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Samlor Tricycles and how to keep them on the streets of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Blog

Everyone who’s been in Thailand has seen them. For a lot of tourists, riding on a samlor is something they want to try as part of the cultural experience.  Samlor tricycles were once the only way to get from one place to another within a short distance. A samlor is a three wheeled bicycle with a seat behind the driver which can carry a maximum of 2 passengers. It was one of the early forms of public taxi service in Thailand. The first samlors were built in the northeast of Thailand in Nakhon Ratchasima around 1930,  and became a very popular mode of transportation. Today they are banned from the streets in many cities because they slow down the busy city traffic.

Samlors in Chiang Mai

Most samlor drivers are getting too old to continue, while the younger generation are too busy driving cars and motorbikes. Some older folks still use them for their daily shopping, or to collect trash from the streets to deliver to the local recycler. But it’s obvious that in a matter of time they will disappear from the streets. Besides the few renovated samlors used for tourist city tours, many of them are literally vanishing in the gardens and homes of the elder generation. Most samlors haven’t been maintained for years as the owners don’t have the income to maintain them.  That’s why  almost every samlor still in use is a very colorful combination of paint, metal plates, and old  CD’s that function as reflectors in the dark.

Tricycles in Chiang Mai Riksjas in Chiang Mai

What most people don’t see beneath those layers of paint and temporary fixtures is the real beauty of a traditional samlor. Through the years a samlor actually reflected the real Thai Lanna style as no other vehicle. Instead of the decorative copper plates and  massive wooden structure on the frame, I started wondering how it would look if I restored a samlor back to its original state. In my imagination I went back to the times when these tricycles dominated the streets in style. As I started researching the history and background of samlors in Thailand, my initial interest became a passion. Determined to do more than just restoring a samlor, it had to be prepared for a new future too.

Converting an outdated tricycle into a reborn time machine

Samlor tricycles in Thailand

Renovating a samlor would be a nice project by itself as it is a very rewarding thing to do. But after trying to drive one I learned that it takes a bit of power to move them forward even without a load. I imagined going up a steep hill or even a small incline with two passengers must have been hard work.  And the steering and braking didn’t feel comfortable nor stable. Once I nearly drove into a canal when a friend helped me push it with his bike during development of this project. Driving this thing in the heat could could give you a heart attack; I would be exhausted after even a small trip.  I realized it would take a lot more effort to bring these jewels from the past back to the streets. Because the streets have changed, and traffic has  gotten busier and faster.  The romantic notion of  being driven around by an experienced Thai samlor driver is still something that brings you back into the old Thai Lanna Kingdom, but there comes a point that it’s almost inhumane to watch an old man  laboring to finish his round with two tourists on the back seat.

So I decided to try to convert the samlor to a more comfortable and efficient vehicle. Something that anyone could handle and  as reliable as samlors have been through the years: ecological, sustainable. If we wanted people to appreciate this thing again, we would have to convert it to something that was up to date, ready for the future, but also honored the traditional Thai Lanna past. Most of all the goal was to give back to the the original drivers the joy and elegance of driving this unique tricycle with a very long history. Listening to stories from the past while we searched for the right parts for restoration, we became even more convinced that the samlor had to be preserved for the future.

Read in the next post how we did this!