Navigating Travel: A History of Transportation in Southeast Asia
Transportation in Southeast Asia is known to be, well, chaotic. Tuk tuks, motorbikes, buses, cars, and bicyclists all share the road, along with pedestrians, animals, and the frequent street food cart. In many of the larger cities like Bangkok or Saigon, the road lines are often blurred and traffic lights are more of a suggestion. While zigzagging traffic is acceptable albeit, dangerous -- this can be a little overwhelming for outsiders to say the least. Once you sync into the rhythm and flow of Southeast Asia's roadways, you can't help but find the beauty and harmony in the chaos.
To tuk tuk or nah?
Some might argue that the best way to get around in Southeast Asia is via a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is a motorized 3-wheeled rickshaw, known for the low putt-putt sound it makes while chugging down the road. In our opinion, the tuk tuk is an iconic symbol of Southeast Asia and our favorite way to explore the vast expanse of the 11 countries that make up the region.
Used by both tourists and the locals, tuk tuks are open air, comfortably seating 2-4 passengers. You can feel the wind brush across your face, and take in all the sights and smells as you cruise along!
A tuk tuk in Cambodia
Smaller tuk tuks are popular in Thailand, as they make it easy to maneuver around traffic. In Laos, you'll find larger tuk tuks with a pick-up truck style that have two rows of seats in the back. In Cambodia, the 'tuk tuk' is technically a remorque, in which a motorcycle pulls a 3-wheeled vehicle with passengers. Among regions, you may know tuk tuks by their other names: 'bajaj' in Indonesia, 'tricycle' in the Philippines, and even 'pigeon', 'lapa', or 'auto'. There can be slight differences in appearance and function of tuk tuks between countries.
Unlike the taxis you might think of in the U.S., there's no set fare rates or meters. As a passenger, you should negotiate the price of the ride with the driver before starting your journey. If you're a tourist, be wary of this as drivers may try to haggle you out of a couple extra bucks, fear not though, this amount is still far less than what you'd pay in a western country for the experience (and speed) of navigating the Southeast streets.
There's some dispute about which country designed the first tuk tuk, but tuk tuks as we know them today started hitting the streets of Thailand around the 1960s. In Thailand there are about 20,000 total, with 9,000 of them in Bangkok. Recently, the government has tried set regulations to ensure the safety of drivers and passengers.
In case you haven't noticed, we can't get enough of tuk tuks! This 3-wheeled mode of transportation is particularly meaningful to us, as it is the inspiration behind our brand's name. The tuk tuk serves as our vehicle for sharing Southeast Asian food, culture, and stories; and ultimately fostering social change. Read more about our story and mission here.
Have you ever heard of a cyclo?
Not quite a bicycle, not quite a tuk tuk, it's easy to say it's a hybrid of both -- without the motor of course. According to Haivenu Vietnam, the cyclo is a three-wheel bicycle taxi that appeared in Vietnam during the French colonial period after a failed attempt to introduce rickshaws. A double seat (for Vietnamese – an average foreigner would find riding with a companion a bit of a squeeze) is supported by the two front wheels, with the driver sitting behind. The design in Ho Chi Minh City differs from the Hanoi variety in that the driver sits much higher.
Cycle rickshaws (aka ‘Cyclos’) like the one pictured here are used all over the world but in Vietnam they’re practically a way of life. Known locally as xích lô, these three-wheel-bicycle-taxis appeared in Vietnam during the French colonization and, unlike the French, they never left, as stated by Booking.com.
Water buffalos and elephants, a horrific history.
Did you know that back in the day (like centuries ago) locals would travel by water buffalo or elephant backs to roam around the land? Water buffalos were used to plow the farms and also used to transport heavy items and people across the country. In many rural areas you can still find these common practices amongst the villagers today, however there is debate on whether the elephant encounters should remain a tourist activity, which is one of the most profitable and popular amongst travelers to Southeast Asia.
Tuk Tuk Box highly discourages riding elephants because not only is it harmful, there's a huge mistreatment of them. Owners have been accused of malnourishing and abusing the animals, keeping them in captivity only to be used on display like circus clowns.
