Thai Travel – Sardines in a Can

As one becomes older and wiser we have a tendency to be more careful with our money and I think that’s a true statement for every culture, country and walk of life. And Thailand is a country and culture which is living proof of that.

Travel is one aspect of life where being frugal and economic pays dividends in saving money for certain things we feel we can’t do without. If that wasn’t true then every aeroplane would be three-quarters full of large spacious seats and there would be a small economy section at the rear.

The favoured form of public transport in Thailand’s cities and towns is a songthaew bus which is pictured on the right.

Songthaews have a bench on either side and when they are full the middle aisle is used for passengers to squeeze into. Anyone else wishing to board from then onwards has the choice of hanging on at the back or waiting for a less crowded bus to arrive. A two kilometre songthaew ride can cost as little as 10-15 Thai baht (30-50 US cents).

The top photograph is a samlor (three wheel) vehicle in Udon Thani city and at a push it can comfortably fit four average size people inside. If one has a liking for calories then that comfort zone falls from four to three.

Samlors in Udon Thani are used as a more private form of transport in comparison to songthaews but their fare is considerably higher. It’s a price which is still cheap to foreign tourists but a touch weighty for ordinary Thais. A two kilometre samlor ride will cost anything between 40-80 Thai baht. Thais are liable to pay the lower end of that scale and foreigners the top. If you can cram as many friends and family as possible into one samlor then splitting the fare can make the journey a cheaper one than travelling by songthaew.

Over the past few years I’ve developed a fascination with capturing on film photographs of different modes of Thai transport and especially those which show samlors, tuk tuks and songthaews packed full of passengers. I’ve yet to nail the ultimate five Thais and one dog on a motorbike but one day I promise you I will.

Below are three photographs of samlors, two have passengers on board but the third and final picture sets a question for you to answer. It’s a question to which I don’t know the answer myself.

Four Buddhist monks arrive by samlor at Nong Khai’s Tha Sadet Market looking slightly squeezed together but nonetheless with an economical approach to their market day.

I’m unsure how many people are packed into the back of this samlor which is again arriving at Nong Khai’s famous market but at a guess I’d put the figure at nine. The farang (I think, not sure) sat at the back won’t be too disheartened by the fare because of the economical cost of the ride.

Surely Not….What Happened Next?

Surely you can’t get 14 novice monks into a samlor. Unfortunately I didn’t see the outcome of this as I took the photograph from the passenger seat of a fast moving car. Do you think all 14 monks were about to board the three wheel samlor and if so do you think it might have set a new samlor passenger world record?

No matter what the outcome was I think it’s a photograph which falls nicely into the What Happened Next category of questions.

Over to you, what happened next?

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

9 Responses

  1. Kris says:

    Nonsensical Martyn! Are you trying to tell us you can only fit 14 YOUNG monks in the samlor? I have seen 5 people on a scooter. I have seen one guy with a “Fanta” bottle semi full of Benzine refueling his scooter in transit, I have seen a father riding the scooter, wife as a pillion passenger breast feeding their daughter in transit, yes, I saw my brother in law riding, his wife feeding, my niece gratefully accepting, I guess in flight refueling on both occasions. When school comes out I have been fortunate enough to follow the samlor/bus/truck/lorry or vehicle carrying too many people, not to run over any who may well have fallen off said vehicle! (Not that any do) Just another down to earth observation by you. Strange as it may seem I am starting to notice these small things, however I still remain a FARANG. Don’t get me started on the burned out VW in the outside lane!

  2. Martyn says:

    Kris I really do want to nail down a classic five on a motorbike picture. I’ve seen a few in my time but have never been quick enough to snap my camera. I’d love to capture a breast feeding motorbike moment.

    I wish I’d seen the outcome of the 14 monks and a samlor moment.

  3. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I don’t have an answer (or even a guess) but I do love samlors. They are no longer found everywhere in Thailand (certainly not in Bangkok – that I’ve seen) so I snap photos when I can. I rode one recently so can state that two medium sized females (adults) fit comfortably in a samlor but a medium sized adult with a child have an easier ride of it. Some western males should seriously consider riding in samlors on their own.

  4. Martyn says:

    Catherine, samlors were actually an Udon Thani innovation, they also call them Skylabs up in Udon. I don’t know why but everytime they pull up at traffic lights their brakes screech like crazy.I miss that noise.

    Wilai, myself and a large suitcase and two travel bags can just about squeeze into a samlor although you have to distribute the weight evenly.

  5. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I didn’t realise that samlors came from Thailand. I googled to find that rickshaws were around since the late 1800’s and at some point cycle rickshaws came into it.

    And then I found this…

    From It is said that the first samlor was used in Thailand in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) Province in 1933 when a Chinese merchant added two wheels to a traditional bicycle. The passenger samlor is now found in virtually every province in the country, though in Bangkok they are not allowed on main streets, only on side streets in older housing developments.

    So now I know more than I knew 5 minutes ago. Ta 🙂

  6. Martyn says:

    Catherine I’m still convinced the samlor (not rickshaw or equivalent) was invented in Udon Thani. Here’s a snippet to back up my claim:

    The “Samlor Skylab” or “Isan Tuktuk” was invented originally by THAI inventor Mr.ATIPONG (the founder of ATIPONG MOTOR) in 1977 at UdonThani province, which located in the Northeastern part of Thailand.
    “Samlor Skylab” The word “Samlor”, in Thai language means “Three Wheel”. “Sam” means “Three”. “Lor” means “Wheel”. “SkyLab” was nickname many people call this three-wheel motorized vehicle as “Samlor Skylab” because it became popular quickly among Thai people in the northeastern part of Thailand when the first US Space Laboratory Station; the Skylab, Make a Re-Entered into the earth in 1979.

    Here’s the web page

    The three wheel bicycle version is also known as a samlor but the motorized one is less commonly referred to as a Skylab.

  7. Catherine says:

    Hi Martyn, when I posted that quote I didn’t even notice that it was Nakhon Ratchasima and not Udon Thani. I actually thought what I found was in agreement with your post (such has been my days lately).

    But now you’ve really got my curiosity up so I got my google finger out again.

    In my search of ‘origin samlor’ I keep coming up with 1933 for the date. Could it be that the samlor was invented in 1933 and the Skylab samlor in 1977? Because the pages I’m running into insist that the samlor has been around for 60+ years, not 30+.

    This page lists all of the samlors (three wheeled vehicles):

  8. Martyn says:

    Catherine the samlor (bicycle version) was invented 70 odd years ago but the Skylab samlor was introduced in Udon Thani in 1978. The original samlor is a pedal powered version but the model shown in my post is now used in many Thai towns and cities but originated in Udon Thani and was apparently invented by Mr Narong Utranusorn for his company Ake Pa Nich which at the time sold and rented out rickshaws. I think there were earlier versions of motorized samlors in Thailand but the Skylab revolutionised the market. My research (just found it) shows the tuk tuk was introduced to Thailand about 50 years ago.

    It’s a confusing but very interesting subject and I’m unsure if Mr Narong Utranusorn and Mr Atipong (my previous comment)are one and the same person or two entirely different souls who both lay claim to inventing the Skylab.

    Now I’m even more confused because I may have found two different Udon Thani citizens and their companies who claim to have invented the Skylab.

  9. I’ve been to Thailand I find the place weird at first and It’s really hard communicating with the people along the streets most of them doesn’t understand English. But even with the language barrier encounter I still find the place very nice. I really like Thai food.

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