For those who have never travelled to Southeast Asia (SEA), you may be unfamiliar with what a tuk-tuk actually is. It is THE form of transportation in almost all of the countries we have travelled to thus far, sans China, where taxis are the norm. Driving a tuk-tuk is also the job of many men in SEA, thus supporting the local economy.
A tuk-tuk is a motorcycle is rigged with a hitch of sorts to tow a covered cart with seats. A tuk-tuk can comfortably fit four “western” adults, but we have seen as many as 14 Cambodians riding in a tuk-tuk. A close relative of the tuk-tuk is the songthaew, which can carry more passengers, and is a truck with the bed converted into a covered transport. The truck bed is covered on each side, along with the roof, and the back is left open for passengers entering and exiting. There are benches along each side of the truck bed. Of course, there are taxis, but this is ingenuity at its finest.
(Here’s the view from the back of a tuk tuk in Laos, all done up to protect from the rain.)
While in Sihanoukville recently, we had wanted a relaxing beach day over in Otres Beach. Of course, getting there by tuk-tuk was our only option. The tuk-tuks are parked all over the place: along the curb, in the middle of the sidewalk, you name it. So we only have to walk out of our hotel to get harrassed talk to a tuk-tuk driver to get the ball rolling. Sihanoukville to Otres Beach is about a 20 minute drive, so we negotiate a price of $5 with the driver. He is all smiles, agrees, but then says he will take us round trip and “I give you a discount” for the tune of $8. So we get to the beach, he tells us he will be waiting in the same spot, but he may be sleeping, but he will wait for us for as long as we want to stay.
Whether or not this is a “discount” is debatable. But it is all a debate, or a negotiation. Much of SEA relies on bargaining, so you never really know if you are getting the best price. What is important is that you feel it is a good price, and the driver is willing to take you for that price. Of course, this is all agreed upon BEFORE the trip begins.
(Sometimes you ride in the back of a tuk tuk while wearing your sweet tuk tuk shirt from Dorsu)
While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we had this super enthusiastic, friendly tuk-tuk driver make our acquaintance one afternoon, and we agreed to have him pick us up the next day to do some sightseeing. He had wanted to take us across the river to some silk making scheme, but K wasn’t feeling that well, so we said we didn’t want to be gone all day. We agreed for him to take us to Wat Phnom & the Russian Market, and, we assumed, back to the hotel, for $10. It seemed quite reasonable to us. He was not the same person this day, probably upset that we didn’t want to go to the silk factory where he would receive a cut of a purchase, and that we didn’t want to go where he wanted us to go. So we go to the Wat, and then we get to the market (only having been gone an hour at this point), and he says, “So I leave you here”. Ummmm, what? No, we agreed to you taking us back to the hotel, or did we? He starts yelling at us, that $10 did NOT include taking us back to the hotel, and that we needed to pay him. With a lot of back and forth, we ended up paying him $6, and got a tuk-tuk back to our hotel for $3, saving us $1. But seriously, that guy was an asshole.
(Batman tuk tuk in Siem Reap. Don’t worry, the Dark Knight will deliver you safely and most likely for under $3.)
This got me thinking about the nature of the tuk-tuk driver and the business itself. The tuk-tuk driver in Sihanoukville was basically willinging to spend his afternoon doing nothing to make $8, or what you might spend on a cocktail out at a bar back home, and he was genuinely happy to do so. The day before (also in Sihanoukville) we spent $12 for basically an hour of transport to look at the Angkor Brewery (we couldn’t get in due to dress code specifics) and back. That guy got off easy because he had the rest of the day to try to make more money. But the interesting part of all of this is the trust factor. We pay no money ahead of time, and the driver trusts that we will indeed come back and pay him, not like the U.S. at all (except for the asshole). It’s refreshing.
(Tuk tuk drivers all lined up in Sihanoukville, waiting to give you a ride!)
Most often tuk-tuk drivers are seen as pestering. When you are just walking along the road, minding your own business, you hear: “Tuk-tuk?”, even though you are purposely avoiding eye contact. The exchange goes something like this:
“No thank you./Not right now.”
Always giving that elusive hope that, indeed, maybe later, you will come back to them.