Imagine a scene where a parent asks a child looking at a dog “what does a dog say?” In Thailand the child would be expected to answer – “hong-hong”. Now the same scene when the first motorised rickshaws appeared almost 60 years ago. “What does this sound like?” The considered answer – “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 threewheeled 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. What Does This Sound Like? Imagine a scene where a parent asks a child looking at a dog “what does a dog say?”
In Thailand the child would be expected to answer – “hong-hong”. Now the same scene when the first motorised rickshaws appeared almost 60 years ago. “What does this sound like?” The considered answer – “tuk-tuk”. As of2010, 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, there are high hopes Thailand will win the best national costume at the Miss Universe competition this year as Miss Thailand, AnipornChalermburanawong, will represent the nation in a ‘Tuk-Tuk Thailand’ dressmade 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. We learnt of three eco-friendly pioneers heading off on the journey of a lifetime – a 20,000km (12,427 mile) ride in a solar-powered tuk-tuk from Bangkok to Toulouse, France. This trio set off on August 9th in a customised electric tuk-tuk with hopes of traversing 15 countries in 120 days. The adventurers, who have nicknamed themselves ‘The Pilgreens’, plan to arrive in Toulouse in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.
The Local Tuk-Tuk Scene
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. We visited Dutchman Peter Van Gurpwho has just relocated his tuk-tuk manufacturing operation, Global Tuk Tuk,from Bangkok toTha Yang, some 20 kilometres north of Cha-Am.He’s just send off six tuk-tuks to the Caribbean after regular dispatches to numerous European destinations.
The vehicles are fully accredited for European licensing and buyers are provided with European Certificate of Conformity with the E-mark (COC). This certificate is accepted by all European countries and therefore they can be registered without fuss, then drive away!! Global Tuk-Tuk’s Tha Yang manufacturing operations are ready to go with an anticipated output of three vehicles every four weeks. This means an order can be on the ground worldwide in about three months after ordering. For more information see www.facebook.com/ GlobalTukTuk and www.globaltuktuk.com
So what of the electric tuk-tuk future?
Electric seems to be the real way forward. Japanese company, Terra Motors has unveiled a prototype of their electric tuk-tuk, named the “EV Tricycle Taxi” – a sleeklooking blue and white machine that can carry up to six people, including the driver. The first fleet of the new vehicles is already on order for the Philippines. “The new E-Trikes, which run on an electric motor and rechargeable lithium-ion battery, will be introduced to Metro Manila and other urban centers We’ve seen James Bond movies (Octopussy) featuring a high powered ‘getaway’ tuk-tuk, electronic games with tuk-tuk racing as well as the adventurers already mentioned. The humble tuk-tuk has really made its mark in Thailand and the rest of the world.
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!