Tuk-tuk, tuktuk, auto-rickshaw...no matter what you call them, those sputtering, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis jockey for position and clog streets in Asia from Bangkok to Bangalore. Even Europe, Africa, and South America have their own versions of tuk-tuks.
Although riding in a tuk-tuk can be described as more chaotic than comfortable, taking at least one wild ride is mandatory for a true, Thailand experience!
And if it's your first time, you'll most likely get taken for a "ride" by the fast-talking driver as well.
The Tuk-tuks in Thailand
There always seems to be more tuk-tuk drivers than willing passengers waiting outside of tourist stops in Bangkok. The end of Khao San Road in Bangkok is always cluttered with tuk-tuks hoping to poach backpackers. The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.
The tuk-tuks found in Thailand are open-air, three-wheeled carriages attached to a motorcycle chassis. The size and design vary from country to country in Asia. Drivers are fond of decorating their rides with lights, colorful paint, and dangling trinkets to make them unique and to get attention. The typical capacity of a tuk-tuk in Thailand is two average-sized people, maybe three at most, but drivers will find a way to squeeze in an entire family when necessary!
Prices for rides in tuk-tuks need to be negotiated in advance. The word tuk means "cheap" in Thai, however, unless you are an expert haggler or you catch the driver on a bad day, metered taxis are often cheaper than tuk-tuks and offer a much more comfortable ride.
Note: Although you can usually get a regular taxi for the same price or less than you would pay for a tuk-tuk, there are exceptions.
Chiang Mai in Thailand is one example of a place where tuk-tuks are best for getting around.
Tips for Using Tuk-tuks in Thailand
- Tuk-tuks are open air. You'll sweat in the humidity when not moving and suck in plenty of rush-hour exhaust in Bangkok's gridlock traffic.
- Keep your bags close and don't allow any straps to dangle. Thieves on motorcycles have been known to snatch bags from moving tuk-tuks.
- The most important rule of transportation in Asia is to always, always agree on the price to your destination before getting inside of any vehicle— especially tuk-tuks.
- Hailing a passing tuk-tuk on the street—the bigger the road, the better—is often cheaper than accepting offers from drivers who are parked in front of tourist places all day.
- Tuk-tuks don't have seat belts so ride at your own risk!
As many hardened budget travelers will warn, the drivers in many countries across Asia can be experts at luring passengers into scams.
One typical scam in Thailand (and one of the oldest) is for a tuk-tuk driver to offer his services for a day for a rate that can be as low as 50 cents if you agree to go inside of three shops throughout the course of the day. In exchange, the driver receives fuel coupons from the shopkeepers.
Technically, you do not have to purchase anything, but each shop—often at least one tailor, a jewelry shop, and a souvenir shop—will rake on the sales pressure to recoup the cost of the fuel coupons. Save your shopping money for the local markets instead; you'll be glad you did.
Air Pollution From Tuk-tuks
Unfortunately, tuk-tuks contribute a significant amount of pollution to the existing problem in large cities already choked with poor air quality. Although some auto-rickshaws run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), many of the two-stroke engines are heavy polluters. Some have been modified for better fuel efficiency at the expense of being "dirtier," hence the sputtering noise and black smoke.
Sri Lanka, India, and several other countries have banned the high-emission engines or have put in place conversion initiatives to encourage cleaner-fuel alternatives such as natural gas.
Tuk-tuks Around the World
Tuk-tuk variants can be found throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and even in Europe. Much the way that Jeepneys in the Philippines are celebrated in all their gritty, quirky glory, tuk-tuks are honored in Thailand and neighboring countries. In 2011, Cambodia released a new fleet of low-emission tuk-tuks equipped with Wi-Fi. The annual Rickshaw Challenge encourages adventurous travelers to purchase, decorate, and race auto-rickshaw- across long distances.
Makes and styles of tuk-tuks may differ throughout the world, but most are fun, colorful chaotic affairs. But no matter the country, you can count on most of them to come standard with a fast-talking driver!