18 July 2024

In Southeast Asia, public transportation is part of a rich culture. While some of these are still around, many of them, threatened by modernization, are now slowly losing their reputation as the kings of the road.

Tuk-tuk fun rides

Plying along the streets of Thailand, the tuk-tuk is an iconic symbol. It has an open-air passenger cabin added to the rear of a motorcycle.

Its small size makes it ideal for a tropical climate and allows easy maneuverability.

Because of the open cabin and its small body, many locals find the tuk-tuk a very convenient form of transportation

 “When going to the market, we hail a tuk-tuk because it can pass through narrow alleys. Aside from that, it is easy to load items from the market, such as fresh meat and fish,” said Mali, a housewife and operator of a small noodle shop.

In addition, the tuk-tuks’ open sides allow passengers to enjoy the sights, sounds, and fresh air while travelling.

“The open-air cabin gives us an immersive experience, especially in locations with scenic views or vibrant city life. We feel that we are connected to our surroundings. The tuk-tuk ride also gives us a sense of freedom and adventure,” enthused Canadian couple Daniel and Sarah.

Khun Lek, a tuk-tuk driver, said that the small size of the vehicle makes parking very convenient. “It is also very fuel-efficient because of its compact size and smaller engine,” he said.

The tuk-tuk is also a popular form of artistic expression, carrying personalized designs that reflect the individuality of the owner.

The artwork transforms each vehicle into a mobile art installation, attracting attention wherever it goes.

Art on wheels

While on the subject of colorful artwork, the colorful jeepneys barreling along Manila’s busy streets cannot be missed.

Regarded as Manila’s kings of the road, jeepneys are anachronistic public utility vehicles covered with bright colors and gaudy decorations.

They are a post-World War 2 innovation, stretched to accommodate around 15 to 25 passengers, and with open ventilation through large windows and an open backdoor for embarkation and disembarkation.

“Much of Filipino culture is also associated with the jeepney,” said Eunice, a university student who takes the jeepney every day.

“One interesting Filipino tradition that comes from a jeepney ride is the hand-passing of the fare from the farthest passenger until it reaches the driver in the front seat, which is part of the social grace when riding a jeepney,” Eunice said.

Cycle rickshaws

A descendant of the hand-pulled rickshaws, a cycle rickshaw is a passenger cabin attached to a bicycle. It comes in varying styles around Southeast Asia.

There are two types in Indonesia where cycle rickshaws are known locally as becak. In one design, the driver sits behind the passengerwhile another one has a sidecar.

“The becak used to be popular in Jakarta but has notably decreased in number over the years,” said Putri, a PR professional.

Cycle rickshaws are also popular in Cambodia. Called cyclo, they are considered by localsas the most relaxing way to get around.

Cycle rickshaws are also common in Vietnam, as well as in Malaysia where there has been a sharp decline in their number over the past few decades.

Fading Vietnamese Rickshaw

“Malaysia was one of the first countries in the region to modernize its public transport system and that contributed to the decline.

“Most Malaysian cycle rickshaws, called trishaws by locals, now only operate as tourist rickshaws. They may be dwindling in number but the few that remain, particularly in Malacca, are well maintained and still colorful,” explained one local.

In Thailand, cycle rickshaws known locally as samlor, have also dwindled in number.

“We no longer see the samlor in most Thai cities anymore, except probably in Chiang Mai,” said Sirintira, a Chiang Mai-based designer. “The samlor is still commonly used by locals for short journeys,” she added.

Philippines: Tricycle

Reign over?

Modernization has taken a toll on these traditional forms of transportation. “Progress necessitates the construction of modern forms of public transport.

Now, traditional forms of public transport are considered obstructions on major thoroughfares,” said Francis Calderon, an urban planner.

In the Philippines, the jeepney phase-out has sparked heated debate. “It has caused a significant decline in jeepney production,” revealed Rudy who comes from a family of jeepney manufacturers.

Philippines: Jeepney

Thailand’s tuk-tuks are similarly hounded by issues, the most recent of which is the reported overcharging of Japanese visitors.

Tuk-tuk parked Near the Grand Palace in Bangkok.//Photo: Veena Thoopkrajae

“We have always been accused of overcharging and the generalization is sad because there are still many honest tuk-tuk drivers around,” said Lek, a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok.

Bangkok’s Modern Mass Transit

While these traditional modes of transportation are now threatened by modernization, Linda Sapiandante, from the Center for Integrative and Development Studies of a top Asian university, remains optimistic about their continuity.

“We may explore their huge potential as tourism attractions, much in the same way as how Venice uses its gondolas to attract tourists,” she hinted.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Oz Hersa

(This article is part of a series about the vanishing cultural traditions in Southeast Asia)