm.  And I got on this thing at what, 9:15?  You mean I just clocked in a full work day (sans lunch break) in the back of a songthaew?  You've got to be shitting me.

And there you have it, folks.  What it means to ride a songthaew.  I've since tried to do the one-up thing with other travelers I've come across, but it seems to be the standard protocol for those things.  Squeeze a ridiculous number of bodies into the back of a pickup, throw in far too many bends and curves and ups and downs, a monk, a breastfeeding mother in her teens, some traditional garb, nary an English word between the lot, and you've got yourself a legitimate songthaew.  Sweet jesus.

I should also mention that the road to Umphang is steep and windy, and curves up and down and around several mountains.  There is only one road in and out of Umphang, and it starts and ends in Mae Sot.  Saying it's out of the way is a bit of an understatement.  However, it's the pain in the ass factor that keeps it off the beaten tourist track.  It's popular among Thai tourists, but very few westerners bother to make the haul.  I'd never even heard of it until Romana and Richard told me about it, and labeled it as a Thailand must-see.  Needless to say, it's pristine and gorgeous and pretty spectacular to be the only western face for miles and miles.  It's a trying 1,290 winding curves in the back of a songthaew, but it's well worth it.  One of the few truly natural gems that still remains.  A nature lover's paradise.
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I signed up for a three day trek.  Not sure what I was thinking.  Am about to get my ass kicked.

First thing tomorrow is whitewater rafting until the afternoon, then we hike three to four hours to the campsite.  The next morning is a hike to a waterfall (the biggest in either Southeast Asia or just Thailand, I can't remember), and then we hike all afternoon to a local (Karen) village, where we stay the night.  The third day is elephants and you guessed it -- more hiking.  I'm exhausted just thinking about it. 

Leaving all my gear behind; won't have internet until very late three nights from now when I'm finally back in Mae Sot.  Good god what did I get myself into.

In the interim, soak up all the air conditioning, hot water showers, and indoor plumbing you can for me!
alexandrite105 says:
who was the inspiration for your title, bart simpson? ;P
Posted on: Jan 09, 2010
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photo by: domnicella