Thailand is in love with the automobile; everybody wants one or already has one or two, and the automobile industry is very big business. Too right, with Bangkok being well known for its traffic jams and pollution. But Thailand has many more kinds of vehicles than just the automobile, as you will see in the story about vehicles in Thailand.
Just a few decades ago, motor vehicles were uncommon in Thailand, and people traveled by walking or riding a boat, elephant, or cart. Then, some enterprising inventor created the pedal taxi with one driver pedaling a converted bicycle with a small seat in the rear. In Thailand, these “samlors” can still be found on the streets, and they seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for many older women returning from their early morning shopping. Of course, many tourist like them as well.
Thailand’s Own “Tuk-Tuk”
This three wheel vehicle was the original Thailand taxi just a few years ago, and tuk-tuks can now be found in many places in the world, including India, Europe, and America. The original is still found in many places in Thailand, operating as an open air taxi. Named for the sound made by their small-capacity, two-cycle engines, tuk-tuks are often found in tourist areas, around markets, or cruising the streets for fares. It is common to see 4 or 5 people in one tuk-tuk, such as students heading home from school, or to see a single person with many boxes and bags of goods being taken home from the market. One word of caution: try to avoid standing or driving behind a tuk-tuk, as they often belch clouds of oily smoke from their exhaust pipe.
Tourists Travel in “Wans”
The multi-passenger van (pronounced “wan” in Thai) can be found wherever tourists can be found, and they often serve as small, air conditioned, inter-city buses on some rural routes. Almost every automobile manufacturer makes vans in Thailand, as both the usage and demand for these vehicles is high. The average van is equipped with two seats in front (driver and guide) plus three rows of three seats for the passengers/tourists. Large people should try to sit in the first of these three rows, because access to the back two rows is a little cramped. With much of the interior room being used for people, the internal cargo/luggage capacity is not large, and so large luggage may have to ride on top of the van.
Family Transportation, Thai Style
Here is an ingenious way to transport goods or your family on small or obstructed roads. These converted motorcycles have a large sidecar that can carry cargo, or can be equipped as a mobile kitchens, barbecue, iced fruit stand, and the like. Many of these vehicles have a somewhat disreputable appearance, leading to the suspicion that this conversion is the fate of older motorcycles, but occasionally you can see a nice, new conversion job that is the proud but inexpensive means of transport for some Thai family or small business.
There are many brands and styles of motorcycles in Thailand, ranging from the 100cc Honda Dream to Harley Davidsons imported from abroad. By a large margin, the most popular motorcycles are the 100-110cc models like the Honda Dream. Only recently, the Thai government has begun to emphasize the 4 cycle engines to replace the 2 cycle engines. This means that, in the future, most motorcycles will be the cleaner but more expensive 4 cycle models, but for now the cheaper but dirtier 2 cycle models will be the most common.
It is now legal to manufacture (and therefore to license) larger engines than before, and so one can find 175cc (pictured above) and 200cc bikes in both street versions and off road versions.
Locals Use the “Song Thaew”
The most common type of public transportation has to be the “song thaew”. Named for the two benches found in the rear passenger area, the song thaew is a pickup truck converted for carrying passengers and some cargo. These vehicles are regulated and licensed by the government, and the color of the paint indicates the general route or purpose that each song thaew follows. In Chiang Mai, red song thaews roam the city and are free to travel anywhere, while white song thaews travel between Wararot Market and the suburban city of Sankampaeng, and yellow song thaews usually travel from Chiang Mai to outlying cities, with some traveling as far as 100 km. or more.
You might like to see our separate article on “How to Use A Song Thaew” – it will help you make use of this cheap and available public transportation.
Sports and 4WD Vehicles
Many people in Thailand, like elsewhere in the world, like to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle (also called a Sports Utility Vehicle or SUV), often more for the image than for the capability. In fact, most SUVs are never taken off road (it might damage the paint job and get mud on the tires, you see). Almost all automobile manufacturers in Thailand include on or more SUVs in their line. Since many drivers in Thailand seem to equate (confuse?) vehicle size with importance, having a large SUV with tall tires and lights and things is a quick way to look good and feel important when stuck in a traffic jam.
Of course, the ultimate way to look good and feel important is to have a well-known luxury car. Judging from the number of Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi, Jaguars, and other luxury vehicles that are found on the Thai roads, there are many, many very important people on the roads of Thailand. Not too long ago, the appearance of a Benz on the road was enough to send pedestrians and other cars scurrying to the side of the road to permit the exalted personage to pass, but with the rising numbers of vehicles on the road, this behavior has already changed to a more egalitarian style of driving. Alas, some luxury car drivers don’t know or about (or refuse to acknowledge) this change, and they still drive like they are the sole owner of the road, so please be careful.