London has its black cabs, Venice its gondolas, and Bangkok its tuk-tuks, but Thailand’s iconic three-wheeled taxis are going global as foreigners scramble to pick up a piece of Thai culture.
The smoke-belching motorised rickshaws can now be seen plying Britain’s seaside towns, Canada’s golf courses and Tokyo’s neon-lit streets, and manufacturers have seen a surge in global sales and recognition.
“Japan they have Toyota, they have Nissan, so Thailand has a car also — a tuk-tuk,” says Anuwat Yuteeraprapa, owner of Expertise, a tuk-tuk manufacturer which exports 95 percent of its vehicles abroad.
Anuwat says it is clear why foreign dealers and nostalgic tourists are seeking their own tuk-tuks, known for their white-knuckle rides through Bangkok’s congested streets.
“They are really cute and unique,” explains the 32-year-old entrepreneur, who exports to the United States, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
“Tourists come to Thailand and they know the beaches, temples and tuk-tuks. It has become a big symbol of Thailand.”
But as foreigners snap up the tiny taxis, Thais are turning away from the traditional transport, favouring the slick modernity of air-conditioned cabs or imported Japanese cars.
“Thais want to be modern, and there is a cultural phenomenon that happens in most developing countries of rejecting the old and embracing the new,” says Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of “Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture”.
And he says there is good reason for snubbing the humble tuk-tuk: they are overpriced, noisy and expose city dwellers to intoxicating blasts of exhaust fumes.
“Fundamentally there are some problems with tuk-tuks,” he tells AFP. “They are too big to nip through the traffic like a motorcycle does, and yet they don’t perform all the same functions that a taxi can.”
Although the tuk-tuk, so-called because of the noise it makes when it starts, has been adopted as a Thai symbol, it actually originates in Japan.
The motorised version reached Thailand in 1959, and after a few technical and aesthetic modifications, it became the colourful, open-air vehicle seen careering across Thailand today.
But tuk-tuk connoisseurs worry that unless they modernise and start matching the cheaper prices of the cooler, safer taxis, they may become little more than a tourist curio.
“I don’t think Thai people appreciate my work,” Anuwat says with a sigh. “They feel tuk-tuks are noisy and polluting, but they never really look into how they can be improved.”
Anuwat says his models feature a four-stroke car engine, which he says makes them smoother, quieter and less polluting than the traditional two-stroke tuk-tuks.
Chett Taikratoke, managing director of Tuk Tuk Thailand Ltd, which exports 80 percent of their tuk-tuks, has taken it a step further and makes tuk-tuks with billboards, garbage disposal units and even refrigerators on the back.
“I would like to develop tuk-tuks for all customers’ proposals,” he says.
And tuk-tuk exports are booming. Tuk Tuk Thailand Ltd’s sales have more than doubled in the last three years.
Anuwat’s family has been in the tuk-tuk business for decades, and since he launched Expertise three years ago, sales have rocketed from five units in the first year to over 100 this year.
His tuk-tuks start at 130 000 baht ($3500) each, and range from a plain blue utility tuk-tuk to the customized metallic pink “Iron Tiger” flying a Jolly Roger and emblazoned with images of pouting women.
And unlike Thailand’s traditional version, his tuk-tuks come with seatbelts and laminated safety glass so they meet all the health and safety specifications of the Western world.
“I want tuk-tuks to be all around the world like Toyota,” Anuwat declares.
Cornwel-Smith thinks that as modern products become uglier, foreigners will continue to succumb to the charm of the Thai tuk-tuk. “It appeals to the orientalist thing, it’s so romantic,” he says.
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