The Story of Thailand’s Tuk Tuks

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Published: July 20, 2020
Tuk Tuks in Bangkok - photo by Pedro Alonso

Practically Thailand’s national emblem, the humble tuk tuk is at the heart of the authentic Thai for most first-time visitors – and plenty of repeat returners, too – as well as serving as a valuable mode of transport for locals and residents.

There’s little like the buzz of a spin around the Thai capital in one of these open-air, three-wheeled vehicles, and tuk tuks are also central to Expique’s unique Bangkok tours and experiences, such as on our flagship tuk tuk tours.

How Did The Tuk Tuk Get It’s Name?

Photo of the original pedal rickshaws in Thailand

Tuk tuks are the successor to the earlier cycle rickshaws, known in Thai as “Sam Lor” (literally ‘three wheels’). Back in 1933, it was said that Sam Lors were introduced to Thailand though after that they were banned from the main streets due to security reasons.

Thailand then imported motorised auto rickshaws from Japan in 1960. They were developed to replace the cycle rickshaws. Tuk tuks themselves, though, are believed to get their somewhat out-of-the-ordinary name (which is pronounced in Thai using a soft initial consonant that’s half-way between a ‘t’ and a ‘d’) from the sound of the engine. 

How Do Locals Use Tuk Tuks?

Monks taking a tuktuk

Many people may assume that tuk tuks are only for tourists as we usually find gangs of tuk tuks parked in front of the entrances to tourist-geared attractions like Khaosan Road and the Grand Palace.  They are indeed famous among tourists especially first visitors that want to have a unique experience getting around a city by the vehicle that is said to be a symbol of Thailand.  

Especially in Bangkok, most commuters on their way to and from conventional jobs in offices, shopping centres, schools and the like will rarely ride in a tuk tuk – the globalised version of modern life is well-entrenched in Bangkok, and there are countless other options like buses, motorbike taxis, river and canal ferries, and the BTS Skytrain and MRT subway, plus larger songtaews (shared bus-like trucks with seats down each side) in more local neighbourhoods. Also, Grab app has become very popular due to its convenience and acceptable price, and thus enhances the preference for taxi. 

But still, the truth is that countless types of tuk tuk exist across Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand, and each one serves a different type of passenger, far beyond just tourists on their first trip here. 

Tuk tuks are used to take goods to and from markets

Take a closer look and you’ll see regular Bangkok tuk tuks being used as handy contraptions to transport bulky or messy goods, like huge loads of fresh market produce being taken by a market vendor to be turned into delicious Thai street food on the other side of the city, or by a grandma back home to feed her extended family after a typically early morning visit to a fresh market to score the best and cheapest meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. 

Elsewhere, both in Bangkok and in other provinces around the country, locals still willingly hop into tuk tuks each and every day, either where other means of public transport are few and far between (particularly in more remote upcountry areas) or where tuk tuks have adapted into shared taxis (including in parts of Bangkok) to shuttle people from home to, say, the local market or to other forms of public transport for longer-distance onward journeys elsewhere in the city. 

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

Tuk Tuks in Bangkok - photo by BriYYZ

Most visitors to Bangkok encounter only the classic yellow-and-blue tuk tuks that seem ubiquitous in heavily touristed areas of Bangkok like Khaosan Road, The Grand Palace, Siam, and Sukhumvit Road . Head elsewhere around the capital, though and you’ll find different types of tuk tuks – like the larger, six-seater miniature trucks that ply the roads in some more local, residential neighbourhoods.

Rather than operating on the private-hire basis of most tuk tuks in touristy areas, these more local ‘tuk tuks’ function as shared, running up and down pre-determined, fairly limited routes (in some cases just from the top to the bottom of often particularly long roads, and then back again).

In even further flung areas of the metropolitan Bangkok area, like Pak Kret – the jumping-off point for the Chaophraya River’s Koh Kret island, and technically in neighbouring Nonthaburi province – you’ll also find the tuk tuk’s predecessor, the humble rickshaw or samlor. These vehicles lack motors and are instead powered by the driver pedalling on a bicycle, often at the back, while the passenger is usually thrown headlong into the traffic to enjoy the view from the front of the vehicle (samlors in reverse formation also exist).

