One of the unofficial national symbols of Thailand, the tuk-tuk, has grown in popularity amongst both, Thai nationals and tourists alike. Although famous for being colorful and convenient, there are downsides as well as benefits to using this method of transportation.
This article will explain everything you need to know about tuk-tuks in Thailand, including the history, benefits, downsides, and how they compare with private cars.
- Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled open vehicles that are popular in Thai cities.
- Tuk-tuks are often the same price or more expensive than metered taxis.
- Tuk-tuks offer a fun and authentic travel experience and are a good way to travel short distances.
- When traveling by tuk-tuk, it is important to be aware of common scams and to discuss the price with the driver beforehand.
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What is a Tuk-Tuk?
If you are unfamiliar with Thailand and Southeast Asia, then at this point you may be asking "What is a tuk-tuk?" Tuk-tuk is a general term for Thailand"s version of a motorized rickshaw. Normally tuk-tuks have three wheels and are open-air vehicles that can hold two to three people at a time. The standard tuk-tuk has one seat up front for the driver and a bench at the back for passengers. Modern versions of tuk-tuks typically have open sides and a cloth roof to protect travelers from the sun.
From necessity to a cultural phenomenon, this simple vehicle is an attraction for many Thai visitors and remains an important method of transportation for everyone in large cities such as Bangkok.
Tuk-tuks are very easy to find, especially in tourist areas and there are often many drivers competing for the customers.
Where Does the Name Come From?
Originally, tuk-tuks where known in Thai as literally the "three-wheeled vehicle" or samlor. There are multiple theories behind the name change from samlor to tuk-tuk.
The most popular theory is that the unique name came from the noisy engines on the earliest models. The little engines on tuk-tuks used to pop and rumble as they swerved through traffic. Today, many tuk-tuks use similar engines and the noises can be heard from all around.
Cost of Tuk-Tuks
The most surprising thing about tuk-tuks is that they are not the cheapest form of transportation in Thailand. Many visitors often assume that because they are smaller and slower they will be less expensive than metered taxis, but that is simply not the case.
Typically, the cost of a tuk tuk ride will be the same or more than the cost of a taxi ride over the same distance. In Bangkok, most tuk tuk drivers in the Sukhumvit and Silom areas will try their luck with an overinflated price that is expensive even by tuk tuk standards. Some have been known to ask for as much as 400 baht for a short journey. You could almost get to the airport by taxi for that price.
At the moment, the going rate for a short tuk tuk ride is about 150 baht (US$5) for a journey that would cost 50 to 70 baht (US$2) in a metered taxi. For quick journeys to the end of the road, the price is 50 baht (US$2) and if you go slightly further afield, the price will quickly jump to 100 baht (US$3).
Overall, although tuk-tuks are a must-do when visiting Thailand, they are probably not the best form of everyday transportation in the cities. Taxis are often cheaper and more comfortable as well.
How to Get a Cheap Tuk Tuk Ride
There are three ways to get cheaper tuk tuk rides depending on where you are.
1. Become an Expert Haggler
In order to get a good deal when taking a tuk tuk, you need to be an expert haggler or you need to be outside of the main tourist areas. A good way to try and get cheaper prices is to talk to many drivers at the same time to create some competition. You should always discuss the price of the ride in advance with the driver to make sure that he does not ask for a large amount once the ride is finished.
2. Hire One Away from the Tourist Hot Spots
Tuk tuks are cheap if you hire one outside of the main tourist areas. However, if you plan on asking the driver to take you on a long journey outside of his/her comfort zone, then expect the price to jump above normal rates charged by drivers of metered taxis.
In general, the only way to get a cheap tuk tuk ride is if you happen to know someone that lives off the beaten path in an area that is not frequented by tourists. If you happen to be visiting an area that is off the beaten path and you see a tuk tuk, the chances are you will get one at a surprisingly reasonable price.
It really helps if you already know some Thai and can show the tuk tuk driver that you are not fresh off the plane.
3. Don't Let the Tuk Tuk Driver See That You Are in a Big Group
Don't let the tuk tuk driver see that you are in a big group. If the driver sees there are three or four of you, then the price will instantly rise. Tuk tuk drivers can add on up to 50 baht per person. For example, you may be able to get a tuk tuk ride for 100 baht but because there are three of you, the tuk tuk driver will demand 200 baht and you may end up settling on 150 baht.
Although it seems like a sneaky way to get around paying more, this trick really does work, and you will know it has worked when the tuk tuk driver tries to charge you more before you arrive at your destination, explaining that he/she didn't realize there was more than one passenger along for the ride. Another trick is to start making you feel guilty by making complaints about the traffic and his/her time — the price originally agreed is now not enough!
