Isaan’s rickshaw drivers pedal into an unknown future

Once an ubiquitous mode of urban transport, cycle rickshaws have survived both Thailand’s rapid modernisation and a ban from the streets of Bangkok. But almost 150 years after making its first appearance in the capital and spreading to other cities, the three-wheeled vehicle is becoming a rare sight in the Northeast.

Newin Wongchompu sits on the passenger seat of his blue-canopied vehicle parked at his regular spot in front of Sisaket’s police station. Renting his cycle rickshaw, called samlo in Thai, for 50 baht (about $1.5o) a day, he makes a daily income of about 200-300 baht. But recently it has become a struggle to get people to use his service.

“I guess, eventually, I’ll have to stop pedaling,” says the 35-year-old samlo driver. “I’ll probably end up as a street hawker because I like to work freely.”

Newin is one of the younger rickshaw drivers in Sisaket who are usually men in their fifties and sixties. He used to drive his samlo in Bangkok, traversing the narrow alleyways of Khlong Toei Market. But after years as a migrant worker, he decided to take his tricycle taxi business back to his northeastern home.

Propelled by physical force, cycle rickshaws were once an affordable and popular mean of urban transport in the Northeast.

Pedals against engines

For decades, samlo were one of the main means of transport ferrying passengers around within the town limits of Sisaket. But with the arrival of hired motorcycles, and a car taxi service in 2011, samlo drivers are struggling to make ends meet.

“There is a lot of competition for us with the car and motorcycle taxis,” says 52-year-old samlo driver Phraiwan Noranak. “And as a self-employed driver, I don’t even get any social benefits.”

According to Sisaket’s Land Transport Office there are about 30 cycle rickshaws registered in the province for both commercial and private use. This number stands against 116 motorcycle taxis and 65 car taxis offering service to passengers.

But it is not only the motorized alternatives killing rickshaw drivers’ business says Komon Thimthong, who has been pedaling his samlo for more than 30 years.

Sisaket’s rickshaw drivers usually charge about 25 baht per kilometer, pedaling between the train and bus stations, the hospital, and the provincial hall. But prices can differ widely for each trip, Kamon told The Isaan Record.

“To put it bluntly, samlo drivers often overcharge passengers who don’t ask for a price first,” 65-year-old Komon says, adding that this has damaged his profession’s reputation and caused passenger to avoid rickshaws.

As the number of passengers has plummeted in recent years, many of Sisaket’s samlo drivers switched their three-wheeled vehicles for motor-powered two-wheelers.

Former samlo driver Saneh Khamsiang became a motorcycle taxi driver when his daily income fell under 300 baht in 2009. The 49-year-old now makes about 700 baht a day.

“I began pedaling my samlo back when the price started at five baht, and there used to be so many passengers,” he says. “But now passengers demand to get around faster.”

Komon Thimthong has been a samlo driver for over 30 years. Earning about 200-300 baht a day, it’s just enough to get by on, the 65-year-old Sisaket native told The Isaan Record.

A historic mode of transport

In Thailand’s motorized society, samlo are seen as belonging to a bygone past. But in the late 19th century, the novel vehicles heralded a new era as Bangkok transformed from a maze of waterways to a land-based city.

First imported from Japan in 1872, cycle rickshaws soon spread across Bangkok as city administrators filled in canals and built roads to make the capital appear more “civilized.”

Crowding the city’s new streets and paved areas, the popular vehicles prompted the country’s first traffic legislation, the Rickshaw Act of 1903.

During World War II, Bangkok’s motorized public transportation broke down for lack of fuel but the man-powered samlo kept rolling, boosting their role in getting people and goods around the city.

The first samlo drivers were likely Chinese immigrants but the occupation was restricted to Thai nationals in 1933. Twenty years later, half of Bangkok’s samlo drivers hailed from the Northeast, according to a classic study by American anthropologist Robert B. Textor.

The profession had become popular among northeastern farmers looking to earn an extra income during the off-farming season. Members of Parliament from the Northeast successfully campaigned the government in 1953 to allow Isaan-registered samlo drivers to operate their own vehicles in the capital.

But in 1960, the military government of General Sarit Thanarat banned all man-powered vehicles from the streets of Bangkok, making space for the growing number of automobiles.

While the ban ended the careers of Isaan samlo drivers in the capital, the profession boomed in the growing cities of the Northeast, many of which did not introduce car taxi services until 2011.

Once a popular profession for Northeasterners in Bangkok, the three-wheeled samlo was banned from the streets of the capital in 1960. But in the following decades, the vehicles became a popular mean of urban transport in the Northeast.

Unknown future

Interviews with several samlo drivers in Sisaket echo a sense of foreboding that after years of carving a niche in the town’s transport system, their profession finally has to give way to a more economically viable motorized future.

“If the future is unknown and my income stays low, I’ll stop driving ,” samlo driver Phraiwan says, adding that he would likely switch careers to raise fighting roosters in his home village.

But despite the falling number of passengers, some people at the town’s bus station say they still use samlo services regularly.

“Whenever I arrive at the bus station, I always use the samlo to travel on,” says Thanyathon Rawangchon, a 55-year-old resident of Sisaket’s Khukhan District. Although slower, it is safer than taking a motorcycle taxi, she believes.

Thithayarat Suphadon, a 21-year-old student of Sisaket Rajabhat University, recently used a samlo taxi for the first time. She prefers the three-wheeled vehicles over their motor-powered alternatives because it is a cheaper and a more mindful way of traveling.

“I think samlo are part of Sisaket’s identity and I’d like to support the drivers so they can have an stable income,” she says.

Reporting from Sisaket and photography by Atithep Chanted, a participant of The Isaan Journalism Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record