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8 Tips on Using Tuk-Tuks with a Big Family

Visiting Ayutthaya Historical Park by Tuk-tuk
Riding Tuk-Tuks with a Big Family
Wat Thammikarat, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Surprisingly, our family of six - four of whom are young children who really don't take up that much room - was easily able to fit into a single tuk-tuk!  In this post, we'll give you our tips for how to hire a tuk-tuk without paying triple, while avoiding scam artists, and we'll share one of the best pieces of travel advice we ever heard...

The Tuk-Tuk
A tuk-tuk is a motorized rickshaw - a 3-wheeled vehicle sort of like a tiny truck, or, more like a motorcycle with a truck bed and roof attached - which serves as a taxi. There are places where they are the best possible transportation option, and there are places where they are one of the worst possible transportation options, as we'll explain below. But in Ayutthaya, Thailand, and in Cambodia's Siam Reap (for short trips) we loved them! Here are our tips for using tuk-tuks with a big family...

#1 Use Them Even for Short Trips
One of the best pieces of travel advice I ever got about Thailand was to cope with the heat by using the same strategy that the locals use:

Don't Walk Anywhere! 

Even for a short trip of 3 or 4 blocks, a Thai will commonly hire a tuk-tuk. This was very hard for me to get my mind around, because I love walking. For me, if you can walk somewhere in under an hour, then walking is often the best option, especially while traveling (with certain exceptions, of course, as discussed in this post).

But using tuk-tuks all the time, even for very short trips that could easily be walked, is one of the primary ways that Thais avoid arriving to their destination soaked in sweat. Another way Thais avoid sweat involves a lot of baby powder marketed for adult use with scents like "Cool Ice," which is sold everywhere, even at convenience stores!

For a Thai, a sweaty, wet tourist is quite offensive, especially if they smell bad. People take showers 3 or more times a day, to stay fresh. I can scarcely imagine the amount of laundry that would generate for a family of 6! And some Thais powder themselves up so that they don't get sweaty and stinky. After about 12 hours in Thailand, I found myself standing at a check-out counter holding a bottle of Cool Ice "deodorant powder" (baby powder) and, I'll admit, I used it very liberally throughout our journeys in Thailand!

So, assuming you don't want to be drenched and marinated in your own sweat every day, the best way to get around some of the smaller cities and towns in Thailand is in a private tuk-tuk. We used them constantly, in Ayutthaya and Krabi. There are several reasons they are not always a great idea in Phuket or in Bangkok, but for other cities, they are fantastic.

Riding the tuk-tuks in Thailand with a big family with small children
A passing tuk-tuk in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with ruins of the old city wall in the background. We didn't find a single six-seater anywhere in Chiang Mai!

#2  Hiring a Tuk-Tuk Driver
There are a few ways to go about hiring a tuk-tuk and driver. Of course, no matter what method you use, the price needs to be agreed upon before anyone in your party sets foot in the vehicle. Here are the ways to hire a tuk-tuk, from least expensive to most expensive:

  1. Hail a passing tuk-tuk:  If you're just going on a single, one-way trip, say, from your rental to a restaurant, then hailing an empty tuk-tuk as it passes by is the way to go. We never waited more than 5 minutes for one to happen along, and usually the wait was closer to 20 seconds! Be sure to know the going rates, in case you happen to hail one of the ones that tries to charge double or triple. But don't bother arguing. If you hear a double-price rate, just give your best Thai smile, say "Okay, bye bye" and walk away. I've never had to ask more than 2 or 3 tuk-tuks to find one that quotes the going rate upfront.  
  2. Hail a passing tuk-tuk and rent by the hour: Same as above, but instead of agreeing on a price for a single journey, give the driver an estimate of how many hours you think you will need transportation, and agree on a per-hour price. This can be on the spot, or arranged in advance, such as if you want an early morning pick up. Sometimes drivers will turn down multi-hour hires if they are busy or almost done for the day, so don't be offended if they just decline and drive away - just try again with the next one that stops. I usually tip an amount equal to at least one additional hour, if the driver was helpful, patient, etc. - and every driver we ever had, definitely was. It's fun to stick with one driver for half a day, and to know he'll be waiting for you as soon as you're ready to move from one place to the next. This was a key part of our enjoyment of Thailand's Ayutthaya Historical Park, once we figured out that we needed a tuk-tuk to see that place properly.
  3. Prearrangement via a Host. Your rental host can usually set up a driver to help you navigate the city for a tour. It may be slightly more expensive than making the arrangements on your own - or not - but either way, it's nice to have some help with the arrangements, and to know that it is likely someone personally known to your host. If any other person (tourist agency, website, etc.) is offering a prearrangement, I'd take that as a sure sign of a steep markup.
  4. Walking up to a line of tuk-tuks. This is the classic tourist move. I'd expect to be quoted at least double price (more likely, quadruple price) in any situation where I, as a foreigner, have to approach a line of waiting tuk-tuks, especially near a bus station, train station, or historical site. This is a chum in the water situation. Besides the price gouging in a parked line of tuk-tuks, it's also a good way to find yourself embroiled in a scam. As the Thais say: A good tuk-tuk is like a good fish - it should be moving. If it's sitting still, you don't want it.
  5. Dealing with a hawker. If you are approached by someone on foot offering tuk-tuk services, whether on the street or in a train station or at a historical site, this is another sure sign that you are about to be quoted several times the going rate. There's also a high probability that some sort of scam is in the works, about diverting you to an alternative destination where the driver gets a commission to bring tourists. Again, you want a tuk-tuk in motion, not one that is sitting waiting in ambush, for unwary foreign tourists to step inside.

