For more than 65-years tuk-tuks have been burping their way around the cities and villages of Thailand, a legacy of the Japanese WWII occupation of most of the region.
Though Indonesia’s Bajaj and India’s auto rickshaw bare similarities, the stainless steel “Thailand” plate on the rear, liberal chrome plating, distinctive blue and yellow livery and burp-burp-burp exhaust noise have seen “tuk-tuks” become a unique symbol identified with Thailand the world over and a vehicle tourists to the country can’t get enough of.
Although the Thai government will not register any new tuk-tuks for private use, export orders, along with larger variants used by hotels, resorts and shopping malls throughout the country are such that four factories still specialise in their production.
Originally fitted with a single or twin cylinder 350cc two-stroke Daihatsu engine, the cause of the high-pitched burping noise they make as they zip around Thailand’s streets, modern-day tuk-tuks are fitted with 660cc four-stroke Daihatsu or Suzuki engines, making them as quiet as a family sedan.
Government funded conversion
For a long-time the bane of environmentalists due to their lead-fuel operating engines and smoky two-stroke exhaust, all of Bangkok’s taxi tuk-tuks today run on CNG, the result of a government campaign that funded the cost of conversion.
At Tuk Tuk Thailand in the Bangkok suburb of Bang Khae, Chett Taikratoke has been turning out tuk-tuks for more than eight years. Prior to that he worked for Thailand’s largest tuk-tuk factory, a casualty of the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s.
“Every tourist who comes to Thailand wants to ride in a tuk-tuk. I even get emails from people wanting me to pick them up from the airport in a tuk-tuk”, Mr. Chett says.
While road-regulations prohibit tuk-tuks on the country’s expressways and hence entry to the airport, there is no shortage of affection for the vehicles from tourists who leap at the opportunity to sit in the open-sided vehicles in the blistering heat or monsoonal rain, chocking on the acrid black exhaust fumes expelled by Bangkok’s buses and cars, in preference to air-conditioned taxis.
Different design throughout Thailand
Mr. Chett said there are about 10,000 taxi tuk-tuks in Bangkok and some 35,000 nationwide, with variations in design depending on the region.
“The Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is very different to the Bangkok tuk-tuk and based on the original Midget MP4 from Daihatsu, while in Udon Thani they are motorbikes attached to carts,” Mr. Chett says.
Tuk tuk Thailand’s team of 10 staff churn out about 200 tuk-tuks a year, with one vehicle taking about five-days to complete. A large portion of that time is spent waiting on chrome plating contractors to return the ornate trim.
With no private tuk-tuks being registrable for many years already, one would imagine that the days of Thailand’s tuk-tuks are somewhat numbered, but nothing is further from the truth.
Tuk-tuks never die
Pointing to a number of rusting and clearly unserviceable vehicles sitting in the back of his factory, Mr. Chett says “tuk-tuks never die”.
“If someone wants a taxi tuk-tuk we take these old ones and replace everything except the chassis — recondition the engines, build new cabins, new seats and paint them and off they go. They still have the same serial number so they’re allowed to be registered”, he said.
While the cost of a taxi-style Bangkok tuk-tuk is fairly reasonable at Bt150,000 (about $US5,000), the cost of a tuk-tuk registration plate pre-moratorium on new registrations is not and at Bt200,000, pushes the cost of a rebuilt Bangkok taxi tuk-tuk with a reconditioned engine to a sizeable Bt350,000 ($11,500).
Mr. Chett said the majority of Bangkok’s taxi tuk-tuks are rented by the drivers for Bt350 ($11.50) a day, with drivers earning about Bt1,000 ($33.00) per day. By comparison a taxi driver will pay about Bt700 ($23.00) a day to rent the vehicle and earn about Bt2,000 ($66) per shift.
While the Thailand tuk-tuk might be a never dying symbol of Thailand as Mr. Chett claims, the quieter three-cylinder engine might mean the days and nights of people being kept awake by the high-pitched burping exhaust currently associated with the “peoples taxi” might one day end.
Then again, one can’t help but wonder if the noise occupants are subjected to while riding in a Thailand tuk-tuk is what adds to the appeal they have with tourists.
Everything you wanted to know about a Thailand tuk-tuk but were afraid to ask:
Length: 305cm (120 inch)
Height: 180cm (70.75 inch)
Front width: 88cm (34.5 inch)
Read width: 140cm (55 inch)
Length 250cm (98.5 inch)
Weight: 400kg (881lb)
Engine: three-cylinder 550 or 660CC Daihatsu or Suzuki
Previously a single or two-cylinder 350cc Daihatsu motorbike engine
Transmission. 4-speed manual with reverse or 3-speed automatic
Fuel: CNG or unleaded petrol
Fuel tank: 30L (7.92 US gallon)
Cooling system: water cooled
Brakes: hydraulic rear wheel discs
Exhaust: one-inch with catalytic converter and muffler
Engine service life: Nine years
Thailand tuk-tuk slide gallery
Photos John Le Fevre
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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