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Tuk-tuks or samlors have been a common sight on Thailand’s roads for over half a century. These Tuk-tuksvehicles are also seen throughout certain parts of Asia, most notably India and Bangladesh. They are are the lineal descendants an earlier form of wheeled, human powered transportation, namely the jinrikisha or rickshaw. Tuk-tuk is the onomatopoeic name that mimics the sound of the small (often two-cycle/two-stroke) engine. In Thai, samlor in literally mean sam = three, lor = wheel. The words tuk-tuk and samlor are used interchangeably in Thailand.

Jinrikisha is derived from the Japanese words jin = human, riki = power or force and sha = vehicle. Jinrikishas were first manufactured in Japan in 1869. The vehicles were two-wheeled, human-pulled wooden carts that normally carried one passenger. Another version later evolved into a larger cart that could carry two or three passengers with two men pulling the cart in tandem. They appeared first in Tokyo and spread through the country after a government-imposed ban on wheeled vehicles was lifted. Their growth was also fuelled by the country’s rapid technological advancement and western development.

In 1887 they started to be called simply rickshaws. As these vehicles spread throughout the Far East they were seen as a low-cost, convenient and popular form of transportation. They also provided entry-level employment for the urban poor that started to flood Asia’s industrializing, rapidly expanding cities.

The first rickshaws in Thailand appeared in 1871, only seven years after the first road, Charoen Krung, was laid. The iron-shod wooden wheels and hard wooden benches eventually gave way to pneumatic, rubber tyres and spring-cushioned seats with padded backrests. However, with the rapid rise of other forms of public and private transportation, including horse-drawn, later electric trams, trains, petrol-powered cars and buses, rickshaws started to decline in popularity.

With the widespread introduction and immediate popularity of the bicycle and tricycle in Europe during the latter half of the 19th century, it was not long before three-wheeled bicycle samlors, or pedicabs as they were also called, appeared on Bangkok’s streets. Two versions appeared with one where the driver rode in the front and another with the driver riding in the back. Eventually a foldable canvas awning was attached to the pedicabs to protect passengers from the elements. As petrol-powered motor vehicles became more prevalent samlors were soon seen as anachronistic and real impediments to the flow of traffic due to their slow speed. After taking power in a coup in 1957, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat viewed these pedicabs or samlors as uncivilized and archaic. He ordered them banned in the late 1950s.

Tuk-tuks started to be manufactured in the early 1960s as the answer to the outlawed samlor. They were steel-framed and powered by an assortment of engines from a 400cc two-stroke petrol engine to much larger Harley Davidson customized motors. Other versions have evolved into taxicabs, trucks, vans and other specialized or novelty vehicles.

A tuk-tuk has several advantages. First it has a very tight turning radius. Second it can get down the narrowest alleyways or sois. Third it can carry a very heavy load, considering the weight of the vehicle. The disadvantages include having no meter attached like a taxicab so bargaining is required. They are also open to the elements and being very noisy plus environmentally polluting.

For foreigners not used to bargaining, tuk-tuks are more expensive than taking taxicabs in almost all cases. But foreigners see them as a novel or unique way to travel in the city. Additionally some tuk-tuks that have a low metal roof prevent passengers from doing easy sight-seeing or touring. Some versions have a removable canvas roof.

The image of smoke-spewing tuk-tuks of old is being slowly replaced with low-emission, LPG powered engines. Also newer versions have plastic drop down screens to protect the driver, passengers and cargo. Most locals will only take tuk-tuks if they are burdened with packages or shopping bags. There are many specialized varieties of tuk-tuks on the market. Normally a standard tuk-tuk can take up to three passengers, but some models can seat up to seven or more.

Tuk-tuks have become a widely recognized international symbol of Thailand, almost as famous as elephants, orchids and beaches.