Bicycle taxi at a temple Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

Chiang Mai on Three Wheels – The Project

Objectives of the project

Chiang Mai on Three Wheels is a project of Green Trails in cooperation with the Rotary Club of Chiang Mai. Aim of the project is to help the elderly drivers of the samlors, the traditional bicycle taxis of Chiang Mai, in the short run. In the long term, the project wants to preserve the samlor, “three wheels” in Thai, as a means of transportation in Chiang Mai. The samlor will disappear from Chiang Mai streets if no action is being taken. At the moment there are less than 100 samlors active in Chiang Mai. Most of the drivers are older than 60 years. The samlor is dying out, and we don’t want that to happen.

People sitting in chairs

Samlor meeting at Wat Upakud

Rickshaw, Cyclo and Becak

The cycle rickshaw is a small-scale local means of transport. It is also known by a variety of other names such as bicycle taxi, bike taxi, velotaxi, pedicab, bike cab, cyclo, beca, becak, trisikad, samlor, rickshaw, or trishaw. As opposed to rickshaws pulled by a person on foot, cycle rickshaws are human-powered by pedalling.  Cycle rickshaws are widely used in major cities around the world, but most commonly in cities of South, and East Asia.

The cycle rickshaw was built in the 1880s and was first used with regularity starting in 1929 in Singapore. Six years later they outnumbered pulled rickshaws. Cycle rickshaws were found in every south and east Asian country by 1950. By the late 1980s, there were an estimated 4 million cycle rickshaws in the world. The vehicle is generally pedal-driven by a driver, though some are equipped with an electric motor to assist the driver.

The vehicle is usually a tricycle, though some quadricycle models exist, and some bicycles with trailers are configured as cycle rickshaws. Some cycle rickshaws have gas or electric motors.

Trishaw Uncle station with trishaw Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

Frans in trishaw in Singapore

Passenger configuration

The configuration of driver and passenger seats vary. Generally, the driver sits in front of the passengers to pedal the rickshaw. This is the case in Thailand, India and China. There are some designs, though, where the cyclist driver sits behind the passengers. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, the driver sits behind the passenger seat. In the Philippines, the passenger seats are usually located beside the driver in a sidecar. Similarly, in Singapore, the trishaw and Burma the sai kaa the passengers sit alongside the driver.

Samlor in Thailand

It is said that the first samlor was used in Thailand in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) Province in 1933 when a Chinese merchant added two wheels to a traditional bicycle. The passenger samlor is now found in virtually every province in the country, though in Bangkok they are not allowed on main streets, only on side streets in older housing developments. There are still samlors active in the suburbs such as Nonthaburi although we have heard rumours that the licenses of these samlors will not be extended. Other cities were samlors are still active are Phitsanulok, Chiang Rai, Lamphun and Nan.

Samlor in the evening Explore Chiang Mai

Samlor at the Warorot Market

History of the samlor in Chiang Mai – Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

As far as we know the samlor appeared on Chiang Mai streets in the 1930s. We have found a couple of pictures showing a type of samlor with a sidecar that has disappeared from Chiang Mai streets. There are lots of images of samlors on the streets of Chiang Mai. If you talk to older people, they speak with fondness how they travelled to school by samlor. Over time songtaews, the red trucks with two long seats in the back, and tuk-tuks became the most important means of transportation. Nowadays samlors are parked at a couple of markets such as the San Pakoy and Nonghoi markets. Most of them are stationed at Kad Luang, the Warorot and Tonlamyai Markets.

Bicycle taxis and tourism in Singapore

We have visited a couple of places in Southeast Asia over the past couple of years. In Singapore there is Trishaw Uncle, a company that organises bicycle taxi tours in Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown. The tours are short: less than an hour. The trishaws have a small engine hidden in the rear wheel. Commentary comes from a speaker that is connected to a mobile phone. We tried out the Little India tour. It was fun and entertaining. We do believe that tours of Chiang Mai on Three Wheels are a lot more interesting because we send a local guide on the tour. The drivers in Chiang Mai don’t speak English.

Bicycle taxis with tourists

Singapore trishaws

Bicycle taxis and tourism in Vietnam

We remember the early days of tourism in Vietnam. In the early 90s, there were hundreds, if not thousands of cyclos on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. The cyclos in Ho Chi Minh City have now disappeared from the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. I remember the cyclo drivers as being quite unreliable. You had to bargain hard. Usually, the driver asked at least twice the agreed price after the ride.

Bicycle taxis with guests Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

Hoi An cyclos

In Hoi An we found the same type of cyclo still in use that once plied the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The drivers make a living from tourists. It was a pleasure to see the cyclos pedalling through the picturesque streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site with tourists. The cyclos in Hanoi are a different type but also there they are making a living from tourism. There are lots of them around the Old Quarter and the Hoan Kiem Lake.

Bicycle taxi with guest and suitcase

Cyclos in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

Man with bicycle taxi

Samlor and driver in Phnom Penh. Picture by Koen Olie