Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

Picture of Frans Betgem

Frans Betgem

Frans Betgem is a Dutch veteran in the travel industry in South East Asia. He is the founder of Green Trails and Chiang Mai a la Carte, amongst others. He also is the founder and admin of the Facebook group Chiang Mai Memories.

Table of Contents

Objectives of Chiang Mai on Three Wheels

Chiang Mai on Three Wheels is a project of Green Trails in cooperation with the Rotary Club of Chiang Mai. The 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 (Thai: สามล้อ) is a Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai. The bicycle samlor is also somtimes called samlor theep (Thai: สามล้อถีป), which means the pedal samlor to discern it from the motorized samlor, which is the samlor kruang (สามล้อเครื่อง). This translates as “three wheels with an engine”.

The samlor will disappear from Chiang Mai streets if no action is being taken. At the moment there are less than 70 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. Over time we also have looked at the situation in Chiang Rai and Lamphun, where the situation is similar.

Tourism is key to the survival of the samlors. Examples and proof of this you can find in Singapore, Hanoi, and Hoi An (Vietnam). We still have a long way to go in North Thailand before this happens. The samlor should not disappear from the streets of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Lamphun.

Many samlors before a tour Chiang Mai
Many samlors at the start of a tour in 2018

The Rickshaw, Cyclo and Becak

The cycle rickshaw is a small-scale local means of transportation. In Southeast Asia, 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 pedaling.  Cycle rickshaws are widely used in major cities around the world, but most commonly in cities of South, and Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, the bicycle taxi still operates in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar.

The first cycle rickshaw was built in the 1880s and appeared in 1929 in Singapore. Six years later they outnumbered pulled rickshaws, a vehicle powered by a man who pulls the vehicle. In India and Madagascar, there are still pulled rickshaws but I have never seen one in use in Southeast Asia.

By the early 1950s cycle rickshaws appeared on the streets in every Southeast Asian country. 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 now equipped with an electric motor to assist the driver, such as in the trishaws of the company Trishaw Uncle in Singapore.

Young girl in a bicycle taxi
A young girls in a samlor during the Songkran parade of 2018

Passenger configuration

The configuration of driver and passenger seats varies. 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 and in Myanmar the passengers sit alongside the driver.

two bicycle taxis
Two Samlors at the Nong Dok Market in Lamphun

History of the samlor in Southeast Asia

Samlors in Thailand

Allegedly the first samlor in Thailand appeared in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) Province in 1933 when an inventive Chinese merchant added two wheels to a traditional bicycle. In the past, you could find samlors in many provinces and cities, even in the capital Bangkok. Cities in the Deep South such as Songkhla and Pattani also had samlors. There are not only a few left in the South. There are still samlors active in the suburbs of Bangkok such as Nonthaburi although we have heard rumors that the licenses of these samlors will not be extended. Other cities where samlors are still active are Phitsanulok, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, and Nan.
Man with bicycle taxis
Brand new samlors at the Princess Galyani Vadhana Institute in Pattani

The introduction of the samlor in Chiang Mai

American soil scientist Robert Larimore Pendleton took two pictures of a samlor ride on August 12 or 13, 1937. The first shows samlors on the old road from San Kamphaeng to Chiang Mai. The second shows samlors parked in front of the first Chiang Mai railway station. These are the oldest photographs of samlors in Chiang Mai, that I have found. Interestingly enough the second picture shows two different kinds of samlor: the one with the passenger seat behind the driver and one with a side car. This kind of samlor is called samlor phuang khang (สามล้อถีปพวงข้าง), which translates as samlor with a “side row”.

There are lots of images of samlors on the streets of Chiang Mai. If you talk to older people, they speak with fondness about how they traveled 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 public transportation. Nowadays some samlors are parked at markets such as the San Pakoy and Nonghoi markets. Most of them are stationed at Kad Luang (the Warorot and Tonlamyai Markets).

Bicycle taxi with driver
Samlor in the streets of Songkhla

Trishaws and tourism in Singapore

I have visited several cities in Southeast Asia to have a look at the situation of samlors. In Singapore, there is Trishaw Uncle, a company that organizes trishaw tours in Little India, Kampong Glam, and Chinatown. I joined the Little India tour, which was fun and entertaining. The tours take less than an hour which is very short. The trishaws have a small engine hidden in the rear wheel. During the tour, commentary comes from a speaker that is connected to a mobile phone. They have used the voice of a British woman which doesn’t make it much of an authentic experience. Trishaw Uncle is very well organized though and is a great example of how tourism can save the bicycle taxi from extinction.

Tourist in bicycle taxi
Frans in trishaw in Singapore

Cyclos and tourism in Vietnam

In Vietnam, I visited Hanoi and Hoi An. In the early 90s, there were hundreds, if not thousands of cyclos on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. I visited the former capital of South Vietnam frequently in those days. During my last visit in September 2017, I noticed that the cyclos had disappeared from the streets of district 1, the main tourist area of Ho Chi Minh City.

In September 2017 I also visited Hoi An in Central Vietnam. In Hoi An the same type of cyclo is 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 pedaling with tourists through the picturesque streets of Hoi An Ancient Town which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In October 2018 I visited Hanoi again. 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. It was a real pleasure to see.

Bicycle taxis with tourists
Cyclos with tourists in the streets of Hanoi

Cyclos in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I haven’t been in Phnom Penh since March 2016 but cyclos are still in use in the capital of Cambodia. My friend Koen Olie sent me pictures recently of the cyclos in Phnom Penh. In the long run, I expect them to be banned from major roads as in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. For the time being, they are still a means of transportation in Phnom Penh and also make rides with tourists. The cyclos are similar to the ones that were in use in Ho Chi Minh City.

