The red Songthaew minibuses in Chiang Mai have been an iconic form of transport for several decades, for both tourists and locals alike who do not have cars or motorcycles.
The buses, which are in fact pickup trucks fitted with two rows of seating facing each other, normally operate on fixed routes. Of late, however, some of them have undergone a transformation, to meet the changing environment and tastes of tourists, thanks to the creative thinking of a new generation of drivers, among them Phuthavat Singkha, a 29-year-old graduate in Communications Art.
In an interview with Thai PBS, Phuthavat said that he has worked as a Songthaew driver for the six years since he graduated, thanks to inheriting the vehicle from his father.
Initially, he drove the bus on fixed routes, dropping passengers at various destinations along the route. He was occasionally asked by tourists to take their photos, so he said he began to provide sight-seeing services, taking tourists to the places they would like to visit instead of the fixed routes.
His venture out of the norm has attracted more tourists through word of mouth. As the service gained in popularity, more Red Songthaew minibuses have joined the service, with 16 vehicles and drivers in the same age group as Phuthavat, to cater to young tourists.
With his educational background and training in photography, Phuthavat said that he has organised a course in photography for some of the drivers, so that they can help in taking photos for tourists who may be travelling alone.
As well as taking tourists to the destinations of their choice, Phuthavat said that he and his teammates also offer advice to tourists on places they should visit.
Unlike the normal Songthaew, their vehicles are now fitted with battery chargers, electric fans, extra seating and music for the tourists. For safety, the vehicles have a rear door.
Phuthavat said he chose to drive the Songthaew because it is a freelance career, fun and offers an opportunity to meet many people of different nationalities and cultures.