Around 4th century B.C. elephants were trained more for war than as transport. The early empires used these gentle giants in combat to charge the enemy and intimidate their opponents. "Covered in armor, seating armed soldiers and capable of charging at speeds of up to 25km/h, elephants were the historical equivalent of a tank, and were feared on the battlefield." states Kyle Hulme of Culture Trip
To prepare an elephant for a battle or entertainment, a practice known as Phajaan, or breaking an elephants spirit, in Thailand, means owners wield a spear in order to scare the elephant into submission along with caging them for domestication. This tactic along with the heavy bearing weight causes harmful lasting impact on the animals.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, there has been much scrutiny surrounding this often horrific "entertainment industry" and the integrity, or lack thereof from tour operators. Thankfully there are some groups who vet organizations to ensure that the eco-tourist companies are working to rehabilitate animals and offer truly safe experiences.
"They make sure the camps treat elephants well and train workers, from business managers to stable hands, on best practices from the Captive Elephant Initiative. In return, they promise to send business only to these camps. Right now these camps include some of the largest and best known, such as Patara Elephant Farm and Maesa Elephant Camp."
If you're looking for a safe way to engage with the beautiful creatures or get an up close and personal experience, we recommend doing lots of research to make sure you're using your best judgement. Wild animals like elephants are never meant to be kept in captivity, and unless they are receiving ethical treatment and rehabilitative care are best to visit from afar.
Photo courtesy of Elephant Nature Park
Planes, trains, boats, and automobiles!
There are many other ways to explore and travel the motherland. Whether by bike, boat, train, or plane.
Once you're in Southeast Asia, it's fairly easy to fly by plane to neighboring countries or island hop in Indonesia or the Philippines. Domestic flights are cheap and efficient through local airlines like AirAsia or NokAir. Depending on what region you're in, trains and buses are also affordable options for transportation.
Something unique about Southeast Asia is that every country is connected to water, whether it be the seas that surround the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines, the gulf of Thailand, or the Mekong River that runs through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Locals and tourists use boats and ferries to island hop, fishermen and women make their living riding the water, and goods are constantly transported across and along the Mekong River.
Photo by Stefano Alemani on Unsplash
These waterways provide a lifeline for many families that depend on the natural resources like fish, and vegetation. Before motorized transportation many locals traversed the rivers to get to work, school, or go about their daily lives. In less developed regions you can still find vendors along the water selling food, flowers, or even housewares. Over the years these floating markets have been popularized and become a must-see for tourists flocking from around the world to experience a floating market like the one pictured above. They not only provide a day of exploration and entertainment but offer outsiders a cultural touchpoint into the history of traditional open air markets in Southeast Asia.
In recent years, long tail boats have been the most popular and fastest way to navigate the islands, carrying upwards of 30 people. Often referred to as the gondola of Southeast Asia, these multi-colored boats may have intricate carvings and designs depending on how distinct the owner chooses. Long tail boats can be used in competitions, much like the famous dragon boat races in China. However, instead of being people powered, the main signifier of the long tail is a second-hand car or truck engine.
"The engine is invariably mounted on an inboard turret-like pole which can rotate through 180 degrees, allowing steering by thrust vectoring. The propeller is mounted directly on the driveshaft with no additional gearing or transmission. Usually the engine also swivels up and down to provide a "neutral gear" where the propeller does not contact the water. The driveshaft must be extended by several metres of metal rod to properly position the propeller, giving the boat its name and distinct appearance." states Wikipedia.org
Photo by Raissa Lara Lutolf on Unsplash
C'mon ride the train...
Many of the major cities have monorail or underground subway systems, however, another one of our favorite ways to explore is by slow train. You heard that right, the kind that chugs and goes "choo-choo" that we saw in picture books when we were kids. There is truly no other way to experience the land than by spending hours staring out the window as you travel for hours through the countryside. From concrete jungle to actual jungle, traveling by train is not only an amazing adventure but helps you to slow down and appreciate the landscape.
If you ever find yourself visiting Southeast Asia, we hope you are able to experience the beauty of the region and remember to pay respect to the land, the vendors, and the people who help keep these art forms alive. Also, take a selfie (safely) on your tuk tuk and don't forget to tag us and tip your drivers!
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