The tuk-tuk (or "auto rickshaw" in some countries) is a sputtering, three-wheeled motorcycle taxi with origins as a cheap public transportation option.
Tuk-tuks perpetually jockey for position and clog the streets in Asia from Bangkok to Bangalore. Even Europe, Africa, and South America have their own versions of the fun, three-wheeled vehicle. The size and design of tuk-tuks vary from country to country. Drivers are fond of decorating their rides with lights, colorful paint, and dangling trinkets to help them get attention.
Although riding in a tuk-tuk in Thailand can be described as more chaotic than comfortable, taking at least one wild ride is a mandatory part of the experience! And if it's your first time, there's a good chance you'll get taken for a "ride" by the fast-talking driver as well.
Tuk-Tuks Vs. Taxis
Why take a tuk-tuk instead of a taxi? Some travelers mistakenly assume that tuk-tuks are a cheaper option for getting around. The smaller vehicles lack a lot of the creature comforts of regular taxis and seem like they would use less fuel, so the logic makes sense.
Realistically, locals may get an honest fare when using tuk-tuks, but you'll have trouble doing so. Tuk-tuks don't have meters, you'll need to negotiate your fare with the driver. Not knowing the regular price for routes already puts you at a disadvantage.
Taxis with working meters can cost about the same for distance covered as a tuk-tuk. Plus, they're safer, have seat belts, and you won't have to breathe exhaust fumes from nearby vehicles as you sit gridlocked in Bangkok's traffic. Even better, taxis have air conditioning.
As a tourist in Southeast Asia, there's really only one valid reason to take a tuk-tuk instead of a taxi: They're more fun!
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 strewn with parked tuk-tuks, their drivers hoping to poach backpackers.
The tuk-tuks found in Thailand are open-air, three-wheeled carriages attached to a motorcycle chassis. The typical capacity of a tuk-tuk in Thailand is two average-sized people, maybe three at most, but resourceful drivers sometimes find a way to squeeze entire families inside when necessary!
Prices for rides in tuk-tuks need to be negotiated before you get underway. The word tuk means "cheap" in Thai, however, unless you are an expert at haggling prices or you catch the driver on a bad day, metered taxis are often cheaper and more comfortable than tuk-tuks in Thailand.
Note: In some places, tuk-tuks / auto rickshaws are the primary mode of public transportation. Chiang Mai in Thailand is one place where tuk-tuks are the default for getting around. Songthaews are another option there.
Tips for Using Tuk-Tuks
- Tuk-tuks are open-air vehicles. You'll sweat in the humidity when not moving and breathe 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 then speed away.
- The most important rule of transportation in Asia is to 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 — major thoroughfares are better — is often cheaper than approaching drivers who are parked in front of tourist places all day.
- Tuk-tuks don't have seat belts; you ride at your own risk!
The Classic Tuk-Tuk Scam
As many hardened budget travelers will warn, drivers all over Asia can be experts at luring passengers into upselling and scams.
One typical scam in Thailand (and one of the oldest scams in Southeast Asia) is for a tuk-tuk driver to offer his services for an afternoon for a rate that can be as low as 50 cents. Sounds good, but you have to agree to go inside of at least three shops along the way. In exchange, the driver receives fuel coupons and possibly a commission from the shopkeepers.
Technically, you do not have to purchase anything, but each shop — often a tailor, jewelry shop, and souvenir shop — will pour on the sales pressure to recoup the cost of the fuel coupons. They'll waste your valuable trip time. Anyone who has agreed to a timeshare presentation while on vacation understands all to well how this goes.
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 old two-stroke engines are heavy polluters. Some drivers remove catalytic converters for better fuel efficiency. Modifications are done at the expense of making the vehicle "dirtier," hence the sputtering noise and black smoke.
Sri Lanka, India, and several other countries have banned the high-emission engines or put initiatives in place to encourage cleaner alternatives. Electric rickshaws are growing in popularity in South India.
Auto Rickshaws Around the World
Tuk-tuk / auto rickshaw 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 upped the ante by releasing a fleet of low-emission tuk-tuks equipped with Wi-Fi. The annual Rickshaw Challenge encourages adventurous travelers to purchase, customize, and then race auto-rickshaw across long distances in India.
Makes and styles of tuk-tuks differ throughout the world. Many are fun, colorful, and sometimes even wacky. But no matter the country, you can count on most of them being manned by a fast-talking driver!