Aug 04 2012

Tuk tuks in Thailand

Published by at 8:38 am under Transport


The unofficial symbols of Thailand, nimble three-wheeled motorised transport machines known as tuk tuks may be found clamouring through the streets of most Thai cities. Looked upon as novelties by many foreign visitors but as useful options for transporting people and supplies by locals, tuk tuks are as popular today as ever in Thailand.

Classic blue and yellow Bangkok tuk tuks.

Classic blue and yellow Bangkok tuk tuks.

The history of tuk tuks springs immediately from the history of rickshaws, or three-wheeled bicycles with a seat for passengers behind the driver. Although rickshaws have been found in many parts of the world for centuries, including Thailand, the name comes from the Japanese jinrikisha, which literally translates to “human-powered vehicle”.

Not surprisingly, then, the Japanese were the first to experiment with engine-powered rickshaws, and Thailand’s first tuk tuks were purchased from Japanese motor companies in the early 1930s. Most Thai tuk tuks are now produced domestically, but Japanese companies like Daihatsu continue to make descendents of the motorised rickshaw despite the open-air varieties having gone out of favour in Japan itself.

Although auto-rickshaws are most often associated with Thailand and India, they’re also widespread in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and to a lesser extent, Indonesia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Each country sports its own distinctly styled machines, with plenty of variations found within most countries. While the Siem Reap area of Cambodia features carriages fastened to regular motorbikes, most Lao tuk tuks look more like motorcycles that have organically sprouted a carriage and two wheels.

Up in Vientiane, they call me the love machine.

Up in Vientiane, they call me the love machine.

Within Thailand, tuk tuks come in a wide array of styles. In touristy beach areas like Phuket, large versions that can fit up to eight people are the standard, and these often sport flashy “light shows” and pumping stereo systems. In the southern Thai city of Trang, and also in Ayutthaya just north of Bangkok, light green tuk tuks resembling frogs are typical. Northeastern and eastern Thailand go for tuk tuks fronted by a more classic-looking motorcycle and are often done up in amateur (but charming) paint jobs. And, of course, the classic blue and yellow low-roofed tuk tuks are standard in Bangkok, with Chiang Mai favouring a similar variety but usually with black and yellow paint jobs.

Down in Trang, they call me Kermit.

Down in Trang, they call me Kermit.

Auto-rickshaws also have different names depending on the country — head to Bangladesh for a “baby taxi” ride, hop in a “tricycle” in the Philippines, or in India simply hail an “auto”. The name tuk tuk is used not only in Thailand but also Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia, and the word mimics the sputtering sounds put out by the small, typically two- or three-stroke tuk tuk engines.

In Thailand, however, the word tuk tuk also has a couple of added layers. When spoken in a high tone, the Thai word tuk means “all”; while not as spacious as the large trucks known as rot pan-tuk, tuk tuks are regarded as a solid means of transporting relatively large amounts of goods. Though there’s probably less of a connection, the Thai word for “cheap” is also tuk if spoken in a low tone. Thanks to foreign tourists’ liking of them, however, the cost of a tuk tuk ride is today virtually identical to a metered taxi fare in Bangkok.

In the Khorat countryside, they call me the cowboy.

In the Khorat countryside, they call me the cowboy.

Unlike taxis, which are almost always metered in Thailand, and pick-up truck taxis (known as songthaews), which generally stick to predetermined routes and charge standard fares, tuk tuk drivers are often accused of over-charging foreigners. Whenever taking a tuk tuk, agree on a fare before setting off — and it’s usually a good idea to ask for a discount on the initial quote. If the price seems too high and the driver refuses to discount, politely walk away; tuk tuks are in no short supply in all of Thailand’s big cities and upon nearly losing a fare most drivers will relent.

Even for a relatively long distance (say Siam Square to Victory Monument in Bangkok), a tuk tuk ride should rarely run more than 100 baht, and it should never cost more than a taxi would be for the same route. If going all the way across town (say Morchit bus terminal to Silom Road), expect to pay more than 200, but never above 300 baht. In tourist destinations like Phuket and Hua Hin, however, tuk tuks have become wildly expensive due to the influx of foreigners and the lack of taxis or other reliable transport. A short, two to three kilometre ride in Phuket’s Patong beach area consistently runs 150 baht or more, which in our humble opinion, is nothing short of insanity.

We took a Chiang Mai songthaew that day, but tuk tuks are always photogenic.

We took a Chiang Mai songthaew that day, but tuk tuks are always photogenic.

It’s also worth mentioning that tuk tuks are often at the centre of various scams, and some unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers (we stress some — we’ve found the vast majority of Bangkok tuk tuk drivers to be honest) spend most of their time at tourist hot spots like Khao San Road and lower Sukhumvit, attempting to hussle tourists into buying drugs, sex, fake merchandise and bogus tours. If a tuk tuk driver approaches you away from their tuk tuk, don’t even bat an eye while avoiding them.

Similarly, if anyone – even if they’re dressed in an “official” looking uniform — approaches you at a tourist sight, claims that it’s closed for the day, and that they can send you off on a tuk tuk to see some “once in a lifetime” festival at a remarkably cheap price, don’t get duped. Once in the tuk tuk, drivers (who have arrangements with the aforementioned touts) have been known to aggressively push poor quality, grossly over-priced tours and other bookings, or to attempt to “charm” passengers into purchasing fake gems or other merchandise. In short, the only service you should ever expect of a tuk tuk is to take you from point A to point B.

Tuk tuk life.

Tuk tuk life.

After spending extended periods of time in Bangkok, tuk tuks have honestly lost a little of their appeal for us. Call us crazy, but if having to endure Bangkok’s notorious traffic, we would prefer to watch it from the inside of an enclosed, air-con taxi rather than breath it from a noisy, open-air tuk tuk. Still, tuk tuks do come in handy, and there’s nothing like that first tuk tuk ride in Thailand to get an immediate feel for the sights and sounds. Whether sitting in one or watching them pass, the tuk tuk does indeed embody Thailand’s laidback yet chaotic spirit in one colourful package.

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4 Responses to “Tuk tuks in Thailand” ...

  1. Dennis Seaon 06 Aug 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I like the tuk tuk ride. I wish we have one here in Phillip Island. I would like to go on one of them. Nice blog

  2. [...] Tuk tuks in Thailand – David Luekens, Travelfish.org – 04 August 2012 Classic blue and yellow Bangkok tuk tuks. [...]

  3. J Garboon 04 Jan 2013 at 2:39 am

    Interesting article, if inaccurate in parts. Tuk-Tuk (ตุกๆ) has nothing to do with all (ทุก) or cheap (ถูก). It refers 1) to the rackety sound of the two-stroke engine 2) to shaking, swaying of the vehicle. Low tones, by the way. HTH

  4. Tuk Tuk Thailand | Kara's Blogon 20 Apr 2014 at 3:28 am

    […]  Travelfish told the history of Tuk Tuk that springs immediately from the history of rickshaws, three wheeled bicycles with a seat for passenger behind the driver. Rickshaws have been found in many countries, including Thailand. The name “rickshaw” comes from the Japanese “jinrikisha”, which literally means “human powered vehicle”. The Japanese were the first to experiment with engine-powered rickshaws, and Thailand’s first Tuk Tuk were purchased from Japanese motor companies in the early 1930s and now produced domestically. […]

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