If two wheels are dangerous, three would be … better?
Almost anywhere you go in India or South East Asia, you are bound to find tuk tuks. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one unmistakable feature — the solitary front wheel.
In Chiang Mai, they are positively an institution. Though today you will mostly see tourists and foreigners in them, they are still a fantastic, if slightly dangerous way to get around. With their ability to sneak through traffic jams a car would find impenetrable, the advice to keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times is well taken.
Step outside anywhere near the heart of Chiang Mai and you will hear the burbling, sputtery exhaust of these tripodal conveyances. Littered throughout the old city and beyond, the nearly always blue sides are emblazoned with the adverts from Tiger Kingdom and a few other big name tourist attractions.
“Taxi?” the drivers call out hopefully whenever you get close.
A wave of the hand and a polite smile is enough to decline, unless you are ready for a noisy, boisterous, windy ride to wherever you are headed.
It is worth noting that tuk tuk drivers share the same encyclopedic knowledge of their own towns that cabbies the world over possess. What is different is street names or directions on a map will not help you. Most drivers in Chiang Mai operate on a landmark-based set up, and presenting a phone, even with the address in Thai on Google Maps will produce a puzzled frown.
“Tha Phae Gate?” we would ask, offering up one of the most recognizable monuments close to our destination.
Then the negotiation begins.
We rarely won any ground. In the end, the price is still very cheap by western standards, and it is just too fun to say no. When the bargaining is over, everyone piles in and off you go.
By saying “everyone” I do not mean the two people for whom a tuk tuk is equipped with traditional seating. 6 humans was the limit we managed (including driver), which is asking a lot of the little two or three cylinder engines. Putting more people aboard than strokes available in the engine seems risky, but we never found a driver who balked at the idea. We did, however, have a few who may have regretted the decision as we pulled up to our destination in a cloud of oily smoke and the smell of burning belts.
Tuk tuk drivers are generally a good natured bunch. Many know English well, and they seem intent on never taking you back to your destination the same way twice. They can also be provoked into a little light racing from time to time.
How much the divers make, remained a mystery to us. Some said we were getting ripped off with every ride. Others suggested that tourists rarely see the meager existence provided by a few fares a day amounting to less than $6 each. Some of the pimped out rides with speakers, lights and ridiculous rims suggested the former was true. Looking around on a quiet morning suggested perhaps the latter. We never knew for sure.
There are cheaper ways to get around. There are certainly safer ways as well. And in the rainy season, there are dryer ways of getting to your destination. There are not, however, more endearing and unique experiences to be had while finding your way in Thailand.