Benefits of Using Tuk-Tuks
If tuk-tuks are the same price as taxis but less comfortable, then why use them? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
Firstly, tuk-tuks offer travelers a fun experience of the chaotic city streets of Bangkok. Taking a bumpy ride through the hot and noisy streets helps travelers really get close to the hustle and bustle of this modern country with ancient roots.
Another reason is that these vehicles are unique to Thailand and some parts of Southeast Asia. The drivers have a lot of fun decorating their vehicles with colorful paint and dangling trinkets to make each one unique. They give visitors a sense of adventure and make for some great pictures.
Lastly, in some situations, traveling by tuk-tuk can be faster than traveling by taxi or private car. The reason for this is that when there are huge traffic jams in Bangkok, tuk-tuks are small enough to take back alleys or weave through cars to get through the traffic, while larger vehicles end up stuck in the gridlock.
Downsides of Using Tuk-Tuks
One of the biggest problems with tuk-tuks is their lack of safety features as compared to other vehicles. Because tuk-tuks have open sides and typically don"t have seat belts they are very unsafe during traffic accidents. The good news is that tuk-tuks are involved in relatively few dangerous accidents in Thailand because they tend to drive at lower speed.
Another problem with tuk-tuks is that they are open vehicles, which is often uncomfortable for visitors who are not used to the intense heat and humidity of Thailand. When tuk-tuks get stuck in traffic, the heat and sweat are unavoidable. Furthermore, the open-air design does not protect travelers from polluted air or dust.
Furthermore, tuk tuks are not very eco-friendly vehicles and are infamous for the visible fumes that plume up from their exhausts. In major cities, tuk tuks are often blamed for reducing air quality at a faster rate than other vehicles, including motorcycles and cars. Before taking a tuk tuk, it is important to consider the environmental impact.
Lastly, if there is a sudden downpour, all you have is the roof of the tuk tuk to protect you. With strong winds, that won't be enough as the wind will just blow the rain in from the sides and behind you. That said, most tuk tuks do come with rain flaps that can be pulled down but if it is raining particularly heavily, then the rain will find its way in through the gaps.
Common Scams to Avoid
The most common tuk-tuk scam can be prevented by agreeing on the price before you travel. If you don"t agree on the price beforehand, this gives drivers the opportunity to charge you an extremely high price at the end of the journey and scam you out of some money.
Another common tuk-tuk scam in Thailand happens when a driver offers you his service for a day at a very low price. Drivers that do this will often insist that you visit specific retailers, such as tailors and gem stores, throughout the day. These retailers pay him extra money to bring customers to them. Although you don"t have to buy anything at these shops, it is an annoying waste of time for visitors, and the retailers can be very pushy when trying to sell products.
Tuk tuk drivers that run this scam generally like to hang around outside tourist sites and tell people that the place is closed. The idea is to lure you onto their tuk tuk and take you on the above-mentioned journey to retailers that include tailors and gem stores. Instead, you should ignore the tuk tuk driver and go to the front desk of the tourist attraction you plan to visit and find out for yourself.
Another dangerous trick that can happen to people in tuk-tuks is that other drivers on the street may try to snatch bags out of the open vehicles. These thieves often specifically target tourists and are very difficult to catch.
Finally, some people have been happily texting or taking snapshots with their smartphones only to have a motorbike drive by and the person on the back snatch the phone out of their hand and speed off. Although this is an incident that's rarely reported, it does happen. Therefore, when you ride in a tuk-tuk, it is important to hold on to all of your important possessions or to put them in a place that is not easy to reach.
Tuk-Tuks vs Private Cars
For our Asia Highlights travelers, we often suggest that they travel mostly by private car, due to the uncomfortable conditions and environmental impact of traveling by tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are bumpy, small and hot, which can be upsetting for families with small children or those who are on the more aged side.
However, we do believe that experiencing what it is like to travel by tuk-tuk is important. For travelers who wish to have this experience, we do arrange short distance travels by tuk-tuk. We suggest that tuk-tuks be used exclusively for fun and not when you are tired or in a hurry. They are especially great for exploring temples or traveling a few city blocks.
Handy Tips When Using A Tuk Tuk
- Always agree on the price before you set out on your journey.
- Be careful of oil around the tuk tuk as this can get onto your clothes and it never comes off.
- Look out for sharp metal edges when getting on and off the tuk tuk — they can rip your clothes.
- Make sure you know exactly where you are going (try to use Google Maps if you don't).
- Never accept a free tuk tuk ride — it is not really free.
- Designate one person to call over and negotiate with the tuk tuk driver.
- Try to avoid getting tuk tuks in the rain unless you have no other choice.
- Ignore tuk tuk drivers who try to tell you an attraction is closed.
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