Author John McMahon takes us around Bangkok for the day in the back – and front – seat of a tuk-tuk. This article is part of John’s Somchai’s Apprentice blog series which takes an in-depth look at some of Thailand’s most weird and wonderful careers.
The auto rickshaw is ubiquitous in hot, poor countries; samosa, trishaw, autorick – this most basic form of automated transport goes by many names. In Thailand, it’s called a tuk-tuk (the name is onomatopoeic, like put-put in English) and is as recognizable a symbol of the country as the elephant or the political coup. It’s pictured on T-shirts, souvenir shot glasses and carved out of coconut shells and hawked in every part of the country.
The odd three-wheeled contraption, which looks more like a lost bet than a vehicle, spews black smoke and sounds like a chainsaw as it clogs up traffic nationwide. They’re a mainstay of Thai transportation, utilized by school kids and marketers for their ability to cram massive amounts of goods and humans in and go a good distance for small money. As much as they are a day-to-day necessity for some Thai people, they can equally be the bane of a tourist’s holidays. The Thai news is riddled with tuk-tuk horror stories ranging from innocuous tales of people being taken to rip-off outlet stores instead of their desired destination to the more serious problems of the tuk-tuk mafias in Phuket and Pattaya intimidating and even severely beating people for denying their overpriced services.
Personally, I gave up on Tuk Tuks long ago as a minor annoyance with little function. They’re not as nimble as a motorcycle taxi for getting where you need to go in a hurry and they cost about the same as a real taxi without offering the comfort and safety of being in a big air conditioned metal box.
Often these tuk-tuks are tricked out with serious stereo equipment, disco lights and extravagant interiors and just as in the jungle the species with the ostentatious colors are poisonous.
But to write about jobs specific to Thailand and not include the tuk-tuk would be like writing about pornography and skipping the sex. And to do them justice, it’s important to put them in their natural habitat, Bangkok, the city they have evolved to move through.
Along the popular side streets of Sukhumvit Road, tuk-tuk drivers park their rides in groups in front of hotels and major walking intersections and harass pedestrians. Often these tuk-tuks are tricked out with serious stereo equipment, disco lights and extravagant interiors and just as in the jungle the species with the ostentatious colors are poisonous. These drivers stand around all day chanting a mantra that usually sounds something like “Hey where you go? You want disco? Have nice lady? Massage? Drink whiskey? boom boom?”
But maybe more amazing than the fact they’re willing to stand around doing that all day is the fact that every once in a while someone takes them up on it.
It wasn’t too far from there though that I ran into a driver who seemed sane and more or less decent. He approached me but instead of shouting out a list of the most obvious vices he could provide he started to tell me about a big breasted fiberglass sculpture that was sat in front of the Thai Ministry of Culture. Buddha’s mother, he told me, was a character from the Ramayana. He sort of explained the connection in a vague way that had little to do with the actual mythology but his English was good and he seemed like someone I could spend some time with. I told him I wanted to learn about being a tuk-tuk driver and that I would pay him for half a day and that he could still pick up fares along the way. When he understood what I was talking about he countered with the idea that if I wanted to learn about being a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok then I would have to act as his mark and let him take me to tailors and jewelry shops where he would receive a commission for delivering me. It seemed a fair trade off, we would use each other.
The economics of tuk-tuk drivers is a strange, seemingly impossible economy. In addition to providing transportation to the locals for little money, what most tuk-tuk drivers in and around the tourist areas rely on is acting as touts for business. For hotels, bars, massage parlors of course but also for tailors, jewelers and trinket shops where they pick up a fee for delivering foreigners, whether they buy anything or not.
His daily goal is to earn at least 1,000 baht which after expenses gives him 500 baht to take home.
Bua has been driving a tuk-tuk in Bangkok for 22 years, starting when he was only 18-years-old. For 12 hours a day, he hangs out in the Sathorn area at a corner with five or six other drivers where he will take a straight fare – but also cajoles tourists into letting him take them to his ‘sponsors’ as he calls the shops that pay to deliver foreigners. The deal is he’ll take you almost anywhere you want to go if you’ll visit two of his shops where he collects a hundred baht each, plus a percentage if you actually buy something.
Bua doesn’t own his tuk-tuk. He leases it each year which works out to be about 300 baht a day. An additional 200 baht goes to fuel and he’s responsible for upgrades and or repairs to the machine. His tuk-tuk is fairly plain with the exception of having his name upholstered on the passenger’s seat and sporting a chrome deaths head gear shift. He would, of course, like to buy his own tuk-tuk but he can’t ever get far enough ahead to raise the 600k baht ($20,000), 150k for the machine and 450k for the license which is good for life. His daily goal is to earn at least 1,000 baht which after expenses gives him 500 baht to take home.
