If you’ve ever been in a tuk tuk you know how fun they can be. You hang on to the seat, slipping all over the vinyl, breathing in smog and soot, praying your driver isn’t over-confident with regards to the breaks, and you take in the city in a way that is impossible from the backseat of a car. There is a hair’s breadth between you and the next vehicle over, yet still a motorcycle will roar up the middle, and you are truly part of this place.
I fell in love with tuk tuks in Thailand. Tuk tuks are something that seem to be ubiquitous in South East Asia and found nowhere else. They vary slightly from country to country but the basic premise is a motorised tricycle. There may or may not be a boot, meaning you might have an uncomfortable trip if you’ve insisted on bringing the biggest backpack the airline would allow. We managed three adults, six big bags and a puppy the other day. Thankfully it was a short journey.
Haggling with tuk tuk drivers is hardly ever enjoyable. In Thailand I was always afraid that I was being too stingy, or if the driver agreed too readily, that I was being taken for a ride, metaphorically speaking. On one memorable occasion – only just, mind – we were escorting a young lady home from a drunken night out, spirits high, and I insisted that we were going to our destination for 100 baht. The driver refused to budge until I stamped my foot and stuck out my lip; I have always been a little ashamed of that particular display, and hoped he had that day hideously overcharged some other tourist to balance it out. No matter how often you take this form of transport, it remains difficult to be get the amount precisely right so that both tourist and driver are happy.
Not so in Sri Lanka! Within Colombo tuk tuks are metered, though you still have the odd shady fellow who tells you he’ll give you ‘local price’ and won’t turn the meter on. In this case you must still use your wiles to agree a fee and stick to it when you reach the destination. We were hassled into just this situation the other day, getting off a bus with all our bags. We must have looked as though we’d just arrived in Sri Lanka and the chap thought he could take advantage. For a journey of three kilometres we said fine to 300 rupees, around £1.50. The driver took the wrong turnings, complained incessantly, told us we were in Colombo four instead of Colombo three, as though that made any impression on us. When we arrived at our destination he insisted it was 400 rupees instead. I muttered to Eva to get out of the tuk tuk, get all the bags out first, and then when we were loaded up I handed over 300. He tried to argue but we were firm. It’s only 50p, I know, but he was trying to intimidate us and we were not playing that game.
Happily, he was the odd one out. Of the tuk tuks we have taken around the country I’ve found that the price suggested by them is often fair. Most of the time I have not bothered to haggle at all. Leaving a bar late last night the driver wouldn’t put the meter on so I sighed and asked how much he wanted. “200,” he said, mouth firm. “Wonderful!” I exclaimed and leapt, only slightly clumsily, into the back.
I did have to get Google Maps out, though, as he could not find the road to take. This happens constantly. You ask to go to a place, giving as much information as you can, including painfully twisting your tongue around the rolling syllables, showing them on the map, and even giving over the address helpfully written down in Sinhalese, and the driver nods, waves you in. Ten minutes later you’re in the back of beyond and he is asking every person walking past where he’s going. The opposite of that age-old stereotype seems to be true in Sri Lanka: the men ask for directions unceasingly. Minutes of conversation go by and you think, surely we’re on the right track now, but no, the very next person you meet is also going to be beckoned over.
The most frustrating part of these journeys has been that I’m sitting in the back with my smartphone out, trying to get him to believe me when I say we need to go left. On my way into town a few days ago my driver couldn’t find Horton Place – it is the city’s main road. He kept disregarding me when I tried to tell him we needed to just drive a little further, looking at me as if I was an idiot. He asked for directions from a khaki-covered security guard and they conferred for an agonizing few moments, waving back the way we’d come, while I tried in vain to get their attention. Eventually I took my wallet out, paid the bemused driver, and stormed off, jog-walking as I was already late. I turned the corner, crossed a road – Horton Place – and lo, I was at my destination. It is beyond me why the drivers will ask everyone and anyone and yet completely ignore my pleas from the backseat. I’m usually the one with the actual address.
For all these trivial annoyances, the tuk tuk is still my favourite way of getting about in Sri Lanka. Darting through traffic, coasting down hillsides; going off-road, having to get out and walk next to the vehicle as it putters uphill; carefully rounding potholes the size of my torso; braking for giant lizards but little else: what could be more fundamental to the South East Asian experience?