Riding trishaws into the sunset

Picturesque: Tourists enjoying their trishaw ride through A Famosa in Melaka.

Picturesque: Tourists enjoying their trishaw ride through A Famosa in Melaka.

GEORGE TOWN: While trishaws are hot tourism attractions in Melaka, in Penang they are in danger of disappearing.

The two states, both with cities inscribed in Unesco’s World Heritage Site list, are worlds apart when it comes to the trishaw service.

Penang has about 100 registered trishaws but there are more than 400 in Melaka.

Renting a trishaw from a fleet owner in Penang costs RM3 a day. In Melaka, it is RM30 a day.

A Melaka trishaw rider can earn up to RM140 on a typical weekday. On weekends and public holidays, he rakes in up to RM400 a day.

In Penang, a trishaw rider counts himself lucky if he makes RM50 on a weekday, and RM90 if a cruise ship arrives and books him for three hours.

The youngest known trishaw rider in Penang was 17. He pedalled for about two weeks and gave up.

The youngest known trishaw rider in Melaka is Lai Heng Loong, who began pedalling at the age of 20.

Now 27, he hardly pedals anymore and spends his time coordinating group trishaw tours.

“My father was a trishaw rider and he raised his children with his modest income.

“I took over and added value by organising tours and even giving event management services with trishaws as the theme,” he said, adding that he had a team of trishaw riders he calls on to meet bookings.

Lai formed Loong Trishaw Services and began networking with tour agencies, hotels and event management firms.

He said he had many friends who tried applying for trishaw licences but the state government would not approve them to ensure that the income of those who had been pedalling for years would not be affected.

“It is so competitive. I am told 50 to 60 people are on the waiting list to get a trishaw licence. My friends are all in their 20s.

“But the trishaw rides are united. We charge RM50 to RM60 per hour, depending on whether it is peak or off-peak season and we don’t undercut each other,” he revealed.

He said he heard from tourist guides about how bad the trishaw service was in Penang and when he came here for a holiday a few years ago, he tried looking for one but could not find any.

“I asked people where to hire a trishaw. They told me but I didn’t know how to get there. So, I rented a bicycle in the end,” he said.

Lai said renting a trishaw to ride in Melaka was expensive because each came fully accoutred with tens of LED lights, a sound system with MP3 player and lush decorations.

“It is expensive to maintain it. Many riders do their best to own one themselves,” he said, adding that a new trishaw cost RM6,000 to make, complete with the boom box and fantastical festooning.

He added that Melaka trishaw riders in their 20s and 30s were mostly part-timers who brought their trishaws out on weekends and holidays when demand was high.

He estimated that full-time trishaw riders numbered only about 100.

About 500km up north, Lai’s counterpart in Penang has a different reality.

Trishaw maker and fleet owner Saw Chin Choon, 55, works alone out of his workshop in Stewart Lane behind the Goddess of Mercy Temple in the heart of George Town World Heritage Site.

On the day The Star team visited him, Saw said he was a little sad because an old friend, a trishaw rider in his 70s, was entering an old folks’ home and had sold his trishaw to Saw.

“I own 46 trishaws and rent them out for RM3 a day each. Most of the trishaw riders are over 50 years old.

“I know two now who are around 35. The youngest I remember was 17, but he returned the trishaw and gave up after about two weeks,” he said.

Saw knows how well the trishaw business is doing in Melaka, adding that riders there were united.

“But it is a dog-eat-dog price war in Penang. Some riders charge as low as RM30 per hour if tourists bargain hard enough. How do we put food on the table with earnings like that?” he asked.

He said he was one of only two trishaw makers left in Penang.

“I learned from the old masters when they retired and bought all their tools before they died. Somebody has to do it.

“If not, trishaws will just disappear,” Saw said.

Related story:

Should Penang’s trishaw retain classic look?

Transport Safety , trishaw , business , penang