Tuk Tuks Around Thailand

Tuk Tuks in Trang - photo by Chris Wotton

You’ll see even more variation in tuk tuk design the further you stray from Bangkok. Aside from the classic model in Bangkok and with similar ones in Chiang Mai, perhaps the most famous are the green tuk tuks in Trang and Ayutthaya provinces that are nicknamed for their appearance similar to a frog’s head. In other less-visited provinces, as well as upcountry tourist hotspots like Kanchanaburi, you can expect to come across more back-to-basics models that look more obviously like modified motorbikes with either a padded or wooden-bench-style seating area affixed to the back or side of the bike. 

And head to popular islands, like Phuket and Koh Pha Ngan, and you’ll find that conventional tuk tuks are often eschewed in favour of much larger songtaew-shared-truck-style vehicles that can load on many more people – yet somehow you’ll likely still be charged the kind of fare you would have paid for a private tuk tuk ride in Bangkok or elsewhere. 

How To Take A Tuk Tuk In Bangkok

Customers in Tuk Tuk in Bangkok

While tuk tuks are a great way to get around Thailand, whether as a tourist exploring the sights or as a local with a heavy load to transport, there’s little denying that there are some bad apples among Bangkok’s tuk tuk drivers – and that being a tourist with limited experience of the city makes you a target to be scammed.

The key is this: always agree the price of your ride before you get into the tuk tuk, and expect to haggle – your driver will likely quote an initially overpriced fare, anticipating that you will knock him or her down to at least some degree. Tuk Tuks are unmetered so in general will be a little more expensive than a taxi. but shouldn’t cost much more than the equivalent fare in a metered taxi.

Finally, when you’re on your ride, take care of your belongings and keep an eye out for bag-snatchers on passing motorbikes – you’re unlikely to fall prey, but it pays to be alert.

Of course if you want to take a tuk tuk without the hassle of negotiating with the driver then we would recommend a tuk tuk tour in Bangkok

How Much Do Tuk Tuks Charge?

Many tourists assume that tuk tuks are local transportation so they must be cheap or at least less expensive than metered taxis. If we’re talking about tuk tuks in touristy areas, entertainment hubs, and at airports – can say in every province, that idea is totally wrong. 

The cost for a tuk tuk ride can be the same or often much more expensive than the cost of a taxi ride over the same distance. There’re several reasons, taxis’ fee is calculated by a meter which every taxis (seems to) have the same standard. Some may even say the meter fare is too low and makes it hard for drivers to earn a decent living. Meanwhile tuk tuks do not have meter and fee is offered by a driver. 

There can be no denying that the lack of meter gives opportunistic drivers the chance to try to charge more to those they think will pay. This is usually the experience of tourists, but is often the case for locals as well and especially at times when there are few taxis available (or when raining).

Tuk tuk drivers know who they can demand high prices, and especially first visitors who have no idea of how much they should pay. Generally this means there is also and opportunity to negotiate a little bit, but always ask before you get in. Most tuk tuks will start charging at about 50THB (40THB if very lucky) for a short ride.

In tourist areas you also do need to watch out for tuk tuks who scam by offering you a very low price (or even free) for a few hours but will take you to places they get commissions from.

You can find tuk tuks with normal prices at local markets or non touristic places.

In conclusion, a tuk tuk ride is really great for seeing sights. The experience that you will get might worth a penny. However, taking them as regular transportation or for a short journey is perhaps not the cheapest option. 

The future of the tuk tuk

Tuk tuks are a symbol of Thailand and no doubt will be around for a while. However, the nature may change and there is much talk at the moment to exchange / convert tuk tuks to electric versions. We are yet to see what the reaction and uptake will be.

Explore Bangkok with Expique

At Expique our mission is to help people discover the real Bangkok and the local cultures. We do this through a range of experiences including Food Tours, Walking Tours, Tuk Tuk Tours, Cooking Classes, and Market Experiences

Our Bestselling Experiences

• Check out our Award Winning ★  Bangkok Night Lights Tuk Tuk Tour
• If you love food as much as us you will love our Evening Food and Tuk tuk Adventure
• If you wanna learn to cook check out our Thai Cooking with a Twist Class
• If you feel adventurous take an eScooter Scoot Bangkok’s Backstreet
• Don’t forget our famous Bangkok By Day: Temples, Markets, Snacks & Local Transport

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Expique is an award winning experience operator based in Bangkok. We show guests the beauty of Bangkok through tuk tuk tours, food tours, eScooter tours, walking tours, cooking classes and a lot more.

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