Thoughts on tuk tuks, traffic and touts

7 Mar

The tuk tuk, common mode of transport in Thai cities, is a powered evolution of the Asian rickshaw. It’s names after the sound of the 500cc (or thereabouts) two stroke engine.. one of the interesting things is to see how they’ve evolved in different parts of the country.

Apparently the original was made by Daihatsu, but there are variations by most Japanese motor cycle manufacturers – and they seem to be regional, too.

So in Bangkok, this is a tuk tuk – a two seat tricycle. Often equipped with disco lights and bangin’ sound system. Comes complete with dangerous (but often very warm and funny) driver.


One of the dangers of the tuk tuk is to believe that they are forms of transportation, similar to taxis. This is a dangerous assumption that many tourists fall into. First and foremost, they are part of a complex sales process. It’s possible to hire a tuk tuk for around 20baht an hour (around 40p) PROVIDED that you are prepared to visit a tailor/silk manufacturer/tourist agency/jewellers. Sometimes, they will even have someone waiting for you at a temple that you visit to reinforce how good the a tailor/silk manufacturer/tourist agency/jeweller actually is. They use the tourist map that you are clutching to communicate with each other, to see what you’ve done so far. I’ve got to hand it to them, it’s a great system. And, provided that you know what the game is, and are happy to play it, it’s OK. You can get a guided tour of Bangkok for around 50 pence, if you are prepared to spend a few minutes in a tailor’s shop and are thick skinned enough to ignore their blandishments and anger when you don’t buy anything. (You think I am going to travel half way across Asia with a three piece suit in my backpack… when I could get it for a fraction of the price in India before I go home??). So don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Anyway, back to tuk tuks. I’m sure I should write a thesis on the evolution of the tuk tuk in modern day Thailand.

By the time we reach Atthaya they have morped into this..

Chedi Phu Khao Tong (5)

often wonderfully decorated with local sights, it’s now a 6 seater vehicle (mostly made by Daihatsu)

Traffic obeys no simple laws in Thailand, by the way. At any moment you might find a motor scooter hurtling the wrong way down the street towards you, or taking a turn when you’re crossing the road on a little green man… the heaviest and most dangerous object has right of way, purely through intimidation. There’s no safety on the sidewalk, either, because the scooters will use the sidewalks to dodge traffic, too. In a one way street? Look both ways, because those are purely advisory signs. Fortunately, following an experience on a zebra crossing where the traffic had stopped in both directions and I STILL got run over (by an overtaking motorcycle) I have a tendency to look both ways, look up, check around my feet (an incident with a storm drain in Singapore) and check my horoscope before crossing the road. I also invoke the magic incantation ‘Do not mess with me, I have lived in London’.

Anywhere, where were we. Ah, yes, Sukhotai. The tuk tuk now looks like this…

New Sukhotai (2)

Made by Honda, we’ve how got the back end of a motor cycle with a cart in front, steered by moving the cart from helf to right.

Another form of transport here is the moto taxi – simply, a motorcycle. Some amazing feats of balancing and engineering are used to carry your rucksack/shopping/dog/small elephant on the back of the ‘bike – but they are cheap and of course great at dodging traffic.


(not my picture – but typical of what I saw!)

Back to tuk tuks. I have no idea if this is at all interesting, but I’m enjoying myself. I’m in a Scandinavian bakery in Vientiane, it’s a beautiful Sunday morning, and I am feeling light hearted.

Chang Mai brings us back the Bangkok version, but more common is the converted ‘ute’:


Chang Mai Tuk Tuk 

..  and I also spotted the low running cost version too (presumably not called a tuk tuk unless the ‘engine’ makes the sound for you.)


By the time I get to Laos, then we have another slight variation – and, of course a new threat. Driving on the wrong side of the road. Ever since coming back to the UK in October, I have got used to drivers who drive on the left – Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, even Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, all drive on the left. In Laos… they don’t. Sometimes I wonder what side of the road they DO drive on…

and now we have tuk tuks like this one….


– again, a bit more true to the original idea of a rickshaw, but with definite indications of its motorcycle origins.

I haven’t managed to get a good photo of one, yet, but out here any engine has to be multipurpose – so the same piece of kit used to plough your fields can also be converted into a water pump, or a taxi…. just add the necessary bits.


Over in Laos, the tuk tuk drivers have formed a cartel – the prices are all prearranged and vastly inflated for tourists… but every where I go, I am still hailed with a cheery greeting ‘Hey Mister, tuk tuk’ (followed often by the pantomiming of handlebars) and on polite refusal with an equally cheery wave (after all, they are only trying to make a living) followed up with a languid ‘where you gooooooo’ – the real danger here is to engage in conversation, because the danger is that you will then be on a 50,000 kip tour of the wats of Ventiane, in which you have no interest, or on a tour of the driver’s aunt’s cousin’s step brother’s jewellers/silk factory/brothel..

So there you have it. Some thoughts on Asian transport. More to come, I’m sure..

PS – in case you’re wondering, I sometimes write these in advance of publication, when I am in the mood…and then stagger the publication to avoid posting several things on the same day. Which is why, by the time you read this… I’ll be nowhere near a coffee shop in Vientiane!


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