Notes from the Philippines from Brian Waddington

Venice is famous for gondolas. The great white north is renowned for dog sleds and snowmobiles. An iconic sight on the American highways for decades was a Greyhound bus. Anyone who has visited Southeast Asia has come away with memories of three distinct home-grown transportation modes that are endemic to the region. One is the Jeepney. It was created post-World War Two when the US military left all sorts of Jeeps in this part of the world. The locals quickly figured out how to make money by turning them into mini buses. Later they would make them larger and larger until today you can carry fifty people in one – if you’re all crowded in nicely.

A Jeepney is an ex-military Jeep converted to a minibus. [Wikipedia]
The second vehicle type would be what in the Philippines is called a Trasikel. This is usually built around a Honda 155, with a sidecar added, of any type. Technically these are built to carry five people, but of course, you can put an awful lot more on them if required.

A Trasikel can carry an extraordinary number of passengers! [Mang Bokeh]
The third and simplest people-moving transport of all is the Habal-Habal.  It’s still a solo motorcycle, typically starting life as a stock Honda 155.  To carry additional passengers, the chassis is modified with extra shocks at the rear, a wider bigger rear tire, a fabricated seat extension that hangs a meter out past the end of the bike, and a pair of footrails for the passengers, that can also be used for tying on cargo.  It is undeniably true that the most dangerous of all these transports is the Habal-Habal. Not because the drivers are unskilled – it takes real savvy to balance 6 people on a Honda 155 – but simply because two wheels are inherently more dangerous than three wheels or even six wheels on a big Jeepney.

The amazingness that is the Habal-Habal: the rider must be very skilled to carry a live load of this size. [Internet]
For low-income Filipinos, the Habal-Habal is truly a Jack of all Trades. They can carry four 50kilo bags of rice plus a passenger or two. You can load them up with towering bags of coconuts. The young and perhaps foolish drivers of a Habal-Habal have been known to load up eight people: one sitting on the handlebars, one sitting on the gas tank, four sitting behind the rider, and on the sides standing on the footrails foot rail you’ll have somebody hanging onto another passenger, or hanging out like they’re in a circus act.  I’ve being around motorcycles for about 55 years, and can unequivocally state that as a group the Habal-Habal pilots are the most highly skilled riders I have ever seen. Rain, sun, wind; almost nothing stops them if they want to get somewhere. Many of the roads they travel are merely dirt tracks little wider than one person can walk.  Dirt tracks that quickly turn into gumbo when the rains come.

Improvisation: a Habal-Habal motorcycle carries a heavy load of falcate lumber in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur. [MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas]
Our house is right beside what is jokingly referred to (and actually named) a provincial highway. Every year pre-pavement the local government would send in a grader and a big machine with a big heavy roller on the front. They would scrape the road down and level it up and make it look  really good. But they invariably did this ‘maintenance’ during rainy season, laying down 6 inches of new dirt and packing it down. Once the rains hit it created a 6-inch-deep gumbo road.  The Habal-Habal drivers would still ride, though with a reduced load. Only once did I see a Habal-Habal take a dive into the gumbo. And I must tell you that as soon as they hit the mud the driver got up checked his passengers, picked up his bike to make sure it was still working, and then gave the passengers their money back. Possibly out of shame.

An Interview With Gogor, a Habal-Habal Driver

Gogor has made a living for his family driving a Habal-Habal for many years, and graciously shared his story with The Vintagent. [Brian Waddington]

Brian Waddington (BW): When did you start driving as habal-habal driver and the factors behind it?

Gogor: 1988. before that I was driving for an operator whose truck is used mainly to carry logs. However, the owner/operator of the truck sometimes did business with loggers who do not have government license.  At one point, we were caught by government watchdogs ferrying illegal logging materials.  As I was only the driver (the enforcers were after the operator) the enforcers advised me to stop doing this kind of work and look for something that will not land me in jail.  This led me to become a habal-habal driver.

BW: What was your average income?  Was it enough to meet the needs of your family?

