7 Unique Modes of Transport In Asia

By Kelvin Lim on January 24th, 2017

The very first thing that a traveler looks for when arriving at a new country is how to get from one location to another. Usually, people would expect to take what would be classified as the normal modes of transport, which is either by car, taxi, bus or train while traveling on land. This is not necessarily the case in Asia, as it has managed to develop its own way of taking people from point A to point B.

These different modes of transport are particularly unique and exotic that it can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Through the years of traveling around Asia, I’ve noted some of the unique modes of transport that can only be found in Asia and nowhere else.

Here are the 7 unique modes of transport that a traveler will find only in the world’s most populated continent:

Tuktuk (Thailand)

The tuktuk is Thailand’s local version of a taxi. It’s essentially a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a modified motorcycle built with a metal frame carriage that can accommodate 2 passengers. The carriages are usually bright and colorful, and carry the “TAXI” symbol on the roof. These three-wheeled vehicles can be found in nearly every town and city in Thailand, including the mega-packed city of Bangkok.

Tuktuks are great for buzzing around the busy and crowded streets, as they can easily maneuver and squeeze through the smallest gaps in the traffic. However, this also means that you will experience the ride of your life. The tuktuk drivers can drive really fast and turn and cut corners that most foreigners find themselves clinging on to their seats! Taking the tuktuk may not be for the faint-hearted, but it’s a great way to experience and travel around Bangkok and other towns and cities in Thailand. Nevertheless, it is one of Thailand’s unique mode of transport, and a symbol of Thai ingenuity.

Jeepney (Philippines)

The Jeepney is the Philippines’ take of a bus. Its name originated from the American Jeep, which was how the jeepney started. After the Second World War, when Manila was almost completely destroyed by the Japanese bombings, the American Jeep became the only vehicle available as a means of transport. The American Jeep was then modified for public transport purposes.

With a touch of local Filipino ingenuity, the jeepney evolved into the colourful and tough mode of transport we now find all over the Philippines. The Jeepney essentially has the engine of a jeep, and a long body with two long rows of benches facing each other. Normally, the jeepney can take in between 16 to 18 people (between 8 to 9 people on each side), but as regulations are pretty loose in the Philippines, this vehicle can take up more than that number. The jeepney acts similarly to a bus and travels on distinct routes, however, it doesn’t have a proper jeepney stop. You can hail it practically anywhere and get off anywhere. With this kind of setup, you can imagine the chaos that it causes to traffic. Thus, the jeepney is given the nickname “King of the Road” in the Philippines.

Auto-Rickshaw (India)

The AutoRickshaw is India’s version of the tuktuk. It is a three-wheeled vehicle that can take up to 3 passengers. The sizes of these autorickshaws are generally smaller than the tuktuks, and a great majority of these vehicles are manufactured by the local motor giant Bajaj.

As with the tuktuk, the autorickshaws are great for squeezing through the chaotic traffic of India’s major centres. Consequently, the autorickshaw drivers are also your typical Michael Schumacher-wannabes, and you would need to hang on tight as there are no seat belts in these three wheelers.

Paying for the autorickshaw is quite an interesting challenge. They have meters installed, but the meters have not been re-calibrated since 1983. Therefore, the locals came up with a conversion chart that would tell you how much you need to pay if the meter shows a certain amount. As a foreigner and tourist, it is a must to carry this card to avoid being ripped off by some sneaky drivers. Autorickshaws are part and parcel of the Indian street scene, and although they aren’t as colourful as the tuktuks, they are a great option to the crowded buses and trains of India.

Songthaew (Laos)

The Songthaew originally started in Thailand, and became popular in neighbouring Laos as a means of public transport. While the songthaew that you will find in the capital Vientiane and in the historic city of Luang Prabang are pretty much similar to the ones in Thailand, this version of the songthaew is unique to Vang Vieng and the rural areas of Laos.

It uses a small tractor engine with manual handles to steer the vehicle. The tractor engine is attached to a wooden carriage, which has 2 benches for passengers to sit on. The name “songthaew” literally means “Two Benches” and it’s pretty obvious when you see the vehicle. The benches of this particular type of songthaew are not fastened to the carriage, so you need to hang on to it when going through rough patches.

The roof is made of plastic tarpaulin. It is not the most comfortable things to ride on, especially on rough terrain, but the great thing about this makeshift-looking vehicle is its ability to run like a 4WD and plough through mud and do river crossings. If you would like to explore the many caves around Vang Vieng, getting there can be challenging without taking one of these vehicles.

Motorela (Philippines)

The Motorela is a mode of transport that can only be found in Northern Mindanao, Philippines. Originally from Cagayan de Oro City, this vehicle looks as colourful as the jeepneys. In fact, the motorela is somewhat a cross between a jeepney and a tuktuk. It is literally a motorcycle that is encased in a carriage with 2 rows of seats facing each other.

Motorelas can take up to eight passengers (four on each side), and the way it serves passengers is quite interesting. It generally tries to work out its route depending on where the first passenger is headed. Along the way, it will pick up passengers who are headed towards the same direction of the first passenger, or even a bit further from the first passenger.

Because of rather skewed proportion of the weight of its carriage against the motorcycle, the motorela doesn’t travel as fast and cannot travel to steep terrains well. In saying that though, it is a great and convenient way to get around the city of Cagayan de Oro without the fear of speed. The structure and use of the motorela is definitely unique, and not many people have heard of this vehicle unless you have been to this part of the Philippines.

Songthaew (Thailand)

The original songthaew is a truck that is converted into a passenger vehicle, with two benches facing each other. The structure of the songthaew looks very much like the jeepney, but the body of the songthaew is slightly bigger and wider. In some cases, the wider songthaew would have an extra bench placed in the middle between the 2 opposite benches to take more passengers in. With this kind of setup, the songthaew can take up to 30 passengers.

The songthaew operates very much like a bus in that it also generally plies on a specific route. However, you can hail it on the side of the road and there are no official stops for this vehicle apart from a terminal where it starts and finishes its journey. This mode of transport is more common outside Bangkok, in the other regional centres of Thailand where buses are not available within the centres.

Human-powered rickshaws (Kyoto, Japan)

The traditional rickshaw is one of the most impressionable images of Asia before the Second World War. You can find several black and white street scene images of a man pulling a passenger carriage with two huge wheels. These modes of transport are long gone with the rapid urbanization across Asia, but in Kyoto, there are sections of the city where you can still find these human powered rickshaws plying the streets.

Most of these rickshaws are only available in the small alley ways in the older parts of Kyoto, where cars are not able to travel through. The drivers of these rickshaws are not necessarily huge people, but you can see that they do have strong legs that could compensate for their size.

One unique thing I noticed about their outfit is the specially designed foot glove that they wear that helps them travel through any type of surface without slipping. The rickshaw is one of the last vestiges of the romantic image of Asia, and an environmentally and healthy way to travel.