How to deal with Thailand’s Infamous Tuk-Tuk Tourist Traps like a Pro you ask?
Well, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, that cute, sputtering, three-wheeled motorcycle taxi, is a good option to travel over short distances in the jammed streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other cities of Thailand. Riding in a tuk-tuk can best be described as chaotic rather than comfortable; they are open-air, so be ready to be assaulted by the heat and plenty of exhaust fumes from other vehicles. Not only that, you should be prepared to hold on for dear life because tuk-tuk drivers, like all drivers in Thailand, are notorious for disregarding traffic rules. However, taking at least one ride is somehow mandatory for a true, Thailand experience.
But before you hail the first tuk-tuk in sight and revel on a unique riding experience, it is important to realize that, almost like anywhere else, there are people who exist to scam you, either through the hard-earned money you saved for your vacation or through your limited vacation time. This is especially true if this is your first time in Thailand, like what happened to me many years ago and how I’ve eventually dealt with Thailand’s infamous tuk-tuk tourist traps like a pro today.
Deception within a smile
I still remember so vividly the first time I visited Thailand for a much-needed vacation. I was so excited to see the wonders of Bangkok, most especially the Grand Palace and, you know what? A smiling, well-dressed man in a pink-polo shirt approached me right at the gate, and brandishing his official-looking ID, told me in impeccable English that, unfortunately, the palace was closed for repairs till 2 pm that day.
Seeing the distraught look on my face and looking over the map I was holding, the man helpfully pointed out the Golden Buddha, Thai Expo and three other places that I didn’t quite care for, where I can go while waiting for the 2 pm opening of the palace. He cautioned that I should not ride the pink tuk-tuk because they will cheat me, but the yellow ones are operated by the government so they will never over charge. Sure enough, there was this yellow tuk-tuk which he hailed and, warned the driver to charge no more than 40 baht to take me to five tourist spots. Wow, what a deal! Or so I thought.
But you know, the only reason why it was so cheap was because I was rushed through all of the other tourist attractions which weren’t so hard considering that two of them were conveniently closed for cleaning! It was a good thing I did not have enough money with me to buy anything at the Thai Expo, which merely turned out to be a jewelry store in a decrepit backstreet!
Just like another day at the office
Of course, I was frustrated but I did not show it. I have had lots of practice in a daily struggle of putting up with an overly demanding boss at the office. So, instead of getting angry, I engaged the driver, Mr. M, in a friendly chat on our way back to the Grand Palace.
What I learned from him was mind-boggling! Here was a man, trying to provide for a family of six, on an annual salary equivalent to what I was prepared to spend on my two-week vacation. The only reason he insisted on making me visit the jewelry store was because of the fuel coupons the store owner gave him every time he brought tourists to the shop, and he always received commission every time those tourists bought something from the shop.
I realized right then and there that both Mr. M and I can benefit from each other during my stay in Bangkok. I offered to hire his services for the next day, and in exchange for his time, I offered to pay him 300 baht, 10 liters of gas, and free meals for which, to no surprise, he readily agreed.
The time of my life
With Mr. M as my unofficial guide, I had the time of my life in Bangkok. In addition to all the tourist attractions I had explored, I was fortunate enough, as a self-confessed shopaholic, to plan ahead and have my time to shop at Chatuchak weekend market – a large, covered open-air market where you can find anything and everything that’s available in Thailand – from handicrafts to jewelry to pets, at outrageously low prices to boot. Even then, according to Mr. M, you are still expected to haggle the already low prices further by as much as 50%-75%, which I did with gusto!
I had the wonderful experience of eating authentic Thai food in some out-of-the-way food stalls with Mr. M, which not only tasted heavenly, but also surprisingly cheap. Mr. M told me to always eat Thai food at stalls being patronized by the locals, which made a lot of sense, because only the locals know where great tasting local cuisines are served.
The deal I had with Mr. M was a stroke of genius, and by thinking quickly on my feet, I was able to get an amazing Bangkok experience on my first trip to Thailand. But my love affair with Thailand did not end on that first visit. I made many trips through the years, and I always made sure I ride the tuk-tuk with the usual arrangement of hiring the driver on a fixed price for the whole day to go around a particular place on my first day.
Agree on the fare first before you ride
If you do not want to hire a tuk-tuk for the day, always remember to mutually agree on the fare first before you ride and the driver starts off because a tuk-tuk does not have a taxi meter. Because of their low income, most drivers will charge you more than what the ride should be, by as much as ten times the normal rate. It is best to take a tuk-tuk ride when you know the usual cost of a similar trip in a taxi, and you should never agree to pay more than this.
In fact, a tuk-tuk should cost much less than a taxi because it is not air-conditioned. Although very few tuk-tuk drivers will give you a fair deal, I always make sure to reward an honest driver by giving a tip of 30 baht whenever I encounter one. But if a driver is not fair and a bit aggressive on the price negotiation, I only pay for the agreed fare and nothing more.
How to properly flag down a tuk-tuk
The tuk-tuk is primarily a tourist vehicle; locals will ride a tuk-tuk only if they have a month’s worth of groceries or cumbersome packages with them or, if they are riding in a group. Thus, it is not difficult to find a tuk-tuk if you are obviously a visitor. In fact, drivers are notorious for honking their horns and yelling, “Hello!” just to get your attention, and they also tend to gather outside popular tourist destinations. If ever you need to flag one down, never waggle your forefinger at the driver; you should call the attention of the driver with an outstretched arm, palm faced down, and flap your wrist as though you are patting a small child on the head or waving goodbye to the sidewalk.