Discover Chiang Mai by [fast disappearing!] samlor

Text: Marcella van Alpen & Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alpen & Claire Lessiau

As I am passing by the train station of Chiang Mai, I recall the 1937 photograph I was looking at a bit earlier. It has not changed much, but the samlors – or bicycle taxis, often referred to as trishaws in China – with their proud drivers awaiting travellers to take them into town are long gone. Tuk-tuks have taken over, hassling tourists. In the streets of Chiang Mai, the samlors are hardly anywhere to be seen, and I feel even more privileged to be seated in one of the last few to take in the atmospheric “Rose of the North”.

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Aboard the samlor, the pace to discover Chiang Mai off-the-beaten path seems perfectly aligned with its laid-back atmosphere. If today Thailand’s second largest city is only about 12 hours from Bangkok by train, before the railway arrived in town in 1922, traveling between the two was quite an adventure! In 1867, it took Daniel McGilvery, the first missionary to the north of Thailand, three months to navigate the Chao Phraya River and the Ping River from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Teak wood was floated all the way to the Thai capital sometimes for up to five years! The railway put Bangkok only 700 kilometres away from Chiang Mai, and still far enough for the pace of Chiang Mai to have remained way more nonchalant than the one of the Thai capital.

As my brave driver takes narrow alleys, residential streets or main thoroughfares, locals smile at us when they see the samlor. Most of them ride scooters themselves – a very efficient and exhilarating way to get around Chiang Mai. Still, they seem to be nostalgic when it comes to the fast disappearing mean of transport.

If there used to be hundreds of bicycle taxis up and down the streets, these days, only a few can be seen sometimes, mostly around the vibrant and authentic markets of Chiang Mai. At the Thalat San Pa Khoi market, between the Old Town and the train station, a few women whose age is as respectable as the one of the samlor drivers wait by a three-wheeled bicycle now and then. They often take a seat with their few groceries, and the driver arrives a few minutes later. Without a word, he pushes the samlor out of its parking position, walks by it to break its inertia and quickly hops on, pedalling away. It seems that they have been at it for many years! However, with no more than three dozen of samlors left in the streets of Chiang Mai, a push from the tourism industry is needed for them to survive, and maybe seduce younger generations.

As Frans Betgem, CEO of Chiang Mai à la carte explains “Being a samlor driver is a way of life: these men have been doing this all their life and they are their own boss. They are very proud of it and wouldn’t change for anything!” Indeed, the drivers do not look too young: they are well in their sixties if not seventies and still very fit with iron legs.

Even though I am seated in my own cabin close to my driver, I cannot communicate much with him as he speaks only Thai, but by signs and smiles. Instead, I study his vehicle. His samlor is all pimped up, with a radio fastened, old photos, and fresh flowers providing a delicious smell. With no more samlor factories, drivers are taking very good care of their rides that they customize and fix themselves. A bell tingles as we go over a speed bump or a pothole, or come to a stop. Frans is riding in the leading samlor, stopping at points of interests, from temples to food markets, to provide explanations in English to the rest of the small group. Meanwhile, the samlor drivers joke together every time we take a break, always by their tricycles they are so proud of.

For how long will the samlors still roam the streets of Chiang Mai? Hard to say. As Frans explains, younger generations do not seem to pick up the physical job, and there is no way the old guard would even consider going electric! As the streets of Chiang Mai become busier and busier with traffic, and the city more and more polluted, especially when rice fields are set on fire every year, samlor seems to be well adapted and it is quite sad to realise they are slowly disappearing. Interestingly enough, electric bike transport is fast expanding in congested European cities, boosted by stricter and stricter emission laws and parking challenges. Maybe the samlor have to disappear, to reinvent themselves in a few years? Or maybe Frans and his tourism initiative will allow for the drivers to make a better living and seduce some of the younger kids?

Travel tips:

  • Chiang Mai à la carte proposes themed samlor tours that are a great way to discover the city while supporting the samlor drivers.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

For more in Thailand, click on these images:

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