MOST countries in Asia have a local version of a rickshaw, an affordable and efficient two or three wheeled form of transport for anything from tourists to goods. The word itself comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha, meaning human powered vehicle, although today they can be hand pulled, cycles or even automatically powered by electrics, solar or fuel (natural gas, two and four stroke).
Despite the vast modernisation of many Asian cities, the rickshaw has endured since its humble beginnings in the 1800s (the exact origin is disputed but it’s possibly from Tokyo), and instead of them losing ground to other forms of transport, many have simply been upgraded and/or found niche markets. That means you may see a cycle rickshaw taking children to school or loaded with produce like bananas or shoe boxes while automatic versions transport tourists to key sites and larger, jumbo sized ones, are used as people carriers, fitting in as many as 12 people, often operating on set routes. Such is the Asian love affair with the rickshaw, that in places where they were once becoming less prevalent, such as Singapore and Japan (despite them once being ubiquitous), there has been a resurgence with the three-wheeled powered velo taxi growing in popularity in Japan for example.
Rickshaws often employ a lot of urban poor which means as a traveler it enables you to rub shoulders with people you may not otherwise meet. There are challenges with this as some are older, don’t speak English and are from the countryside. Scams are also not unknown amongst rickshaw drivers as well, although given the size of some foreigners, perhaps being charged a little more is appropriate given it requires extra muscle and sweat from the drivers. In any case you should always negotiate your fee first, even if there is a meter.
While there are some conflicting economic, social and environmental issues associated with their use, rickshaws are an iconic and integral part of transport in Asia and a trip in one of them is bound to be memorable. Drivers often go to some pains to personally decorate their rickshaws and you may find flowers (fake or otherwise), religious symbols or more in the cab. Many also feature garishly bright paint, no doubt to stand out, and to provide a unique, recognisable design. Here are some of the key places rickshaws are used across Asia and what you can expect.
Dhaka is often referred to as the “Rickshaw Capital of the World” and hence heads this list. Rickshaws came here in 1938 and today there are about 400,000 cycle rickshaws operating daily in the city. Most are convertible with a folding hood and ideal for narrow streets and lanes, although they are now often banned from major streets due to traffic problems.
Autos are called “baby taxis” or “CNGs” as they are now powered by compressed natural gas to reduce pollution – the traditional autos are now banned from the city. The rickshaws fit well into the narrow, crowded streets of Dhaka and other urban areas and perfect for sizable distances. They are painted green to show they are more eco friendly. Each has a meter built in. “Helicopters” are also used in Bangladesh in rural areas – these are larger and can carry six or seven passengers. The “mishuk” is another form of auto used in the city that has more space inside.
In China the popular pulled rickshaw that first appeared on the streets in 1873 has long since gone, partly as the manual labour was seen as a symbol of oppression, mostly employing the working poor. Today however both cycle and auto rickshaws are still prevalent in China, although there are issues around their use in cities as they are often blamed for traffic congestion and authorities are concerned vendors are overcharging tourists – TripAdvisor is full of tales of scams around the Forbidden City in Beijing. In Shanghai and other provinces electric auto models are used.
Like Bangladesh, India has a long association with rickshaws with both hand-pulled, cycle and automated versions still in use today. The hand-pulled rickshaws exist only in Kolkata, one of the few places in the world they are still employed. The Government of West Bengal actually proposed a ban of them, afraid their presence tarnished the image of the city, but the union appealed the case. Many of the rickshaw drivers are from neighbouring states and it’s their only form of income. Some sleep on the streets and their earnings are used to pay the rickshaw hire as well. The government is seeking to find alternate employment for them.
In India there are increasing restrictions on the use of cycle and automated rickshaws in cities, largely because they impede the flow of traffic and there are also concerns that the carriages are open to air pollution. Modern autos run on compressed natural gas and are painted green with yellow livery (old models were black and yellow). Most autos seat four people, including the driver. Vikrams are a larger form of auto that can house six people, although often more are crammed in, and these operate on set routes – they are banned in some areas though.
In India it’s very common to see cycle or auto rickshaws waiting outside schools to take their small charges home. Often the kids are all crammed in one atop the other – a cheap transport option for parents and reliable as these are good, steady earners for the drivers.
Cambodia’s automatic rickshaw, or tuk tuk, is a slightly different version to the three wheeler you’ll find elsewhere in Asia. In this case it can be powered by a motorcycle with the cabin attached to the rear. These forms are used to transport tourists around the Angkor temples.
In Cambodia the cycle rickshaw, or cyclo, is also different. Unlike the Indian version where you sit behind the driver, in Cambodia you are in a bucket seat in front of them, between two large wheels and under a canopy. This can feel like you’re exposed to traffic but there are protective barriers and the driver is skilled enough, with an excellent bird’s eye view over the canopy, to steer you clear of any dangers. To some degree it’s the ideal way of sightseeing in this position.
However the cyclo is under threat in Phnom Penh, particularly from motodops, tuk tuks and increasing car ownership and so numbers of them have dropped substantially in recent years. To some degree tourists are aiding their continuing existence – there is a cyclo center for tourists to utilise and a Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association has been set up to help aid local drivers to teach them new skills, provide washing facilities and medical care.
In Myanmar (Burma) the cycle rickshaw or trishaw is called a sai kaa (or saiq-ka – apparently a phonetic translation of ‘side car’ in English) and widely used throughout the major cities. Here the passenger sits alongside the driver and often the passenger seat is double sided meaning two people can be seated, back to back, in the same cart. For tourists they are an excellent means of accessing some of the narrower streets of Downtown Yangon, for example, but they are equally used by locals for getting around. Motorised tuk tuks are also available around Myanmar in regional areas. Some of these use a motorbike to pull the cart, or even a tractor.
In the Philippines auto and cycle rickshaws are widely used for transportation. The Filipino version of the pedi version is called either a traysikad, trisikad (sometimes just sikad) or padyak. The auto is called a tricycle and can be powered by a motorcycle or a tractor. Like the jeepneys, Filipino rickshaws have bright designs, but the configurations vary across the country although usually the passenger car is fitted beside the driver to their right. These vary with how many people they can transport. The motorised rickshaws are considered to be a major polluter in the Philippines and so some two stroke engines are being phased out.
The tuk tuk needs little introduction to those that have traveled in Asia, although not everyone will have realised the name was chosen because it sounds like the sound the engine makes. Tuk tuks are widely used across the country and popular amongst foreigners, although visibility from them isn’t always good for touring and you are susceptible to the elements and fare game during Songkran, the annual water festival, where the open sides leave you exposed. Due to concerns over pollution many new tuk tuks have LPG conversions, and old ones are being refitted.
Other Asian countries where rickshaws are used include Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos and Pakistan.