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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.
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 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.
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.
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 order to get a good deal when taking a tuk-tuk, you need to be an expert haggler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lastly, 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.
Want to explore Thailand but aren't sure where to start? Contact us to hear more about our services and get some advice from our experts. We specialize in creating trips that are tailor-made and unique for each of our customers. See what you want to see and cut out the things you don’t care for. Drop us a line here to get started!