Gogor: The first habal-habal motorcycle I drove was owned by somebody else.  I merely rented the unit for 80Php a day [about $.75].  My average income from this was between 300-400 pesos [$2.50-$3].  During that time, my take home income is just good enough to buy us food and to set aside a bit of money for emergency.  It was good that my wife is a good partner and she also did a lot of things to earn us some money, such as raise some pigs, grow crops, and make roofing materials out of coconut leaves to sell.  Our combined savings allowed us to pay the down payment of a second-hand motorcycle.  I use this until now to earn a living.

Gogor’s Habal-Habal in typical rainy season weather: like the mail, he drives on regardless. [Brian Waddington]
BW: How many people and cargoes you can carry at one time?

Gogor: The most number of passengers I carried was five but I usually cap it to three.  When it comes to cargoes, the  most number is five sacks of rice or feeds but I am more comfortable with three.

BW: How long did it take you to develop the skill needed to carry a full load?

Gogor: About a year.

Gogor’s Habal-Habal, with doubled-up rear shocks, a seat extension, and ropes for carrying cargo. [Brian Waddington]
BW: Was there ever a time/s that you fell over?  What were the consequences?

Gogor: Yes. I can count five times: one involving a dog that suddenly crossed the road; another time as I was passing through a basketball court, an itinerant  ball rolled under my wheels; then there was that incident where a child  run towards the middle of the road; another time, another motorcycle collided with mine;  and the last one involved a failure of securing the 5 sacks of pig food I was carrying.  A part of the plastic rope I used was already too thin and it broke while I was on the road.

Damages to passengers were mostly limited to scratches and bruises.  I make sure that they are checked by a doctor, provide for the medicines they need, and provide at least a week of food support if the passenger cannot work because of the accident.

BW: Would you want your children and grandchildren to be habal-habal drivers like you?

Gogor: No.

History of the Habal-Habal

An excellent shot of the types of modifications required to turn a Honda TMX 155 into a Habal-Habal: a fabricated seat extension, a pair of footboards, and an extended/strengthened swingarm, in this case with four shock absorbers. [Internet]

The word ‘habal’ is from the Cebuano language, and means ‘mating’, as in animal copulation.  Doubling up the word to Habal-Habal means ‘looks like mating’, which of course refers to the number of people piled onto the hapless small motorcycle.  While the principal native language of the Philippines is Tagalog, before 1980 the Cebuano language was dominant in rural areas.  Today another term is also used for these motorcycle taxis: Iskaylab.  Some think the term refers to the Skylab space station, with is dual solar-panel wings, and some think it a derivation of the phrase ‘sakay na, lab’, which means ‘get on, love!’

In common with other Asian countries, small motorcycles are truly ‘bikes of burden’. [Jun Villegas]
The Habal-Habal may have seen its heyday pass, as rural roads are increasingly paved and plied by four-wheeled vehicles, which find the very slow, overburdend Honda TMX 155s to be an obstruction to smooth traffic flow.  They are also quite dangerous, as nobody wears protection for casual transport, and mud and rainy conditions make for slick surfaces.  Spills and accidents are not uncommon, but such is the lot of the poor: any transportation, no matter how dangerous, is a major improvement over walking long distances.   And of course, for the Habal-Habal drivers, this is their income.  There have been moves to regulate Habal-Habal service, and require licenses, but in practice this is simply graft for local police and politicians, taking a cut of the driver’s earnings.

Personalized Habal-Habals are also common, and this machine also shows unique ways of preparing a small motorcycle for multiple passengers. [Internet]
Riders like Gogor still ply their trade, though, and the Habal-Habal and its cousins in other Asian countries [see our article Minutera Vietnam on ‘mountain bikes’] are very useful for transporting material in the most economical manner possible.


Brian Waddington describes himself as “a storyteller who uses images more than words. Old school biker, pastor, lighthouse keeper, photographer.” He lives in Dumaguete, Philippines.  Check out his blog here.


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