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Riding the buses » Memorable moments, Road trips, Travel itinerary » Travelling by tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia

Travelling by tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia

I took many, many tuk-tuks in Southeast Asia and they certainly weren’t just for tourists for that’s how most locals get about. There are tuk-tuks propelled by motor and others by cycle . I wasn’t too keen on the latter because the driver was often old and skinny and I’d want to do the peddling instead of him.

There are many reasons to go by tuk-tuk. They are inexpensive. They can weave in and out of traffic, which is an unbelievable bonus in some cities although a little nerve racking, particularly when you’re going around busy corners. Tuk-tuk drivers seem to know all the shortcuts and the vehicles are small enough to travel on back lanes where cars can’t go.

Tuk-tuk drivers are usually happy to wait while you partake in touristy things and it can be a relief to see them when you exit the temple or market and just want to get back to your hotel without any hassle.

It was usually easy to flag down a tuk-tuk and often they’d be lined up at the bus station or by popular markets and restaurants and desperate for business. The exception was Bangkok where neither taxi nor tuk-tuk seemed keen to pick up foreigners, probably because few drivers speak or read any English although the Thai government is working to change that.

Most tuk-tuk drivers have a hard time reading maps, at least that was my experience. They’d bring the map up close to their face, turn it around and study it from different angles, trace a road with their long, manicured fingernail, seem quite annoyed when I’d try to point out a landmark, then hand it back without knowing how to get to where I wanted to go. I read somewhere that this is known as map illiteracy. Anyway, it’s better to have a picture of your destination or the name and address written down in their language so that they can consult with others along the way.

Drivers can be quite aggressive in getting your business. Some will pick up your suitcase and run with it to the vehicle, often parked far away, if you show the slightest interest in hiring them. If they speak some English, they’ll use every word they know before getting to your destination to impress you so that you’ll hire them again. And I often did.

Some drivers know enough English that they could almost be a tour guide and if they could officially qualify as one their income would greatly increase. In Siem Reap, every tuk-tuk driver I met hoped one day to work as a guide at the Angkor temples so they were all keen to answer my endless questions about the place.

Others know no English at all. I was stranded at the Phnom Penh airport, unable to catch my flight to Vietnam because of documentation needed for a visa, and couldn’t remember the name of the hotel where I had been staying and stupidly had already destroyed the map (I was travelling very light). I knew it was near the Royal Palace and if the driver got me in the vicinity then I would be able to find it. So I kept saying words like “palace” and  “king” and mimed a crown on my head but the driver didn’t have a clue what I was doing or saying. He took me to every hotel in Phnom Penh where foreigners tend to stay until we finally found mine. He was as thrilled as I was and didn’t hang around for more business.

I’d usually negotiate the fare before getting in, at least until I knew what a reasonable fare was and then I would just hand that to the driver.  If  we were going quite far I’d offer some money in advance for gas. I took care to have the right change on me to pay him so he wouldn’t have to go asking others. Sometimes I’d ask to take a photo of him and was much surprised when a driver in Jogjakarta pulled out his camera and took a photo of me!

You can feel a little exposed in a tuk-tuk, particularly when you’re holding on to your luggage. In Phnom Penh the drivers always warned me to be careful or the bags could be snatched. On the rare occasions that it rained, the driver would pull a plastic cover over the vehicle to shelter us.

The most difficult place for tuk-tuk riding was Laos because the roads are so horrible that your bones get all shook up. But it’s not much easier going by car or bus. Besides, so many of the drivers there are just special people. I was out walking in Vientiane when a tuk-tuk driver talked me into going to Buddha Park with him, a fair distance away. I was without money or bank card but he said that was fine, that I could pay him later, which I did.

I had a bad experience on my first tuk-tuk ride in China and never took one in that country again. But in all the countries I visited in Southeast Asia, the drivers were courteous, reliable and delivered what was agreed upon.

I’m sure there are bad things that I can say about tuk-tuks. Like maybe the motorized ones cause a lot of pollution. Probably there’s not much protection if you’re in an accident. But when you’re there you tend to see the world through a different lens. On the road to Tonlé Sap my tuk-tuk passed a woman riding a very wobbly bicycle; on the back of the bike and sharing her seat was a child around the age of three; between them was an infant that only the child was holding on to. Such is life over there.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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