Sustainability on wheels with one of Asia’s two or three wheeled taxis

Many of Asia’s most popular forms of local transport only burn the energy of the person pulling or pedaling them, and although it might seem a rough deal for the rider; these human-powered taxis provide many people with an income and are certainly the cleanest, simplest way to travel around.

Pedal powered options are mostly charming vehicles that give you a street-view of a destination you would otherwise miss. You can sit back and enjoy the ride while also getting a feel for the local people’s view. It even sounds relaxing to take a ‘pedicab – it sounds more like a type of foot treatment than a taxi.

The Japanese term for rickshaw is jinrikisha and you can see how the newer term rickshaw comes from the more ancient one. It’s generally understood that rickshaws were invented in Japan in the late 1800s when they replaced pole-carried palanquins, the ‘king carrier’ litters used to carry royalty. Such litters faded away for the most part, but they’re still employed in some countries for royal, spiritual and processional uses.

Evolving Efficiency

As cities in Asia developed and modernized, rickshaws were gradually phased out  due to their status as a reminder of ancient ways. The rickshaw quickly gave way to the pedicab, which eventually succumbed to the motorcycle and automobile.

Rickshaws still have their modern-day equivalent in the velo-taxi, motor-rickshaw or tuk-tuk, however, all of which are popular engine powered cousins of the covered three-wheeled bicycle. In some countries, even the original versions have survived, albeit mainly as tourist novelties.

Here are a few of Southeast Asia’s best loved bicycle taxis.

Thailand – Samlor

As a testament to the country’s long tradition of working with the environment around it, as well as trying to cut through traffic jams, samlors (literally three wheelers) can still be seen throughout the Thai provinces. However, in Bangkok, the largest city by a boulder’s throw, the streets have become too crowded with cars and motorbikes to allow them on its main thoroughfares.

I enjoyed a samlor ride once through the back streets of the capital with a photographer friend. We concentrated on the old part of town and our samlor driver, Kai, clearly loved his job. He spent the entire morning humming quietly to himself in between answering our questions about the area. His wide samlor was fitted with a very comfy cushion, which was as soft as Kai’s legs looked steely from pedaling some 30km or more a day. Like most drivers in Bangkok, he rides from the front, and although many people now use taxis or motorized tuk-tuks to get around, he still has plenty of regular customers in the neighbourhood.

Although we did not have a drug-dealing monkey with us, we did pass the oddly decorated traffic circle used for this purpose in the movie “Hangover II”. Centred around a single small tree, the Song Wad Roundabout, as its known, is one of the oldest traffic roundabouts in Bangkok. Our samlor driver took us near this same intersection, on the way to lunch, which was enjoyed from stalls selling everything from rice soup and ‘guay chap’ (flat noodles with pepper sauce), to chicken and pork ‘woon sen’ (glass noodles with vegetables) and Peking duck.

Malaysia – Beca

The three-wheeled eco- taxi of choice in Malaysia is often driven with the driver behind the passengers, which really gives you a wide view of the street ahead. I like skimming through Penang in one of these vehicles; a city more than fitting for such a historic type of transport, with colonial buildings left and right, especially along the Penang Esplanade waterfront area, or Padang Kota Lama.

If you take a beca ride along this route in the daytime, be sure to visit Fort Cornwallis on the eastern side of the green. Sir Francis Light and his men cleared this area of the city as a place for the British Fort in 1786 and today you can enjoy the Cornwallis Food Court nearby as you toast the good Captain with a bottle of lager and a lime-tinged red snapper meal.

The Penang Esplanade is a more lively place to visit, however, especially close to the Chinese New Year when the dragon dances are spectacular. If you visit by night, you can also enjoy the harmonic lights colouring the buildings, notably the Penang Town Hall, and you’ll swear you’ve travelled back in time a couple of hundred years.

The relaxed demeanour of the locals certainly fits the oceanside urban setting. In fact, even my beca suited the scene with a blue hue to match the sea beyond.

Indonesia – Becak

Like its Malaysian namesake, a becak is also driven from behind and on a chaotic Indonesian street, that means it’s very clear that any accident will put you in harm’s way first.

Fortunately, despite a distinct lack of road discipline, crashes don’t really happen that often, so you get to see the streets in all their glory instead of staring at the back of a taxi driver’s head.

I once chose to ride in one of these machines through Jakarta, a daunting prospect even before it was the traffic filled metropolis it is today. Fortunately, the becak was built for one passenger (one westerner at least), so the ride was quiet comfortable, if a little scary. It felt like hanging in a bucket waiting for a smash-up to come.

Apparently, enough people worried like I did, or even got into said smash-ups in Jakarta, so becaks were eventually banned from the city’s main thoroughfares. Locals and tourists still use these fun buggies in quieter locations like Yogyakarta, which is where I usually get my becak ‘fix’ these days. In the heat, with the crowds, you’ll love how it saves your energy for the city’s many sights and sounds.

Vietnam – Cyclo

You may not have had the privilege of being driven around in a gold-plated cyclo (pronounced as the French do – ‘seeklo’) like I did once in Ho Chi Minh City. You probably won’t get a driver who asks you to turn around and see his gold teeth either, saying, “Dis gold…DiS gold!”, but you will definitely enjoy a unique experience travelling in one of Vietnam’s old school pedal-powered taxis.

Cyclo passengers are often hard to spot as they often use these vehicles when they need to move people or things en masse. You’ll see everything from pets to gaggles of kids to dressers and mattresses being transported across Vietnamese cities. Many of the drivers are war veterans, so be sure to treat them with the respect they deserve.

Philippines – Padyak

You can try yet another version of a pedal taxi in most cities in the Philippines, with the driver sitting to the left of the passenger. Technically called a ‘trysikads’, the local name for these funky taxi bikes means “push pedal”, and with the streets overcrowded with cars, most transport authorities restrict their conveyance to backstreets and minor byways.

This might be wise, as the cheap, handy vehicles seem a bit fragile in terms of structure and design. But, when visiting a climate that’s too hot for walking, especially if you’re carrying a load or in a hurry, you’ll sing the praises of the padyak – or even start singing with the driver sitting next to you. If you ask, he’ll even take you to his favourite pancit restaurant, but you’ll pick up the tab, and the fare, of course.


Take in the Sights

While being pedaled around Asia in a pedi-cab, make sure you take in a few unmissable sights along the way and take time to learn more about the history of the streets you travel through.

  • One of the hidden jewels of Bangkok’s Chinatown area is Wat Traimit, an incredible building that houses an even more amazing Golden Buddha. This unique statue was ignored for centuries until workmen moving the five-ton, 13th-century image of Lord Buddha dropped it and broke the plaster, revealing solid gold.
  • Also in Bangkok, Tian Fa Hospital, built in 1903, was a joint effort funded by all the Chinese clans, and served as a community focus. The mutual effort to construct the hospital seemed to weave the clans together with a sense of identity. Thus began the building of BKK’s Chinese-dominated district, later known as Chinatown.
  • Georgetown’s Fort Cornwallis was actually built as a basic stockade and constructed of palm trunks. It was named after Charles Cornwallis, who was then serving as the Governor-General of Bengal. In 1793, the fort was rebuilt from bricks at a cost of 67,000 Spanish Dollars.
  • Manila has long built padyaks into its cultural fabric. In 2013 the Philippine Arts Festival included a ‘Padyak Manila’ event, inviting the public to ride padyaks to key architectural and cultural sites, take photos, and enter them for a contest. Photographs are at the University Theatre in Diliman, Quezon City.

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.