Thailand on Three Wheels—With and Without an Engine
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

On a return trip to Thailand, a writer gets to know the country's iconic three-wheeled modes of passage, rolling with the tuk-tuk and trishaw troops in and near Chiang Mai.

Tourists in a tuk tuk

Sometimes, laughter is the shortest distance between strangers. Remember the nervous anticipation you experienced when taking the driving test to get your driver's license? Well, you can relive the experience in Thailand in happy tongue-in-cheek mode when you learn how to drive—and rock—a five-speed three-wheeled Thai tuk-tuk. Driver training was never this much fun.

fancy tuk tuk

Based in Chiang Mai, The Tuk Tuk Club's signature experience is an 11-day journey through the heart of Northern Thailand. I got a taste with a full day-trip, which launches with training on a disused basketball court, adorned with red cones, an hour outside the buzz of Chiang Mai. It’s next to a field where a family of Karen farmers pick onions. If you know how to drive anything with a clutch, you're halfway there. Pupils who've owned a motorcycle—moped even—are already semi pro, as this is basically a tubby, hooded ATV tricycle. I was in one of six tuk-tuks, each holding two or three eager apprentices. Part serious and part comedic, the learning process involves you learning to zigzag through cones, back up, and change gears while driving uphill. A highly entertaining guide, Smithy, cracks jokes throughout this process and continues to pan the student body throughout the day.

The club's owner, Bruce Haxton, is a UK expat and travel industry veteran whose love affair with Thailand began in 1988 when he arrived as a teen backpacker. Haxton pined to drive a tuk-tuk around Thailand but was always either too busy or met by a "no can do" wall of resistance. Eventually, he borrowed a tuk-tuk from a Bangkok taxi driver, drove it 435 miles to Chiang Mai, then undertook the route that now makes up the club's 11-day tour. He was hooked. Three years in the making, he melded what he thinks is the best of the country with getting the first six tuk-tuks built and delivered. Now, they're off and running with 12 custom-built Bangkok-classic tuk tuks. All bright orange, they have extra legroom and are wired for Bluetooth sound. They were built by the same specialty manufacturer who crafted the prop tuk-tuk used in the movie Hangover Part II.

The club's tuk-tuk's all have names. I drove Rock.

Driving on Thai Roads

After 45 minutes of trial and error, everyone passed the test, and our convoy of six stylish tuk-tuks hit the road. Once you encounter pavement reality, you need to keep reminding yourself that Thailand drives on the left side of the road and that your eyes need to stay on it, taking a temporary reprieve from ogling the beautiful people and landscapes. And, oh yeah, there's oncoming traffic, and people and dogs crossing streets, too. Initially, you cruise lightly trafficked backroads that wind through agricultural greenery and tiny villages that are encircled by misty mountains. The first two stops are non-touristy temples. But the highlight of the trip for me was how the Thai locals chuckled at the prospect of an ambitious caravan of Western tuk-tuk pilots.

Miss Universe dress Thailand

Arriving at a Thai destination in a self-driven tuk-tuk is way different than stepping off a tour bus. It occurred to me that a Westerner driving a tuk-tuk through rural Thailand is akin to a Thai person building a snowman in Denmark or riding a Harley Davidson across Kansas. But I wasn't the only person feeling a bit of celebrity status. In a 2015 Miss Universe contest, Miss Thailand wore a tuk-tuk dress and won the Best National Costume award. The winning design, Tuk-tuk (or Sam Lor) Thailand, was chosen from 356 entries and fashioned by a Culture Ministry representative. See, tuk-tuk's are cool, sexy even. Real pride needs no flag.

We soon hit a main road and journeyed a half hour to an Asian elephant sanctuary, where we ate lunch with elephants in sight. I'd previously avoided this sort of touristy undertaking because of a few naysayers, but feeding elephants is cathartic. Their gently maneuvering trunks are more dexterous than a surgeon's hand. We then followed the herd of five downhill for a half-mile toward a river, hiking along it until the posse arrived at a confluence with a bigger river in which the elephants immediately dove in. Following these incredible animals (along with three enthusiastic puppies) to their happy place was a very special moment—and a reminder that all animals want things their way. En route to that swimming hole, two elephant minders had to jostle the two babies in the herd to stop halting for mud-puddle baths and detour the three adults keen on munching trees.

Thailand elephant bathing near Chiang Mai

Once in the water, the two babies rollicked about joyously and were constantly wrestling and dunking each other. Remember dunking your friends? There is no doubt that these kids were having a blast. The entire tuk-tuk group participated in using water buckets to splash and wash the elephants, a divine moment.

