Imagine a scene when the first motorised rickshaws appeared almost 60 years ago. “What is that sound someone asked?” The considered answer – “tuk-tuk”.
Origins of today’s Tuk Tuk
‘Tuk-tuk’ is not a bad description of the sound of the original spluttering 2-stroke engine; however times have changed with modern 4 stroke engines and LPG reducing pollution issues. To really understand the name’s origin you’ll need to find one of the earlier models. In fact the introduction of virtually silent electric versions has already started, but it’s likely that the name will live on.
In 1957, Japanese automaker Daihatsu introduced its three-wheeled mini-trucks and the model later became a prototype of the Thai tuk-tuk. In 1960, 30 of these trucks were shipped to Thailand, replacing rickshaws, which had been banned in Bangkok.
These early tuk-tuks started their service in Yaowarat, after being altered, equipped with a roof and seat to make them more suitable for carrying passengers. The original manufacturer later halted production, resulting in an absence of spare tuk-tuk parts, which meant Thai garages had to begin creating the parts and then the machine itself themselves.
As of 2010, there were about 7,400 tuk-tuks in Bangkok. They have evolved into a symbol of Thailand; no visit was complete without a tuk-tuk ride, although popularity among the locals seemed to be on the decline.
To celebrate the importance of this cultural icon, Thailand won the best national costume at the Miss Universe competition in 2015 as Miss Thailand, Aniporn Chalermburanawong, represented the nation in a ‘Tuk-Tuk Thailand’ dress made with chromium and real lights.
So how did tuk-tuks achieve such popularity?
To start with we could talk about low cost, versatility in design and function and the ability to negotiate traffic snarls and narrow laneways where a small turning circle becomes important. They are also easy and cheap to maintain and to drive.
They can be used either as passenger carriers or as transportation vehicles for industrial, commercial and agricultural purposes. But apart from the practical benefits; it’s also about passenger appeal. They are often described as cute!
Passengers, especially tourists get a kick out of zipping through the streets with the wind in your hair and the high pitch sound reminds us of a small racing race car even if some are a little nervous.
But really tuk-tuks are great if you have to reach your destination in a rush as they navigate Bangkok (or Hua Hin) traffic like nothing else. It’s also not really an option to take a motorbike taxi for a couple, or for mum, dad and the kids.
The current manufacture is rather basic and old fashioned, with lots of welding as chassis and steel bodies are made in the factory. Of course, it involves mechanics with 500 and 650 cc water cooled engines mostly with manual transmission but also with automatic transmission on request.
They are very spartan and robust, it is said that in a case of collision with a car, a tuk-tuk would barely get some scratches while your car would be wrecked, but please don’t test out that rumour!
Apart from taxis, tuk-tuks of various shapes and sizes are used for hotel shuttles, advertising, cargo and even traffic police vehicles. Apart from being exported to countries all over the world, there’s a penchant for adventurers to drive them crazy distances either across Thailand or even to European countries.
The bad news is despite constantly improving weather protection; they are probably still not all that comfortable when heavy rain is about. You’ll also see warnings about belongings being at risk from robbing motor cyclists passing by.
It can also be a problem when you are stuck in traffic alongside an old truck or bus, belching evil smelling smoke at tuk-tuk eye level!
Yes; Hua Hin has tuk-tuks available on the streets, but strangely not in Cha-Am (why not?). They will take you just about anywhere you want to go. After my train from Bangkok to Cha-Am carried on through the station without stopping until Hua Hin, a tuk-tuk provided transport for my return journey to Cha-Am; no problems.
An electric Tuk Tuk future
So what of the electric tuk-tuk future?
The Electric Vehicle Association of Thailand (EVAT) is calling for the Land Transport Department to revise related laws to enable new registration of three-wheelers, mainly emphasizing electrified tuk-tuks.
There are two types of registration for three-wheelers, aka tuk-tuks: personal use and public transport.
Yossapong Laoonual, president of the EVAT, said the registration process for tuk-tuks is too complicated and restrictive, unlike for other vehicles. “Tuk-tuks have been limited by location and purpose,” he said.
Tuk-tuks cannot be registered in Bangkok, but they can in other provinces. The department’s reasoning is that tuk-tuks are not safe enough to drive legally on roads. To get around this, many tuk-tuk owners buy old number plates from the days when tuk-tuks could be registered in Bangkok. The plates have no expiration date.
Yossapong said motorists and companies cannot register three-wheelers without listing their purpose of use to the department, which leads officials to decide each case subjectively.
“As a result, regulations for tuk-tuks cause many obstacles to run an assembly business for both fueled and electrified tuk-tuks,” he said. “Our request is to revise the laws to cope with the current situation; meanwhile, tuk-tuks are an iconic and popular vehicle of Thailand to promote the country’s tourism sector.”
If you haven’t been a passenger it would be a crime to leave Thailand without this iconic experience. Just wander downtown and take a ride anywhere!