Tuk-tuk tips: hold on tight in Asia's three-wheeled taxis

Zipping through traffic in an adorable three-wheeled vehicle is a hallmark experience for many travellers in Asia and particularly in Thailand, where this type of taxi is called a tuk-tuk. These charming modes of transport and the etiquette of hailing them and bartering the fare can be a mystery to first-time visitors to Asia. 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 Asia, the tuk-tuk also goes by the name rickshaw, trishaw or mototaxi, to name a few. These little sputtering taxis replaced the human-powered cycle rickshaws, as well as the human-pulled regular rickshaw. Able to zoom around cars in traffic jams and carry up to four passengers, the tuk-tuk sits between the motorbike and the regular taxi in terms of capacity and agility. They’re generally used for shorter distances in towns and cities, as their top speed is about 30 miles 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. In general, a metered taxi offers more protection, plus air-con.

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, beefier 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 India, where it is simply called a rickshaw, the tuk-tuk is painted black and yellow and has a slightly enclosed passenger area. 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 a lower head area) 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

The 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, palm facing down. Then waggle your fingers or wrist in a flapping motion, as though you are waving goodbye to the sidewalk or patting a small child on the head.

Beware the fare

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.)