As far as I know, the red songtaews are unique to Chiang Mai. Their
numbered counterparts in Bangkok and its suburbs are much more user-friendly, IMO. You know the exact fare, the time it takes to get there, and the way. For instance, if you want to go to, say, the local BigC, you just take songtaew 36. Flag one down on the road, hop on, jump down when you get there, pay 5 bath and away you go. Not so easy with the red devils of Chiang Mai. Flag one down and tell the driver your destination. Now one of three things may happen:
1. The driver has no clue about the place;
2. The driver knows the place, but has no intention of taking you there;
3. The driver knows the place, will take you there, but quotes a high (farang) price.
If you have an idea about the reasonable (ie. local) rate, you can haggle it down to that price, and if you are lucky, the driver will agree. If not, then wait for another songtaew, at which point the whole game starts again…. Sometimes I have to flag down 3-4 cars before I can get a ride. Feels a bit like hitchhiking, really.
You may have an easier time getting the regular price with stationery songtaews, waiting around bus stations and train stations. The drawback is that usually you will have to sit in the car and wait for other passengers who choose that songtaew. Most cars don’t leave until 6-7 people are inside. And even then, some passengers may get the rough deal. I remember one day; four monks were sitting in a songtaew with me. The car left when another guy, a farmer sat in with us. There might have been a misunderstanding between the driver and the monks, because apparently he took them to a different place. The monks wanted the driver to go to their intended place for the same price, but the driver refused. At the end, the four monks had to step out and pay; then the driver just took off!
Another incident happened with me some time ago when I wanted to get home from Kad Suan Kaew, a local shopping mall. After all the above procedure, I sat in and we took off. Some time later, the guy stopped, talked with some other would-be passengers who then sat in too. Then he came to me and told me to get off, because he changed his mind! Apparently, the newcomers meant a juicier business, and my destination would cut into his profit margin. Although I could have (rightfully) hit him on the head, kick his car several times and yell assorted Thai insults in his face, I just got off silently and flagged down another songtaew.
The question may arise now: how can a business be successful if they treat customers like this? The answer lies in the lack of alternatives in Chiang Mai public transportation. In Bangkok, besides the fixed-route songtaews, there are lots of buses covering just about any area. Or, if in a hurry, can take any of the several taxi services. In Chiang Mai, the red songtaews have a monopoly. The only other alternatives are motorcycle-taxis. Or, if you are in a hurry, tuk-tuks, but there are far less of them here, mainly waiting around the stations.
So, when you see a red songtaew, be nice to these guys, no matter how they ignore you or cheat you. That is, if you want to get to anywhere in Chiang Mai in the future. 🙂