Man with bicycle taxi Cambodia on Three Wheels
Cyclo and driver in Phnom Penh

Trisikads in San Carlos City, Philippines

In 2017 I visited San Carlos City on Negros Island in the Philippines. To my surprise, I found out that the bicycle taxi is the main means of public transportation in this pleasant city. According to local people, there are still about 1600 of them. People in the Philippines call the bicycle taxi “trisikad” or “pedicab”. I think the type that is common in San Carlos is the trisikad. The pedicab is a smaller type you can find in many towns in the Philippines.

In San Carlos City the trisikad is a bit like a mascot of the city. People are proud of them and respect them. It was nice to see so many of them.

Bicycle taxis in a street Philippines on Three Wheels
Trisikads in San Carlos City, Negros, Philippines

Survival of the samlor in Chiang Mai

Tourism is the key to the survival of the samlor in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Lamphun. Chiang Mai strives to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. I consider the samlor to be a living or intangible heritage of Chiang Mai and as such, it should be part of the World Heritage project. Besides that, the samlor is an environmentally friendly means of transportation, ideally suitable to explore the Old City of Chiang Mai. A temple tour by samlor should be a must-do activity for visitors of Chiang Mai. Samlors are great for selfies.

Chiang Mai on Three Wheels Samlor Tours

Until we are able to organize a similar setup as Trishaw Uncle in Chiang Mai the temporary solution is getting as many tourists as possible on samlor tours. We started to organize samlor tours in Chiang Mai in 2016. We did our best to design tours that are not too long and include many interesting stops. The health and well-being of the drivers are always a priority. They are in relatively good shape because cycling is a healthy activity and keeps them fit.

Our tours focus on history, markets, food, handicrafts, and local life. We show you aspects of Chiang Mai you normally would not see on standard sightseeing tours. We offer half-day tours.  A licensed tour guide will accompany you because the drivers speak very little English.  A samlor seats only one person. The seats are not too big so it is uncomfortable to occupy them with more than one person. The weight of two people would be too much for the drivers as well.

Bicycle taxis with tourists
Samlors with tourists

Samlor tours in Chiang Mai

Our samlor tours in Chiang Mai are half-day tours. We don’t include the transfer from your hotel to the start of the tour. Our tours start either at Thapae Gate or Wat Loi Kroh. Your guide and samlor drivers will be waiting for you there.  We offer four different half-day tours

The Markets of Chiang Mai Tour by Samlor Tour features visits to the San Pakoy market and the Ton Lamyai/Warorot Markets. Our tour starts at Wat Loi Kroh and ends at Thapae Gate. The Chiang Mai Handicrafts Tour by Samlor that focuses on the lacquerware and silver handicrafts in the Wualai neighborhood. This tour starts at Wat Loi Kroh and ends at Thapae Gate. The Chiang Mai Temples Tour by Samlor focuses on the temples in the Old City, such as Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phra Singh. The tour starts and ends at Thapae Gate. Our Chiang Mai Food Tour by Samlor is all about food, snacks, and delicacies

We offer morning and afternoon tours but we prefer the morning for a samlor tour. It is relatively cool in the morning which is also better for the drivers. Our Chiang Mai Evening Tour by Samlor is a shorter tour that takes place in the evening. Some of our Chiang Mai day tours include half-day or shorter samlor rides.

Your Chiang Mai on Three Wheels tour supports the samlors in Chiang Mai!

Bicycle taxis in front of colonial style building Chiang Mai Historical Houses
Samlors at the Three Kings Monument

Chiang Mai on Three Wheels on Youtube

In November 2021 I invited Chris Parker of Retired Working for You and Jeroen Maduro of Global Travelmate to join us on a samlor tour. We have a great time. Both Chris and Jeroen made very nice videos on that day. Here they are:

Lamphun on Three Wheels

Lamphun is a small town, about 30 km south of Chiang Mai. Lamphun predates Chiang Mai by hundreds of years and is the capital of Lamphun province. There are many things to do in Lamphun and in the countryside around this charming town. Lamphun has not seen the same explosive growth as Chiang Mai over the past decades.

It is a great destination for samlor tours. There are about 20 to 30 samlors operational in Lamphun. Most of them are parked at the local hospital or at the Nong Dok food market. Just as in Chiang Mai the drivers are in their 60s and 70s and just as in Chiang Mai the samlor is disappearing from the streets.

The Chiang Mai on Three Wheels samlor tours we offer in Lamphun are a part of day tours. Our Lamphun tours are under construction.

Three bicycle taxis in front of old building
Samlor Tour at Khum Sampanthawong

Chiang Rai on Three Wheels

The situation of samlors in Chiang Rai is similar to the situation in Chiang Mai and in Lamphun. In fact, it is much worse. In Lamphun and Chiang Mai you will see quite a few samlors on the streets, in Chiang Rai I saw very, very few. One of them is parked at the Kad Luang (the central market) of Chiang Rai. It is possible apparently to mobilize at least 10 samlors for a tour but we haven’t tried.

Just as in Lamphun our Chiang Rai samlor tours are component of day tours. Our Chiang Rai on Three Wheels tours are under construction.

Driver with bicycle taxi
Samlor driver Somboon in Chiang Rai
From: 1,700.00 ฿
From: 2,000.00 ฿
From: 2,000.00 ฿