© Dan White. No repro without permission.
Every country has their symbol. In England it’s soggy fish and chips. This probably says something about how the Brits see themselves. In Vietnam it’s the conical hat which is such an awesomely practical object that, judging by their rapidly increasing GDP it should make the rest of us very, very afraid. Thailand, for some reason, is represented by a stinking, noisy, three wheeled golf cart often driven by men whose sense of caution could legitimately be called into question.
The tuk tuk evolved from the chaotic streets of Bangkok and spread across the country belching smoke and deafening passers by whilst unpredictably changing lanes more often than David Beckham changes hair styles. Its history is an interesting one. It is believed that its predecessor, the rickshaw, was introduced to Thailand by Chinese immigrants in 1871, but was banned in 1901, because it caused traffic chaos. By 1950 the bicycle powered version, or Samalor, was also banned and today’s tuk tuk was born. Since then it has mutated into a beast of many breeds.
The symbol most often seen is the ubiquitous three wheeled rusty trike powered by a noisy two stroke engine bombing up the polluted highways of Bangkok, loitering around the tourist fleshpots or being loaded with impossible amounts of baggage by market vendors packing up after a hard day of haggling. There are many other variations though.
In Ayuthaya they have an elegant fifties style retro look that makes them appear to be a tuk tuk attempting to imitate a Volkswagen beetle. On the formerly war torn border with Cambodia there are still Ben Hur like chariots where the passenger reclines on a trailer whilst being pulled by a large motorcycle. In Phuket the tuk tuk takes the form of an intensely practical four wheeled van.
Brooding over all these variations is the tuk tuk’s ubiquitous elder cousin; the Songthaew.
The songthaew is weightier, faster and better travelled than the tuk tuk. It only has two speeds. Very, very fast and very, very slow as the driver veers left and breaks hard thinking he has spotted a potential passenger. When following a songthaew maintaining breaking space is of the essence. They also make crossing the road a trial, not because they speed by but because, thinking you might be a potential punter, they insist on slowing down right in front of you causing all the other traffic to queue up behind them.
The songthaew loses on love and gets a bad press whilst the tuk tuk has restaurants named after it. The songthaew may not inspire the slack jawed affection amongst foreigners that the tuk tuk does, but everyone would admit that they do the job. Anywhere you go in Thailand a songthaew has been there before you. On the steepest mountain roads of the north songthaews can be seen grinding the gears at impossible inclines, crammed with locals many of them hanging precariously off the roof or the rear of the vehicle. Leaving the industrial estates of Chonburi at the end of a factory shift are songthaeows packed with impossible numbers of passengers for whom, it appears, claustrophobia has never been an issue.
In Phuket, tuk tuks and the songthaews ferry around drunken revelers, every kind of commuter, families with kids and just about anything else for a price, which is so often the real hurdle in getting from point A to point B. The day they become equipped with meters is the day that the stress levels of the entire tourist population of Phuket will be considerably reduced. Realistically however it is a day that will never come.