Getting around by tuk tuk in Bangkok

There are two ways to approach tuk tuks in Bangkok: the let’s-have-an-adventure way, and the cold-light-of-day-I’m-a-Thai-grandma way. Both have their time and place. Either way, no trip to the Thai capital is complete without a tuk tuk ride.

Tuk tuk in Bangkok

A wet tuk tuk ride.

First, the brass tacks. What, exactly, are tuk tuks? They are a three-wheeled cross between a rickshaw and a motorcycle. You can fit three people comfortably. In Bangkok the body is usually blue and the canvas roof is black, and they swarm around the city like loudly putzing locusts. They are really convenient when you have a lot of cargo to move, and that’s primarily what Thais use them for. For example, when I bought a refrigerator, it came home on a tuk tuk.

Tuk tuks are not metred and the negotiation of fares is required. Before we negotiate like a Thai grandma, the let’s-have-an-adventure plan can actually be kind of fun. It works like this. A tuk tuk driver yells from the street corner “You go tuk tuk Grand Palace? I take you! All day 20 baht!”. This driver will get a kick back if he takes you to a few “interesting” sites in between taking you to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, and/or other big-name tourist attractions. He will have an extensive back catalogue of possibilities and will tailor your stops to what he thinks you like (group of young guys? Guns and ladies! Young women? Jewellery and clothing! Couples? Antiques and gem stones!).

It can be kind of fun — remember, you don’t have to buy anything, and feel free to walk away from the tour if at any point your driver won’t do what you want. Personally, I don’t mind stopping a few times to see some random stuff, but I won’t spend all day doing it. That aside,some drivers are really fun, and it can be an impromptu adventure. If it’s not working out, you can always ditch.

What if you just want to get from point A to point B? You don’t want a tour, and you don’t want to make any stops. It’s time to put on your shrewd old lady face and haggle. Tuk tuk drivers, especially around Khao San Road, know that foreigners are sometimes ignorant of the prices, and will simply not take a normal price. Don’t take it personally — they won’t take Thai people either, because they are gambling that some gap-year muppet with four beers in him will just pay whatever he quotes. And more often than not, this gamble seems to pay off for him. Move onwards and upwards. In fact, just avoid the tuk tuks that sit on Khao San Road altogether.

Your best chance with a tuk tuk is to flag one down that isn’t sitting in front of a hotel, attraction or tourist area. Have in mind about how far away your destination is and start by offering 20 baht for the first kilometre and five baht for each extra kilometre. Keep a smile on your face, and remember, taking an air-conditioned cab only costs 35 baht for the first kilometre and then five baht for each extra kilometre, so if the driver won’t come below that it’s probably best to just find a cab.

On the other hand, most tuk tuk drivers are poor, usually from upcountry and often with families to support, so we often don't mind paying a little extra. If the driver gives us a standard local price and turns out to be a real nice and modest guy (as is often the case), we're quick to tip 20 baht for the service. Again, on the other hand, if they start by quoting an insane price and finally agree on a normal fare, their greediness doesn't deserve a tip.

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