The Story of Thailand’s Tuk Tuks

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Published: November 14, 2017
Tuk Tuks in Bangkok - photo by Pedro Alonso

Practically Thailand’s national emblem, the humble tuk tuk is at the heart of the Bangkok experience 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.

What’s in a name?

Tuk tuks are the successor to the earlier human-powered rickshaw, known in Thai as samlor (literally ‘three wheels’) but the English-language name of which is said to be derived from Japanese, since it was Japan that first developed them. 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 that the engines of the earliest models made, and indeed many of those in existence today still make, while shunting through the Bangkok traffic.

Who uses tuk tuks?

Tuk Tuk in Talat Noi, Bangkok - photo by Andrij Bulba

It’s easy to assume that tuk tuks are only for tourists – and there are plenty who write them off as being a non-authentic mode of transport (whatever that means) that no-one except a fresh-off-the-plane first-time visitor would be seen dead in. It’s true that tuk tuks – at least the predominantly blue-and-yellow model seen in many areas of Bangkok – are popular with foreign tourists, who get a thrill from the ride, and for who tuk tuks are a convenient way to get around and see the sights in a new destination with which they are not yet totally familiar.

But it’s a borderline-pretentious falsehood to claim that locals simply don’t ride tuk tuks – because they do. Sure, there’s little denying that the hordes of tuk tuk drivers crowded around the entrances to tourist-geared attractions like Khaosan Road and the Grand Palace are there in the hope of a sweet fare ferrying around overseas backpackers (and it’s often among these groups of tuk tuk drivers that you’ll find the minority of less-than-scrupulous operators who give the rest of the industry a bad name – and we know from our experience most drivers are really great people).

It’s also true that, certainly in Bangkok, most commuters on their way to and from conventional jobs in offices, shopping centres, schools and the like will rarely set foot 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 songthaews (shared bus-like trucks) in more local neighbourhoods. 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.

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.

Tuk tuks around Bangkok

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 Banglamphu and wider Phra Nakhon (including Khaosan Road, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and so on), Siam, the upper-Sukhumvit areas of Nana and Asok, and Silom. 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 songthaew-shared-truck-style vehicles that can load on many more people – yet somehow you’ll likely stll 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.

Generally tuk tuks start at about 40-50THB for a short ride but the price will quickly go up.   Conversely, don’t accept the offer of a ride that’s unrealistically cheap (e.g 30THB) or even free (more scams than we can name start off this way), and avoid drivers who approach you in the street rather than you approaching them. Usually, these will end up taking you at an overpriced shop (often tailors or gem shops) where the driver gets petrol coupons and commission – you will not be forced to buy anything but the shop staff can be very convincing! 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

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.

Photos by Pedro Alonso; Andrij Bulba; BriYYZ; Chris Wotton; Expique

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About Expique

Expique is an award winning experience operator based in Bangkok. We aim to show guests the uniqueness and beauty of Bangkok and the Thai Culture. Our experiences include tuk tuk tours, food tours, eScooter tours, walking tours, cooking classes and market experiences.

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