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All about tuk tuks

Tuk tuks and markets of Khao San Road
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images

Zipping through traffic in an adorable three-wheeled vehicle is a hallmark experience for many travellers in Thailand. These charming modes of transport and the etiquette of hailing them and bartering the fare can be a mystery to first-time visitors to the country. But with Lonely Planet’s tuk-tuk survival tips you’ll be feeling the wind in your hair and weaving between cars in no time.

What is a tuk-tuk?

In various parts of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, the tuk-tuk also goes by the name rickshaw, trishaw or mototaxi, to name a few. Basically they are autorickshaws that look a bit different! They’re generally used for shorter distances in towns and cities, as their top speed is about 50 to 60 kilometers per hour.

The tuk-tuk usually runs on a scooter-style two-stroke engine, and makes a puttering noise from which it gets its name. Thailand is also working on lowering emissions from the exhaust-spewing tuk-tuks, with Bangkok’s fleet now running on quiet four-stroke engines and compressed natural gas.

Are tuks-tuks safe?

The safety of a tuk-tuk is questionable: passengers are exposed to the elements, with little or no barriers between them and whatever comes their way. It’s impossible to avoid pollution (especially when stuck in Bangkok’s infamous traffic) and weather. Accidents are relatively few, but that’s due to a low top speed more than anything. If you are travelling with young children, then we suggest you hire a metered taxi.

Styles of tuk-tuks

Tuk-tuks vary from country to country, and occasionally even within countries. In Thailand, for example, a small island called Ko Si Chang is home to a breed of larger, more powerful tuk-tuks that use six-cylinder engines in order to handle the island’s steep hills.

In Cambodia, the tuk-tuk is actually a motorbike that pulls a separate cabin-style trailer. In the Philippines, some tuk-tuks are actually a sidecar and can carry up to seven passengers if you count seating on the motorbike that pulls it. Thailand’s tuk-tuks tend to have more leg room (but less head space) than their neighbours’ versions.

Many drivers also personalise their tuk-tuks with varying forms of ‘bling’, from flashing neon to strings of fairy lights to bumpin’ speakers.

How to take a tuk-tuk

In Thailand, a tuk-tuk is a tourist vehicle; you’ll rarely see a local ride one unless they are burdened with packages. Thus, if you’re obviously a visitor, it’s not difficult to find a tuk-tuk. Drivers are notorious for seeking out passengers in touristy areas – often a driver will honk and/or yell ‘hello!’ to get pedestrians’ attention. They also tend to congregate outside popular tourist destinations. If you need to flag one down, do so with your arm outstretched, just like back home in your town!

Beware the fare

If you thought that it is only in India that you need to haggle with the autowallah for the fare, you’re in for a surprise! In Thailand there are no meters in tuk-tuks so you’ll need to barter for your fare, and this can sometimes be difficult. Always settle on a fare before you climb aboard, or your driver might surprise you with a hefty charge at your destination. You’ll also need to beware of scams – though you should research countries individually, one popular and ubiquitous con is to charge passengers an extremely low rate and then take them to gem shops or tailors, where they will be heavily pressured into buying something. The driver will receive a kickback – often a gas voucher – in exchange. In general, if a fare seems too low, it probably is. (And if it seems too high, it probably is as well.)

This article was originally written by Catherine Bodry and first appeared in in December 2011. It was refreshed in July 2012. To know more, see Lonely Planet India’s Thailand travel guide.