Travel for even a day in nearly any Southeast Asian town or city with more than 200 residents and you’ll quickly become familiar with the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, the most common and cost-effective mode of transportation for locals and travelers alike (non-motorbike category). Finding them isn’t particularly difficult; in fact, it’s generally as simple as walking down even a slightly busy street, and waiting for the catcalls from eager tuk-tuk drivers to cascade towards you from seemingly every direction:
“Hello friend! Tuk-tuk?”
“Where you going? Tuk-tuk?”
“Hello, where you from? Want tuk-tuk?”
At first, it’s a great novelty to ride in a tuk-tuk, which is essentially a covered trailer wagon that’s mounted onto the back of a motorbike. It’s a nice alternative to a more expensive cab ride, and the breeze feels great as you zip through city traffic on a balmy Cambodian afternoon (OK, so sometimes it just smells like hot garbage, but bear with me here as I try to weave together a romantic image).
After a while, though, the constant tug of tuk-tuk drivers can start to wear on you.
While I wholeheartedly believe in always trying to fuse cash directly into the local economy – whether it be taking tuk-tuks or rickshaws instead of relying on a tour company to ferry you around in a giant bus all day, eating street food from independent vendors instead of going to larger restaurants, etc. – there is a fine line between being a conscientious traveler and being too naive to see that some people are just trying to rip you off. And that’s a line that tuk-tuk drivers in particular seem to constantly straddle.
Is it good to rent a tuk-tuk for a day to see the local sights around the area? Yes. Are you getting ripped off compared to what locals pay? Probably a little, but when it’s a matter of maybe $3 – $4, a sum that can buy enough rice for a family of four for a month, it’s not a big deal. But do you need a tuk-tuk driver every waking moment, as some drivers lead you to believe? No.
With that, I’d like to present the “Arc of Tuk-Tuk Enthusiasm,” in which I attempt to summarize the general roller coaster of emotions that tuk-tuks will inspire over time. This specifically refers to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Mecca of tuk-tuks, but you can just as easily swap in any other city in the region and the same general truths should largely apply:
Oh how cool! As soon as I got off the bus, a friendly guy approached me and offered to take me to a guest house. I didn’t even have RESERVATIONS, and here I am, just hopping into a random, motorbike-ish mounted taxi, zipping through traffic on my way to an unknown adventure. God, I’m so bohemian!
Wait, is he driving in circles? No, of course not. Stop being so paranoid, Matt.
The same driver that picked me up from the bus station yesterday was waiting in front of my guesthouse this morning, and insists on taking me on a tour of some local attractions. That’s kind of a bit much, isn’t it? Or maybe you’re being a bigoted traveler that assumes everybody’s just trying to rip you off. This guy just wants to share his love of his country with me. Plus, the whole “waiting patiently outside of my guesthouse for hours on end” thing is quite the bold gesture of friendship – he’s like a plutonic version of John Cusack from Say Anything.
Day 2 (cont.)
…The fk?!?!?! Now that we’ve gone out to the villages and back again, this guy is asking double the fare he initially quoted us this morning! Oh well, live and learn, I suppose. But Cambodian John Cusack and I are done from here on out.
No thanks, I don’t need a tuk-tuk today! Thanks though!
OK, this is starting to get a little bit annoying. These same drivers have seen me here every day for nearly a week now, and every morning I’ve told them that, no thanks, I’ve already been to the Killing Fields, and no, I don’t want to go to the Russian Market because it’s just a confusing, crowded labyrinth of low-quality, over-priced fabrics with elephants on them and knock-off Beats by Dr. Dre headphones…
But you know what, these drivers are just out here trying to make a living. More power to them, right?
After politely declining a tuk-tuk for approximately the 800th time today, I’m pretty sure the driver mocked me when he echoed my “No thanks!” in an exaggerated American accent (it kind of sounded like this, in retrospect). Just because I don’t want to take an over-priced ride in your stupid, rickety tuk-tuk doesn’t mean you should make fun of my strange, hybrid American/Canadian accent about which I’m already sort of self-conscious. And just because I meekly walked away from you at the time doesn’t mean that I didn’t think of like five or six great comebacks afterwards. This is starting to wear on me.
Day 9 – Infinitum
Alright, I’m officially done with this tuk-tuk crap! When I fall asleep, my ears are ringing with, “Tuk-tuk! Tuk-tuk! My friend! You need ride? Tuk-tuk!” These drivers are haunting my dreams, and transforming my days here into a zombie apocalypse scenario where my sole objective is to avoid these mad touts and live to see another day. NO, I DON’T WANT TO TAKE YOUR DAMNED TUK-TUK, I WILL NEVER EVER TAKE A TUK-TUK AGAIN! I WILL WALK HOURS ON END, FUELED SOLELY BY THE SPITE AND VINDICTIVENESS BORN FROM THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE BROKEN MY ONCE-PURE SPIRIT WITH YOUR INCESSANT INQUISITIONS!