Tuk tuk-free? Laos may soon ban iconic auto-rickshaws

VIENTIANE (Reuters Life!) - Tuk tuks are to Southeast Asia what horse-drawn carriages were to Europe centuries ago, but the iconic and ubiquitous three-wheeled auto-rickshaw could soon disappear from Laos.

Vientiane is home to about 3,800 vividly painted tuk tuks that ferry both tourists and locals around the bustling city.

Similar to the tuk tuks of Bangkok, these motorized rickshaws are cheap and convenient, but now some city officials want them off the road by 2010 to curb traffic congestion and accidents, as well as modernize the city’s transport system.

The tuk tuk ban has yet to be approved by the government, but more than 30 new public buses are due to start operating in Vientiane soon, a sign many tuk tuk enthusiasts said could point to the end of an era.

“The tourists like tuk tuks. They are cheap and are the traditional vehicles of Laos,” said Bouaxeng Phetsalath, manager of Vientiane’s Tuk Tuk Association. “Maybe they think they’re not beautiful any more.”

“The tuk tuks are everywhere in Laos,” added city resident Thongamala Sayavong. “Without them, I feel like I’m not in Laos.” Handicap International Belgium, a non-governmental organization that tracks the number of road accident victims in Laos, fears the ban could actually worsen traffic in Vientiane as more people would rely on their own mode of transport.

“If the ban takes place, it will lead to even more motorcycles and cars on the road,” coordinator Christa Weichert said.

Of the hundreds of road accidents in Vientiane each month, only a few involve tuk tuks.

Tuk tuk drivers also face an uncertain future. Most are in their 30s, have little formal education or job prospects, and support families on their meager earnings, said Phetsalath, adding that up to 10,000 Lao could be affected by the ban.

“My tuk tuk drivers are so worried,” he said.

Many drivers fear the government will implement the ban before the end of the year, during the peak tourist season.

Australian Richard Wilkinson, who was on his first trip to Laos, was chagrined to hear about the possible ban.

“This part of the world is known for tuk tuks,” he said. “Unlike for buses, you can just flag down a tuk tuk and go anywhere. It’s a pity that soon we may not be able to do so.” (Additional reporting by Amelia Tan and Sophia Huang)