Udon Thani’s Samlor Spacelabs
There are many modes of transport available for travelling around Thailand’s cities and towns. Taxis, buses, songthaews, tuk tuks and rickshaws are the best known ones. Shanks’s pony is another, although in Thailand like most places in the world, there is always some form of transport ready willing and able, 24 hours a day.
In Udon Thani there’s another type of public transport which is hugely popular, and one that’s been racing around for over 35 years, Udon Thani’s Samlor Spacelabs.
Samlor Spacelabs and Skyrockets in Udon Thani
Samlor translates to English as three (sahm) wheels (lor), and the photograph above shows a typical samlor. They were first introduced to Thailand’s roads in Udon Thani Province in the late 1970’s and since their inception they have become a favourite mode of transport in Northeastern Thailand, and to a lesser extent, other regions of the country. Samlors are also called Skylabs and Skyrockets, and there is a simple explanation for those two extravagant names.
The design of the first samlor is a matter of debate. There’s no doubting it was born from its poorer cousin the rickshaw, but both the Atipong Motor Company Ltd (ATP) and Udon Ake Panich Ltd (APN) make reasonable claims for its conception.
ATP and APN are both based in Udon Thani and are still in business today, but which one first rolled out the samlor blueprint is like a re-run of the causality dilemma concerning the chicken and the egg. The first samlor hit the roads in Udon Thani Province in 1978, but in Thailand at that time patents were not widely known to small businesses and therefore neither company had their thumbprint on the design. So, where does ‘Skylab’ and ‘Skyrocket’ fit into all of this?
Skylab is the name given to the model of samlor shown in this post, and is the type used as a taxicab today. The name is linked to NASA’s first space station, Skylab, which orbited earth from 1973 to 1979. Skyrocket is a pseudonym affectionately given to the vehicle. Skylab samlors are also tagged as Sport Tuk Tuks and their price is around 60,000-80,000 Thai baht.
In cities like Udon Thani, samlor drivers lie in wait outside shopping malls, supermarkets, bus stations and day markets in anticipation of their next fare. Sometimes you’ll see 20 or so of them lined up, and that’s good news, because you can then barter a more reasonable price. The photo above is from Nong Khai and shows how practical a samlor ride can be, although on a hot day you wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle. There’s at least six adults and a small child jammed in there.
The fare for a samlor ride can vary greatly, not just on the length of the journey, but also on the driver’s mood, so it’s always wise to settle on a price before you step foot inside the hooded cab. If the driver thinks you’re a tourist, in a mad rush or plain stupid, they may try to hike the price.
Many people refuse to take a samlor ride, considering them to be dangerous due to their supposed three-wheel lack of stability, and their drivers general reputation for a fondness of alcohol. There is some truth in the latter, but, I’ve seen no bias toward a lack of balance, that’s in the vehicle, not the driver. Their mobility to weave through traffic is a godsend, and I’ve usually had far more to drink than the driver has.
I consider a ride in a samlor to be great fun and they are my favourite mode of transport in Udon Thani. They are an inexpensive form of travel, and on heavy traffic days can be more speedy than a bus or car. What’s your favourite type of city travel in Thailand?[dublin-core-metadata]
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Hi Martyn, I haven’t used public transport in Thailand for ages. I do sometimes envy the way the samlor can weave in-and-out of traffic – it is much better than sitting in a car that isn’t moving 🙂
Paul – I use public transport from time to time in Udon Thani. During the day Udon can get nose to tail with traffic, and samlors have an advantage there. At night we usually hop in the car as there’s little traffic about.
Nice post Martyn! I recommend not riding in the samlor if the driver doesn’t have one of those id plates behind his seat. I once jumped in a samlor and didn’t realize until he’d got going that he didn’t have one of those id plates. As luck would have it, the police were out in force on that day, stopping samlor drivers and other vehicles to check their licenses. We got stopped and I had to spend another 10 minutes waiting for this guy to get a ticket. The cheeky bugger then charged me an extra 50 baht because he’d been pulled over by the police. As I was in a rush and had my son with me, I was no mood to barter so I just handed him 100 baht and left. Just be careful with these guys, I personally think tuk tuks and samlors are over-priced.
Ryan – I’ve not had any problems with samlor drivers but that’s possibly because I know the city quite well and can give basic instructions in Thai. Over-priced?… I look on things from a tourist point of view and so they seem pretty cheap to me.
Great post and pictures , I love the little 3 wheelers no matter what they call them . they only allow a few to be licenced in Kanchanaburi as the bicycle Samlor is the one used for tourist here , we have 2 motor one’s in our village , private owned and not taxies, I rode in a tuk tuk in BKK when we first came to Thailand many years ago and can still remember every scary moment lol . take care and keep on posting .
Malcolm and Ciejay – Samlors make excellent subjects for photographs, there’s so much colour to them. There’s a couple of samlors in Wilai’s village and they are used as taxicabs. I can’t recall a scary moment in a samlor although sat in our car a few of them have cut in front of us without much to spare.
A very colourful post, don’t samlors make great photo subject?
I have never actually ridden in one, tuk-tuk, yes, songthaew, yes but no samlors.
My favourite city transport however is the BTS Sky train in Bangkok and the airport rail link. That said I had a VERY interesting ride in Kanchanaburi on a cycle rickshaw some years ago, the driver was drunk!
Mike – Drink is a problem with many of these drivers, irrespective of the vehicle they drive. Especially at night. Too much time on their hands is the problem.
I’ve never been on the BTS Sky train, but I bet you get some colourful characters on them. They’re probably a good mode of transport for people watching through a camers.
Its always amazing to see just how many people can be piled into a tuk tuk. Amazing little vehicles that get the job done.
FTLS – I wonder if there is a world record for piling people into a tuk tuk. I bet if there is then the total would be amazingly high.