One of the sanctuary's elephant whisperers, Big (indeed a big Thai dude), told me that another divine moment, elephant sex, only lasts 40 seconds, which is understandable as the literally tons of in-motion passion also shakes the earth. While chaperoning the bathing session, Big's Dr. Doolittle persona emerged as he was saddled by two mammoths, one squirting water from its trunk and the other nudging Big to continue with a comforting forehead massage. Big repeatedly insisted that elephants behave very much like humans and that the older elephants had retired from working as loggers—backbreaking work—so being fed and bathed by tourists is hardly toilsome for them.

I've been chronicling a now touristy Thailand for 30 years and this is a breath of vacation fresh air—albeit with the backdrop of a racing engine. The day concluded with a rafting trip down a narrow, winding river on four 15-foot bamboo-log rafts, each navigated by one nimble, barefoot guide up front using a long pole to prevent the crafts from bashing into rocks and overhanging trees. The downriver athleticism of these raft-captains was impressive and a reminder that you rarely see overweight Thai people.

By the end of the day, I'm feeling like a tuk-tuk pro who no longer has to look for the blinker switch and wondering what it would be like to pick up passengers. I'm also starting to exceed the 30mph speed limit imposed by Smithy. Screw predictability. Life should be about creating your own rites of passage. Take it easy Rock, see you down the line.

dog in a cart

Thailand on Three Wheels—Without an Engine

You can also see Thailand by way of three wheels without burning an ounce of fossil fuel. Chiang Mai's senior-citizen-pedaled samlors—hooded-tricycle taxis also called trishaws—are fading fast from the Thai landscape as they give way to loud, polluting vehicles that threaten everything green. Chiang Mai on Three Wheels is fighting back and supporting veteran samlor pilots to preserve Chiang Mai's last green transport mode. The preservation effort, the Chiang Mai Trishaw Project spearheaded by Rotary Chiang Mai, has transformed the foot-pedal-fueled ride with the option of making it a tour with a licensed English-speaking guide who rolls in an adjacent three-wheeled bike. The project not only rehabilitates previously unusable trishaws, but it also provides the once-impoverished drivers, some in their late 90s, with healthcare, uniforms, cycle maintenance, and communication skills.

Thai rickshaw

Long-time Netherlands expat Frans Betgem arrived Chiang Mai in 1998. He eventually started Chiang Mai-based Green Trails, which helps oversee Chiang Mai on Three Wheels, and adopted this samlor-preservation charity project that remains close to his heart. Without it, the samlor would soon vanish from the streets of Chiang Mai. This dual effort safeguards cultural heritage. In Thai, samlor means "three wheels." Samlors were Chiang Mai's first mode of public transport. Before the auto age ran rampant, thousands (four thousand in the 1960s) of samlors crisscrossed the city. Now, there are fewer than 50. The guided tours not only support the drivers but also give visitors the chance to silently make eye, ear, nose, and smile contact with roadside life. A fun chat with your samlor skipper, typically translated by the guide, comes as a bonus.

With a terrific guide riding in a second samlor, our pedal pilots were Daeng and Manit, both 65 and lifelong pals. Their only time apart was when they served in different branches of their mandatory military service. Gliding between temples, we roll as much as possible along quiet, winding alleys and backroads. Chiang Mai's moated and walled city is 1.25 square miles, within which are 100 temples and an endless sea of multihued markets. I learn that, tourism aside, this mode of transport is still crucial for elderly women wanting to source the local vegetable markets beginning at 3am.

Samlors, the ultimate exercise bikers who do more with less, tend to be healthy and live long lives. When Thai Buddhists die, they are cremated, often along with some of their vital personal possessions. In the case of these graceful three-wheeled pilots, they were/are buried with symbolic parts of their dismantled bikes. It can be said that Thai Buddhists measure their wealth by how much they'd be worth if they lost all their money. Samlors remain great symbols of this philosophy.

Thai rickshaw in front of a temple

At the conclusion of the peaceful journey, the ultimate way to experience Thailand's northern-mountain city, Daeng smiled wide while showing me his black-and-white army pictures and medals. Then, the guide pointed to another temple entrance staircase where the bannisters are sculptures of a dragon eating a dragon. "Dragon eat dragon world," he joked. Neither Daeng nor Manit heard him, as they slowly rolled away and back in time.

Bruce Northam

Bruce Northam's The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons shares the infinite goodwill of strangers through enlightening tales from his travels to 135 countries. He has spent decades navigating the globe in a continuing search for words to live by—and live for—in local mode. Visit All photos by Northam except Miss Universe dress, © Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Related Features:
Learning to Walk Fully in Thailand - Luke Maguire Armstrong
Dueling Smiles in Muzzled Myanmar - Bruce Northam
A Man and His Dragons in Southern Thailand - Tim Leffel
The Chaos and Grace of a Scooter Ride in Vietnam - Debi Goodwin

See other Asia travel stories from the archives

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