Published on: May 12, 2020
A visit to Bangkok (or Thailand for that matter) wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the iconic “tuk-tuk”. These motorized rickshaws allow you to experience the city like a local. From the humidity to the sound of honking horns while watching your driver expertly maneuvering through six lanes of traffic, it’s an experience you won’t likely ever forget.
Tuk-tuks first appeared on the streets of Bangkok in the 1960s when human-powered rickshaws were banned. Since then, it has become a part of the Thai way of life. And the humble vehicle became an enduring symbol of a city famous for its golden temples and kind people.
Though they are also used by locals, tuk-tuks mainly cater to tourists. The city has a well-developed transportation system which offers various transport options like monorail, buses, taxis, and water taxis. Oftentimes, they are much cheaper than tuk-tuks. This is why riding the tuk-tuk has become more of a novelty than a way of getting from point A to B.
If you’re new to Bangkok or are still planning your itinerary, here’s a quick guide to a hassle-free tuk-tuk ride.
How to Hire a Tuk-tuk
Since there are a lot of tuk-tuks plying the city streets, it’s quite easy to hire one. Tuk-tuk drivers are quite skilled at spotting tourists. They’ll usually approach you first and ask where you’re going then they’ll offer you a rate. Always agree on a rate before riding.
In some areas like the Grand Palace, tuk-tuks are usually lining up at the gates. You can flag one from there but it’s not the best idea. Hiring a tuk-tuk in these areas can be very pricey. Walk a little to the main road and you can hail one for about half the price.
If it’s your first time in the city, you can also ask your hotel to call a tuk-tuk for you. Some tour agencies also offer this service. This is often more convenient as the language barrier can be an issue when negotiating a tuk-tuk ride.
Negotiating Tuk-tuk Fares
Unlike taxis, tuk-tuks are not metered. As such, you cannot expect to pay a standard fare. It usually depends on where you’re hailing from, the traffic, and your driver’s mood. Distance matters too but not all the time.
Tuk-tuk drivers will initially ask for an amount that’s double or triple the usual rate as they expect tourists to haggle. This is where your negotiation skills will prove very useful.
First off, don’t agree on the initial amount they’re asking. Instead, offer half their asking price then you can work your way from there. Remember that these people are used to haggling. So you need to be firm and let them know you mean business.
Tuk-tuk rides usually start at 40 to 50 baht (about 1.24 to 1.55USD). But the price can easily go up especially in tourist hubs. When I was in the Chatuchak market, a tuk-tuk driver tried to charge me 300 baht (around 10USD) for a 20-minute ride back to my hostel. So I walked about two blocks farther and was able to get a tuk-tuk for only 200 baht (around 6USD).
If you can’t agree on a price, just wave your hand and walk away. Some drivers will catch up to you and agree on your offer. But most of the time, they’ll understand and just let you be.
Some tourists say they just give in to their driver’s asking price as it’s still cheaper than what they would have paid back home. But you need to remember the difference in living costs. Thailand is a developing country and things are cheaper than in western countries. Besides, paying an absurd amount for a few minutes ride makes it harder for locals to hail a tuk-tuk as drivers will be more inclined to serve foreigners.
How to Avoid Tuk-tuk Scams
Though Thais are generally nice people, tuk-tuk scams targeting unsuspecting tourists are also common. A quick search in online travel forums will give you first-hand stories of people getting ripped-off by unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers.
One of the most common scams you’ll encounter is the “free tuk-tuk ride” scheme. The driver will offer you a ridiculously low or even a free ride. But when you’re comfortably seated, they will then tell you to help them get free gasoline by stopping at some souvenir shops. These shops provide drivers with commission or gasoline vouchers for every tourist they bring in. Though you won’t be forced to buy anything, their sales talk usually does the trick. And most tourists end up buying some terribly overpriced souvenirs.
If you’re visiting the Grand Palace, you most likely will also encounter the “Grand Palace is closed” scam. On my first visit to Bangkok, I too fell prey to this. I was walking up to the Grand Palace gate when an overly-friendly local walked up to me. I didn’t think much of it as Thais are generally friendly. He asked me if I’m going to the Grand Palace. When I nodded, he told me that the Grand Palace is closed for an hour as there is a memorial ceremony for their recently deceased king.
At that moment, a tuk-tuk driver approached us and talked to the man. He seems to be asking him what’s the problem. Then he turned to me and said that, if I want, he can take me to other temples instead.
Because I didn’t know where else to pass the time, I agreed. Our first stop was a dock of some kind. He told me that if I want to go to Wat Arun temple, I need to ride the river cruise. It will take me to the temple and back. One round trip costs 1,200 baht (almost $40). I have an idea of the cost of living in Bangkok and I know it’s too expensive. Besides, I’m not really willing to spend that much just to visit a single temple. So, I declined and asked him to just take me back to the Grand Palace. I’m thinking maybe I’ll just eat lunch first and wait until the gates reopen.
When we got back to the palace, I realized that it’s already open. Upon further inquiry, I learned that it had always been open. Later that day, I went to Wat Arun and the river ferry only cost me 10 baht. It dawned on me that the tuktuk driver and the overly-friendly local man were in cahoots. And if not for my cheapskate tendencies, I’d have been ripped off big time.
To sum up, yes, there are bad apples who are ruining the tuk-tuk’s reputation. But don’t let this discourage you. There are still a lot of good and honest tuk-tuk drivers out there. If you know how to avoid the scheming ones, riding the tuk-tuk might just be the highlight of your trip.