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Bangkok tuk-tuks

20th Century Icon

Before we get onto the subject of tuk tuks, those open-sided three-wheeler scooter-cum-pickup-truck taxi things you see slicing through the clotted mire of street level Bangkok, I should warn you of something.

I am terribly biased.

If it’s a display of dispassionate even-handedness you expect, a rigid adherence to journalistic probity untainted by the foul whiff of personal prejudice — then go on, turn the page. This one’s not for you.

For I am a great fan of the tuk tuk, and have been since, as a budget traveller in compulsory-issue Indian leather sandals, faded cotton pants and embroidered vest, I made my debut tuk tuk ride — Banglamphoo to the Grand Palace, May 1981.

Twenty-five years before that, the tuk tuk first arrived in Thailand from Japan, cheap transportation driven by an economical two-stroke engine. That engine sits, motorcycle-like, under a cowling between the knees of the driver, who steers the fat front crossply by way of a broad, chrome boomerang of a handlebar with a twistgrip throttle on the right. The clutch is a foot-pedal on the left, and another long-throw pedal on the right side deploys the brakes. Deep between the driver’s thighs, the car-style gear lever sticks straight up like, well — like a gear lever. Passenger accommodation for two or three small adults (or, seemingly, anything up to twenty-eight school children) is a padded perch directly over the rear axle and LPG tank.

And top speed is a gobsmackingly exhilarating 120 kph.

All of which would be mildly entertaining if it were not for the styling, which exists in a glorious time warp, a deep-frozen half-century-old Japanese interpretation of the automotive designs of Detroit. We’re talking rounded, bulbous, oversized and over-chromed — and with a Tucker-esque central headlamp at the snout of a bomber-like nose cone. Below that rattles a swooping mudguard reminiscent of the Capone era sedan. The sum of these parts is so cute it makes you want to adopt it and take it home. Or at the very least have a go at driving it.

So when the opportunity arose to not only spend a few days in low-level flight around Bangkok exploring the world of the tuk tuk, but to perhaps even get a shot at driving one — you couldn’t see me for two-stroke smoke.

the test drive

Two mechanics from Hua Lumphong Tuk Tuk Company, sent to baby-sit the indulgent foreigner, hung from either running board like bodyguards, barking instructions in my ears. The twistgrip throttle was disconcertingly vague, and the engine refused to idle, forcing me to reach for the key and re-start it three times while my flankers stood by, rolling their eyes. Muscling down the foot clutch, I took my left hand from the vibrating bar to notch the gear lever into first, raised the revs and dropped the clutch, and off we lurched; almost immediately it was time for second gear (TWO! TWO!, shouted my offsiders), and the steering made a zig-zag as I explored the mushy ‘box. We kangarooed in straight lines back and forth across the stadium car park, the mechanics’ bravado faltering shy of allowing me to negotiate any turns. [The last time I was here at Bangkok’s National Stadium, it was to photograph Michael Jackson; this was much more interesting.] Once and only once, I made it into fourth gear at maybe forty kph, and I was grinning like a cartoon duck when the sobre-faced motorcycle cop in the mirrored Aviators pulled alongside. End of test drive. Five more minutes, and I’m sure the guys would have let me make a few gentle turns.

As an episode, it capped several days of getting to grips with tuk tuks, a period — you may have gathered by now — of great pleasure, but also one of discovery.

For I soon found out that the dear old tuk tuk means different things to different folk.

Such is the fate of a modern-day icon.

the drivers

Kun Anakenuan is sixty-seven years old, and for thirty-two years has driven tuk tuks through the ever-worsening tumult that is Bangkok traffic. Like most tuk tuk drivers, he is not a native of the city, hailing instead from Roi Et province; again like most tuk tuk drivers, Kun is really a rice farmer.

North-Eastern rice farmers levelling out seasonal income fluctuations make up the majority of Bangkok’s tuk tuk drivers, a fact not lost upon their customers, who face the regular difficulties of finding a tuk tuk during rice-planting and -harvesting months.

