Thailand’s never-die tuk-tuks now a global export
After 25 years of service, a company traditionally rewards a loyal employee with a gold watch. But for Win van Rootselaar of Dutch company Cryovat Internationaal, his reward for working for the family company for a quarter of a century is considerably larger and infinitely more unique -- a Thai-made tuk-tuk.
For more than 50 years tuk-tuks have been burping their way around the cities and villages of Thailand, a legacy of the Japanese World War II occupation of most of the region.
Though Indonesia’s Bajaj and India’s auto rickshaw bare remarkable similarities, the stainless steel “Thailand” plate on the rear, liberal chrome plating and the distinctive blue and yellow livery applied to Thailand’s taxi tuk-tuks have seen them become a unique symbol identified with Thailand the world over. Not to mention a vehicle tourists to the country can’t get enough of.
As a frequent traveler to the company’s Thailand division, Win’s brother Tim was familiar with the tourist appeal of tuk-tuks and concluded that nothing short of a genuine Thailand tuk-tuk would suffice as a suitable silver anniversary gift for his brother.
Though the Thai government will not register any new tuk-tuks for private use, export orders, along with larger variants used by hotels, resorts and shopping malls throughout the country are such that four factories still specialize in their production.
Today's tuk-tuks less noisy, more eco-friendly
Originally fitted with a single or twin cylinder 350cc two-stroke Daihatsu engine, the cause of the high-pitched burping noise they make as they zip around Thailand’s streets, modern-day tuk-tuks are fitted with 660cc four-stroke Daihatsu or Suzuki engines, making them as quiet as a family sedan.
For a long-time the bane of environmentalists due to their lead-fuel operating engines and smoky two-stroke exhaust, all of Bangkok’s taxi tuk-tuks today run on CNG, the result of a government campaign that funded the cost of conversion.
At Tuk Tuk Thailand in the Bangkok suburb of Bang Khae, Chett Taikratoke has been turning out tuk-tuks for more than eight years, prior to that working for Thailand’s largest tuk-tuk factory, which was a casualty of the Asian economic crisis of the late 90s.
“Every tourist who comes to Thailand wants to ride in a tuk-tuk. I even get emails from people wanting me to pick them up from the airport in a tuk-tuk," Chett says.
While road-regulations prohibit tuk-tuks on the country’s expressways and hence entry to the airport, there’s no shortage of affection for the vehicles from tourists, who leap at the opportunity to sit in the open-sided vehicles in the blistering heat or monsoonal rain, choking on the acrid black exhaust fumes expelled by Bangkok’s buses and cars, in preference to air-conditioned taxis.
Click through for the rest of this story and more images.
Chett said there are about 10,000 taxi tuk-tuks in Bangkok and some 35,000 nationwide, with variations in design depending on the region.
“The Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is very different to the Bangkok tuk-tuk and based on the original Midget MP4 from Daihatsu, while in Udon Thani they are motorbikes attached to carts," Mr. Chett says.
Tuk Tuk Thailand’s team of 10 staff churn out about 200 tuk-tuks a year, with one vehicle taking about five-days to complete, with a large portion of that time spent waiting on chrome plating contractors to return the ornate trim.
With no private tuk-tuks registrable for many years already, one would imagine that the days of Thailand’s tuk-tuks are somewhat numbered, but nothing is further from the truth.
'Tuk-tuks never die'
Pointing to a number of rusting and clearly unserviceable vehicles sitting in the back of his factory, Chett says “tuk-tuks never die.”
“If someone wants a taxi tuk-tuk we take these old ones and replace everything except the chassis -- recondition the engines, build new cabins, new seats and paint them and off they go. They still have the same serial number so they’re allowed to be registered," he says.
While the cost of a taxi-style Bangkok tuk-tuk is fairly reasonable at 150,000 baht (about US$5,000), the cost of a tuk-tuk registration plate pre-moratorium on new registrations is not and at 200,000 baht pushes the cost of a rebuilt Bangkok taxi tuk-tuk with a reconditioned engine to a sizable 350,000 baht.
Chett said the majority of Bangkok’s taxi tuk-tuks are rented by the drivers for 350 baht a day, with drivers earning about 1,000 baht per day. By comparison a taxi driver will pay about 700 baht a day to rent the vehicle and earn about 2,000 baht per shift.
Though the Thailand tuk-tuk might be an undying symbol of Thailand, as Chett claims, the quieter three-cylinder engine might mean the nights of being kept awake by the high-pitched exhaust could one day end.
As for Mr. van Rootselaar, his 25th anniversary gift is bound to attract considerably more attention than a gold watch, with his brother Tim saying they are both eagerly awaiting its arrival.
“We’re about 35 kilometers east of Amsterdam in a town named Nijkerk and we’re both waiting to take it for a spin on the streets here, as well as occasionally up to the capital," he says.
Click ahead for more images of Tuk-Tuk Thailand's factory, as well as some facts and figures on the tuk-tuk.
Everything you always wanted to know about a tuk-tuk
Length: 305cm (120 inch)
Height: 180cm (70.75 inch)
Front width: 88cm (34.5 inch)
Read width: 140cm (55 inch)
Length: 250cm (98.5 inch)
Weight: 400kg (881lb)
Engine: Three-cylinder 550 or 660CC Daihatsu or Suzuki. Previously a single or two-cylinder 350cc Daihatsu motorbike engine
Transmission: Four-speed manual with reverse or three-speed automatic
Fuel: CNG or unleaded petrol
Fuel tank: 30L (7.92 U.S. gallon)
Cooling system: Water cooled
Brakes: Hydraulic rear wheel discs
Exhaust: One-inch with catalytic converter and muffler
Engine service life: Nine years