Tuk-tuk Tales

Tuk-tuks are perceived as a fixture of Bangkok transport, but in fact are a slowly dying breed in the city. They are still used outside the capital where taxis are less common and pollution is less fierce, but with a ban being slapped on new tuk-tuks appearing in Bangkok, they are destined for a laborious and fume-laden death.

Having lived in Bangkok for a few years I can count on one hand the number of journeys I have taken on a tuk-tuk. I prefer the sky-train or taxis any time. I have only hopped in a tuk-tuk when friends or family are staying and demand to try this ubiquitous form of transport, or when there is no other option late at night.

There are many disadvantages to tuk-tuks. I have always found it puzzling that the drivers tend to charge more than taxis to the same destination. I argue with the driver: “your fuel is cheaper, your transport is cheaper to produce, I am sitting on an unstable plastic seat with horns blaring in both ears, surrounded by traffic pollution and yet you have the temerity to charge me through the roof for this service?” As you can well imagine, my tirades tend to fall on deaf ears.

Although it has never happened to me, I have been told many tales of unsuspecting tourists being convinced by tuk-tuk drivers that the temple or tourist attraction they are planning upon visiting is unfortunately closed for repairs that day and they would be much better off visiting their brother-in-law’s jewellery shop which just happens to be open right now…..Part of me always thinks however that any tourist dumb enough to fall for the patter of a tuk-tuk driver deserves their fate. Or is that a little harsh?

Despite all of these negatives, I actually like the humble tuk-tuk. It so perfectly represents the best and worst of Bangkok – unsteady, bright, garish, slightly dangerous and smelly and with the person in charge being completely untrustworthy. But great fun!

I may not actually want to be in one, but from my comfortable perch on a taxi seat I enjoy seeing them navigate the traffic. I enjoy seeing the transport which was designed to carry three passengers hurtle past me crammed with a family of ten, a bicycle, four chickens and a kitchen table.

I also enjoy watching the tuk-tuk drivers at work. The way they stop and chat with each other at traffic lights, and then seconds later execute a daring and robust maneuver cutting the other one off, to much fist shaking, exclamations and hooting, before meeting up again at the next set of traffic lights and discussing their wife’s bad back and the price of fish.

So if planning to take a tuk-tuk next time you are in Bangkok here are a few of my special tuk-tuk tips:

1. Laugh and laugh when they first tell you the price. Laugh as if you need to be hospitalized from laughing so much. Double over, slap your thighs in mirth and try to speak but fail due to the tears still running down your face. They will immediately drop the fare by at least 50%.

2. Short trips are the key. If you are stuck in traffic in a tuk-tuk for more than five or ten minutes you will find yourself coughing and wheezing for the rest of the day, not to mention the long-term damage that Bangkok pollution can do.

3. Hold on for dear life. Your tuk-tuk driver has always wanted to be a stunt racing specialist and will take it as his personal mission to squeeze between two buses only inches apart, slide along the gutter on two wheels and do crazy wheelie u-turns actually into on-coming traffic. This is all part of the experience and it is why metal hand rails were installed above your head.

4. If a driver starts telling you about closed tourist attractions and merges this into a brilliantly pithy summary of his cousin’s souvenir shop, raise your right eyebrow enquiringly before segueing into my first tip. Or alternatively, flag down the nearest taxi.