To Kun Anakenuan and thousands of farmers like him, the tuk tuk has been the vital source of hard cash to flesh out farm-life’s lean periods. Not only that, it has helped them pay for the education of their kids, giving thousands of rural children an instant boost up the socio-economic ladder. Kun’s three boys all graduated from vocational college paid for by his Bangkok toils, and all have sound jobs in government. This, I am told, is typical.

Such is the lure of the big city and the mighty Baht that even today, young men in rural provinces dream of following in the three-wheeled tracks of their dads and uncles. But if Kun Anakenuan were thirty years old, he tells me, he wouldn’t go down that road again. Rice farming has become more profitable, more dependable — while the driver’s income has plunged.

Worsening pollution and the status and comfort of air-conditioned taxi cabs have eaten into the tuk tuk driver’s market, as has the enforced frugality of the post-IMF era. Income, according to Kun and other drivers, is down by almost half since the IMF were invited in. Twelve hours of inhaling Bangkok smog at the mercy of unsympathetic motorists, bullying bus drivers and predatory figures of authority earns a driver about B.200. That’s a shade under US$6 for a brutal day’s work.

the regular customers

When photographer Niparpon Vonghong was growing up in Bangkok’s Chinatown in the ‘seventies, she and several friends used to congregate on the same street corner at 06:30 every school morning. There, they would be met unfailingly by their ‘uncle’ the tuk tuk driver, who would haul his giggling brood the few kilometres to their convent school. And after school, rain or shine, he would be there to take them home again. Twenty years later, the tuk tuk is still a valued source of cheap, reliable transportation, trusted by thousands of parents to whisk their kids to and from school.

Likewise the market traders. Tuk tuks have slipped into a natural role as the short-haul carrier of goods as well as people. Stand at the edges of the markets that dot Bangkok’s older sections, and watch tuk tuks swarm like worker bees around the hive. In the early morning they carry newspapers or fruits, vegetables and flowers and other perishables; later in the day, textiles, garments, electronic goods and hardware. Small traders, stocking up at vast wholesale markets, know that their preferred driver, often a fellow-exile from the same distant village community, will be waiting for them. Quite commonly, the entire wholesale/transport/retail business chain is one linked by provincial relationships, making the tuk tuk and it’s driver an element in a social chain holding together mini-diasporas of displaced villagers eager for a friendly face or a distant dialect.

the owners

Gullawat Treevittayanuruk, also known as ‘Teo’, is a tuk tuk businessman for whom tuk tuks are much, much more than a business. From tiny backstreet premises near Hua Lumphong train station, Teo juggles a fleet of 46 vehicles, a mini-empire founded nearly forty years ago by his late father.

Tuk tuk owners are seldom tuk tuk drivers; instead, people like Teo own the vehicles and rent them out to drivers for twelve or twenty-four hours at a time. To rent a tuk tuk for twelve hours costs B.250 (about $7), or B.370 ($10) for a day. Out of this, Teo must pay for fuel and 2-stroke oil, plus all maintenance and insurance costs. He estimates that each vehicle nets him around B.100 per day ($3).

Apart from their purchase price (B.70,000 to 100,000, or $2,000 to $3,000, depending on whether the engine is re-conditioned or new), Teo must also own a licence to operate each tuk tuk. Limited by the authorities to 7500 in total, licences trade on the open market, and currently go for about B.180,000 — down from a heady pre-IMF crisis value of B.750,000.

When they were at a premium, business-graduate Teo thought about offloading some licences and investing the cash elsewhere. The same amount of capital, after all, could safely generate a handsome return simply by sitting in a bank account. But a chat with his mother soon put paid to that idea. His is a Chinese family business, set in motion by his father and with ethnic, family and social traditions to uphold; Kun, for example, has been driving Hua Lumphong tuk tuks since the 1960s; and at least sixty other far-flung rural families still depend on income generated by Teo’s client-drivers. He’s making a living, of course, but for Teo, the tuk tuk business is driven by more than just profits.

the critics

Sadly, not everybody is in love with the tuk tuk. The tuk-tuk debate is drawn along battle lines that on the one side sees the massed drivers, owners and regular passengers — and on the other, well, everybody else in Bangkok.