We roll up to our first stop, a large tailoring shop where there are already two or three other tuk-tuk touts waiting outside for their people. I ask how long I need to stay inside so that he can get his commission. Never mind he says, as long as you want.
Inside I’m pounced on by one of the ten or so Indian salesmen who right away takes me by the arm and shows me a hideous suit, inquiring how many I might want. All tailor shops in Bangkok are manned by Indians because they’re cheaper than Thai’s, says Bua, but of course it’s because they can speak English.
I go through the pantomime of negotiating over a leather motorcycle jacket which raises the salesman’s hopes. I keep asking for a quote and he keeps trying to get me to let him give me a fitting, thinking that once he had my numbers I couldn’t back out of the deal. In the end, I got a quote which actually was pretty tempting and took their card before leaving. Bua was waiting outside: “O.K? One more?” We agreed I would do four shops for him.
We traveled around a small, highly touristic part of downtown Bangkok going from shop to shop in light Sunday afternoon traffic. Visiting the tailors actually turned out to be fun as I haggled over the price of the fictitious jacket, in turn telling each shop I had received an ever cheaper quote from the shop I had visited beforehand to the outrageous consternation of the salesmen who hooted and guffawed and wagged their heads at the pittance I was offering. It was the same in each shop.
“This jacket sir, this jacket very nice and is going to look very good for you. We should do a fitting just now?”
“Sure, but I need a price first, the last place I went told me it would be about 3,500 baht ($100). What can you do for me?”
“3,500 is impossible, who told you this? This is lie, this jacket for 3,500 can not.”
Here, I would hand them a card from another shop. “They told me 3,500, ready tomorrow.”
“Impossible, they are bad lying to you sir. Never for that price.”
Of course, all the tailors know exactly how much each would pay to have something made since they all use the same sweat shops to get their work done.
The jewelry shops were different; they didn’t even try and sell me anything. They could see right off from my clothes and lack of accouterments that I wasn’t a customer for them and yet still they gave Bua his 100 baht commission. It is a logic that befuddles me when I think about it, tuk-tuks giving rides for free to tourists who agree to stop at two or so shops they don’t want to go to where salesmen will argue and harangue them to buy something they don’t want. 95% of the time they won’t buy, so the tuk-tuk can get a 100 baht commission from the shop that has made nothing on the deal. How many tuk-tuks a day do they pay off? From what I saw, there were three or four at each stop. If each stop is 15 minutes, that equals 2,000 baht an hour, or 20,000 baht a day. It sounds impossible, but this is the way so much of the Thai economy works, so I can’t doubt it too much.
As we were finishing up, Bua asked me if I wanted to drive the tuk-tuk – which of course I did. I thought he meant in a parking lot or an abandoned side street somewhere but he pulled over right where we were, in one of the most congested areas in one of the most congested cities in the world and let me take over.
Pedestrians do a double take as we whip by, farang at the command and a Thai in the passengers seat taking a video with his phone.
The tuk-tuk controls are very basic; handle bar with throttle, foot clutch on the left brake on the right with a couple toggle switches for lights and indicators. The gear shift is an H pattern four-speed with a wide, indifferent swing between gears. The throttle is jumpy and the brakes are touchy but revving it up and weaving through traffic is a crazy kind of near death fun. On Rama 4 Road I get it to its top speed of about 60 kilometers an hour and the thing feels jiggly and top heavy on the road. Making turns it handles like a shopping cart and after only ten minutes or so of driving I’m sweating like a coal stoker; the driver’s seat sits right above the engine and heats up fast.
Pedestrians do a double take as we whip by, farang at the command and a Thai in the passengers seat taking a video with his phone. It’s like a look into the possible future when the Asian economy finally crushes the west and farangs are migrating to the cities here to work as waitress’ and ditch diggers. He let me drive it all the way back to my hotel where the staff know me and watched as I pulled up in the tuk-tuk. Bua and I shook hands on the deal and he took off to make the second half of his day’s nut.
The future of the tuk-tuk is doomed. Few people outside of first-time tourists want to ride exposed to the heat, noise and pollution of Bangkok’s streets and with the reputation of the drivers steadily tarnishing due to their criminal associations and low life ethics in the big touristic towns they’re numbers are steadily declining. There’s talk of a new breed of tuk-tuk coming. Electric models that run clean and silent which will have regulated meters and nice young men in uniforms to taxi the farangs around on their holidays. It’s a pleasant visage, I suppose, but there’s something lost there. The slightly drunken letch racing down the street in his smoke churning tricycle of death, blasting Isaan music while he tries to sell you ya ba and then leaves you in a dark place you didn’t want to go is, for many, one of those memories of Thailand that out last the beautiful beaches and temples.