The tuk-tuk is a popular way to travel in Thailand. Frequently used by Thais and international travelers alike, these brightly colored vehicles have become a kind of unofficial national symbol of the country.
A ride in a tuk-tuk is frequently listed as one of the things visitors to Thailand must do. But what is a tuk-tuk? How did it get its name? And are they safe? Discover a fun and interesting way to get around cities like Bangkok in this guide to tuk-tuks in Thailand.
What Is a Tuk-Tuk?
Tuk-tuks or auto rickshaws are small motorized vehicles with 3 wheels. Like traditional rickshaws, tuk-tuks have open sides and often open tops, although many have a cloth or canvas roof to provide shade or cover for passengers.
Tuk-tuks can hold 2 or 3 people. Typically, there is a seat at the front for the driver and a bench at the back for passengers.
Tuk-tuks are popular in cities in Thailand among both locals and tourists. They are usually painted in bright colors and can offer an authentic Thai experience for visitors.
There are around 9,000 tuk-tuks registered as taxis in Bangkok alone. They are frequently seen in tourist areas and around landmarks. They can also be flagged down in the street and are a convenient way to travel short distances around Thai cities.
Prices tend to be similar to (and sometimes more than) those of normal taxis. However, as with many things in Thailand, prices can be haggled over.
What Is the Difference Between a Rickshaw and a Tuk-tuk?
The key difference between a traditional rickshaw and a tuk-tuk is motorization. Traditional rickshaws are carts with 2 or 3 wheels pulled by a person on foot. Later, cycle rickshaws were invented, in which the driver towed the cart with a pedal bicycle.
Tuk-tuks or auto rickshaws are modern vehicles based on rickshaws with an engine.
Why Is a Tuk-tuk Called a Tuk-tuk?
It is not completely clear how the tuk-tuk got its name. Originally, the vehicle was dubbed a “samlor”, which means “3-wheeled vehicle” in Thai. There are a number of theories as to where the name “tuk-tuk” came from and why it replaced “samlor”.
The leading theory is that the name “tuk-tuk” originated from the sound of the engines, particularly on early models of auto rickshaw. While still fairly noisy today, the earliest tuk-tuks would chug and rumble through the Bangkok traffic, leading to an onomatopoeic name.
How Much Is a Tuk-Tuk in Thailand?
Tuk-tuks typically cost a similar amount to a taxi and sometimes cost more. Many visitors to Thailand think that they will be a cheaper option as they are smaller and slower, but this is usually not true.
Tuk-tuks are popular due to their novelty appeal and drivers tend to charge a similar amount to taxis for journeys of the same distance. In some areas of Bangkok, such as Sukhumvit and Silom, tuk-tuk drivers have been known to charge far more.
How to Get a Good Price for a Tuk-Tuk Ride
Tuk-tuks generally do not have meters, so prices should be agreed on beforehand. In order to agree on a fair price, the following things can help:
- Learn to speak some Thai
- Be prepared to haggle
- Do not let the driver see if you are in a big group
- Hire a tuk-tuk outside the city centers and tourist areas
Tuk-tuk drivers may try to take advantage of tourists, who may not be aware of the standard fares for journeys. However, being able to speak some Thai can give them the impression that you know the local customs.
Haggling is common when buying many goods and services in Thailand and knowing how to negotiate is a big advantage.
One technique is to approach multiple tuk-tuk drivers at once, which can lead them to compete by offering cheaper prices than the others.
The more passengers, the more a driver may try to charge, even if traveling the same distance. It is best to agree on the price before letting them know the number of passengers.
Why Travel by Tuk-Tuk?
Tuk-tuks come with several disadvantages. They are slower, less comfortable, more exposed, and often more expensive than taxis. So why do people use them?
The main advantage of traveling by tuk-tuk is for the experience. Visitors to Thailand generally describe tuk-tuks as the most fun option for getting around cities.
A bumpy ride through the bustling streets of cities like Bangkok in these colorful vehicles is an adventure and a photo opportunity.
In some cases, tuk-tuks can actually be quicker than taxis or private cars despite their slower speed. In large traffic jams, they are small enough to weave between other vehicles or take back alleys that cars cannot fit through. During rush hour, tuk-tuks may be the fastest way for passengers to reach their destination.
Are Tuk-Tuks Safe in Bangkok?
Tuk-tuks in Bangkok or anywhere else in Thailand are somewhat lacking in safety features. They typically have open sides and are not fitted with seatbelts, making them vulnerable in the event of a road traffic accident.
However, this risk factor is balanced out by the fact that tuk-tuks are not capable of driving at high velocities and typically drive much slower than other road vehicles. This means they are involved in fewer dangerous accidents.
They are also not the most eco-friendly of vehicles, producing lots of exhaust fumes. Driving through congested traffic in an open tuk-tuk can leave passengers breathing in lots of polluted air and dust, so it is not advisable to travel in them for long periods.
The open design of tuk-tuks also means that passengers are exposed to the weather. Sudden downpours or strong winds can leave travelers cold and wet.
Avoiding Tuk-Tuk Scams and General Safety Tips
There are a number of scams that tuk-tuk drivers have been known to try on unsuspecting tourists. These include:
- Charging an extremely inflated price at the end of the journey if a price is not agreed beforehand
- Offering his service for the day, then insisting on making stops at certain retailers, such as gem stores and tailors, where the visitor will be pressured to buy merchandise
- Telling tourists that the place they want to visit is closed and offering them a ride, with stops at the aforementioned stores.
The first scam can be avoided by always agreeing a price before getting in a tuk-tuk.
Visitors can avoid the other 2 scams by always flagging down tuk-tuks rather than choosing those waiting in line in areas popular with tourists, especially if they approach you offering their services.
You should always check with the staff at a tourist attraction if the place is closed or not. Be wary of any tuk-tuk drivers offering their services for low rates for the whole day.
Tuk-Tuks and Thieves
Another thing to be careful of is thieves taking advantage of open tuk-tuks. Bags may be snatched from the vehicles and phones and cameras have been known to be taken out of the hands of passengers by people riding motorbikes. This could be a big problem if your passport is taken. See advice about stolen or lost passports in Thailand.
Visitors who have any sort of problem with their passport should consult a list of embassies in Thailand to find the embassy of their home country.
However, the majority of visitors who travel by tuk-tuk experience no problems and being aware of the risks and staying alert minimizes the chances of being scammed or robbed.
Traveling to Thailand to Ride a Tuk-tuk
Thousands of international travelers visit Thailand each year to experience everything the country has to offer, from its temples to its beaches, and most of these will take a ride in a tuk-tuk during their trip.
In order to travel to Thailand, visitors need a valid passport and visa. Many nationalities can acquire a Thailand eVisa, which can be easily obtained with an online visa application form. This is much quicker than applying for a traditional visa at a Thai embassy.
Check the Thai eVisa requirements to see if you are eligible to apply.