I put that down to plain old traffic jam envy.

Bangkok drivers resent the tuk tuk for the very reasons that others love them so: they are fast away from the traffic lights, and they routinely defy physics, squeezing through gaps in traffic that are smaller then their own external dimensions; they have the manoeuverability of a unicycle, and the capacity to create whole new lanes where before there were none. On top of this, tuk tuk drivers are hardy products of the toughest of environments, fatalists who know no fear and never, ever shy from a game of chicken. Car drivers fearful for their paintwork and bus drivers concerned for their livelihoods revile them with a vengeance. And motorcycle taxi-riders, fiercely protective of their own jam-busting abilities, detest tuk tuks for doing precisely what they themselves do all day long. Like I said, it’s an envy thing.

And then there are the environmentalists, whose concerns for the ozone layer are, unfortunately, well-founded — even if only in part. Elsewhere in the world, the grossly inefficient two-stroke engine is a dying breed, yet every tuk tuk in Bangkok is a hydrocarbon-belching two-stroke. This, despite the fact that successful Thai manufacturers are currently exporting tuk tuks by the thousand, tuk tuks almost exclusively powered by four-stroke engines. Getting a straight answer as to why this is so proves impossible, and I suspect that it comes down to simple economics; the current engines are in plentiful supply, and have long since had all the gremlins bred out of them; even a slow change-over to four-strokes would mean expensive teething problems and conversion costs that would inevitably hurt the owners and the drivers.

That said, the environmentalist’s fuss about 7,500 two-stroke tuk tuks seems to me to be a little out of proportion to the actual threat — given that they share Bangkok’s streets with two-stroke motorcycles. One million of them.

Another threat to the tuk tuk’s very existence radiates from government departments whose remit is public safety. Open-sided, of flimsy construction, and without safety belts or roll cages, these nippy little buggies are beset with inherent dangers. So much so that safety officials looking too closely at the tuk tuk could well presage the early demise of the little three-wheeled taxi. Cause of death: suffocation by legislation.

future? what future?

“Tuk tuks disappeared from Tokyo long ago, and eventually the same will happen here.”

This prospect is all the more disquieting when you consider that it is expressed by Mr. Sompong Chunharassamee, President of the Rattanakosin Association, the largest of the four tuk tuk associations. Mr. Sompong feels that eventually the Bangkok tuk tuk will go the way of the ox-cart. However, even then he feels there will be life in the old dog — as a tourist attraction. “In the future, tuk tuks might be more for tourism, and could be promoted as a symbol of Bangkok,” he says.

The thought of the Bangkok tuk tuk smothered by economic progress, changing social mores and bureaucratic dictat is almost unthinkably sad. Just as tragic is the vision of the once-prevalent Bangkok icon suffering the same fate as the Hongkong rickshaw or the Macau pedicab: reduced to a rice-bowl for a few ageing unemployables preying hawk-like on gullible tourists. Yet according to the writing on the wall, twenty years from now, it could be more than a vision. It could be reality.

Brand me a pessimist if you will, but I’ve already got my memories of the tuk tuk analysed, catalogued and preserved, just in case.

To me, the tuk tuk ride is a tenuous thread to Bangkok’s ever-receding days as a centre of things oriental and exotic. An ephemeral vision cloaked in the darkness of the early hours of the morning, when the city wears an unaccustomed mantle of serenity, its broad boulevards fleetingly transformed from clogged highways to wide-open flight paths where driver and passenger can taste freedom on the hot, tropical wind. Leaning languidly back, veins awash with alcohol, synapses numb to the peril of the world sweeping past at insane velocities, focussed senses picking up trace elements of the Grand Old Dame that once was Bangkok; lotus leaves and newly-ripened durian and lemon grass and papayas and crushed cloves and fragrant oils and a hundred other unidentified aromas of an Oriental Beauty wearing her exoticism on her silk sleeve.

Just me and my dreams, afloat on my very own magic carpet ride.

I told you I was biased.