How to hire a tuk-tuk driver in Thailand for a big family
Taking a tuk-tuk with a big family when going from a restaurant to a temple, in Ayutthaya, Thailand

#3  Avoid Scams
In some countries (I'm looking at you, Peru!) there are a lot of drivers who try to pull scams for rides on a tuk-tuk (aka MotoTaxi). Often the scam angle is that the price is converted unexpectedly at the end of the ride, in a very tricky way. One way is that the price agreed upon in advance is suddenly understood (only by the driver) to have been "in dollars." For instance, a ride for which you agreed to pay 20 units of local currency suddenly becomes a 20 dollar ride, at the end - a 4000% markup!

Another way is for the price quoted to have been "per person," unbeknownst to you. If the going rate is 50 units of local money for a certain long journey, the driver may say "50" without specifying anything about what that means, and then he will appear to be in a great hurry to get the trip started, ignoring any further requests for clarification or discussion of price. Then, predictably, at the end of the trip, the driver multiplies the agreed-upon price by the number of people in the vehicle, and your quoted "50" becomes "300." This scam is attempted on tuk-tuks/mototaxis as well as taxi rides.

In both scams, drivers will act as though this is extremely commonplace pricing, and the only source of misunderstanding is your poor command of their language. They'll apologize for you on your behalf about your poor comprehension skills and just not knowing what with being new to the area and all, and they'll smile, but will not waiver in their insistence that you do not owe 5 units of their currency, but instead, 5 dollars or 5 units of your home country's currency.

They may even be sure to drop you off in a place where their compatriots will be able to quickly appear, and surround you, insisting that if you don't pay what you owe, you will be reported to the police.

I had those two scams attempted on me over and over in South America. I loved, at the moment the scam was sprung on me, to switch to my most eloquent form of Spanish (I learned my Spanish reading Gabriel García Márquez, who wrote beautifully - and when I want to, I can use all sorts of high-falutin' vocabulary and uncommon verb tenses). I'd advise them in a wordy, professorial Spanish that I had been in-country for over a year and I knew what the going rates were, had been, and continue to be, and that if they wanted to scam some tourist they had best look elsewhere until they found one.

I'd drop the local currency on the front seat (in the amount agreed upon prior to the springing of the scam) and get out, walking away confidently and ignoring any further attempts to entangle me in an argument. The once or twice that they persisted, I offered to accompany them to the nearest police station to sort things out. They sprang back into their vehicle and sped away. Fortunately, scammers were few and far between. Much more common was a friendly, helpful driver. Only in border towns and near certain airports do I expect that it's easier to find a scammer than a non-scammer.

But, we had none of that sort of shady business in Thailand. We researched in advance which cities are great for tuk-tuks, and which cities have tuk-tuks that should be avoided. We used tuk-tuks in several cities in Thailand (though, never in Phuket or Bangkok) and we never once encountered someone who tried to scam us - beyond the occasional half-hearted attempt to quote us double or triple the going rate. We found nearly every tuk-tuk driver in Ayutthaya and Cambodia to be upfront and helpful, and often they were also charming and funny.

#4  Avoid Bangkok Tuk-Tuks
We opted for ride-hailing apps in Bangkok. We'd all squeeze in to a small car, or sometimes an SUV, and greatly enjoyed the air-conditioning and knowing we could pay by credit card via the app, so there would be no question of whether an agreement had been reached on price.

In some spots it seems that the only purpose of the row of tuk-tuks is to scam tourists. In a line of tuk-tuks, as in nature, a rainbow display of colors can be a warning sign. Tigers, bees, and wasps have loud colors in alternating patterns. When you spot the most colorful tuk-tuk you've ever seen, with its hot pink seats, vibrant green cushions, and loud blue paint job with red and yellow trim, if that tuk-tuk is parked, empty, waiting for you, then my first thought would be: "Tiger, tiger!" In other words:  "Danger!  Run the other away! Don't get near that thing!" That brightly-colored, gaudily-decorated ride is an ambush.

#5  Beware the "It's closed" Scam
Bangkok tuk-tuks, especially near the historical sites and temples, are notorious for the old "That place is closed" trick. This is common in places where the drivers are all lined up in a row.

The "It's closed" scam is that when you say you want to go to a certain place - a temple, a palace, a historical site, you name it - the driver informs you that your chosen destination is actually closed right now. They may say it's closed for a Buddhist holiday, or a special event, or because some VIP is visiting there today, or whatever malarkey.

But, no worries - the driver has a great alternative destination in mind. The other drivers hop out of their tuk-tuks to gather around you and your map, and wag their fingers, explaining helpfully, "No, no, closed, closed!" so that you know the first person who told you that it was closed wasn't lying to your face.

Once you get in that sort of tuk-tuk, you can say goodbye to a couple of hours. They'll give you a wild goose chase, a long grand tour, going nowhere you'd want to go, and they will require one or more stops at undesired destinations like a jewelry shop or tailor's shop ("It's my brother's shop. Please, five minutes, five minutes"), where further scams will be waiting for the unsuspecting victim. The jewelry shop sells only fake gems, and the tailor shop sells only poorly made suits that fall apart (bad stitching, arms aren't the same length, liner falls out, material is 100% polyester, and so on).

Many Thais appear to be reserved - warm and friendly, yes, very much so! - but, they don't walk up to strangers and act like old friends who really want to talk.  So, unfortunately, a good rule of thumb in Bangkok is that if you are approached by a local who speaks fluent English and who is overtly friendly at first sight, you should smile, ignore all their advances, and walk away from them as quickly and resolutely as possible. Whatever it is they have in mind, you almost certainly don't want it.

Anytime you find yourself on a sidewalk surrounded by 3 to 6 strangers, all telling you the same thing, all seemingly just appearing out of nowhere to help sort out your confusion: you are being scammed. We saw this happening several times near the historical sites in Bangkok. The first two times we saw it, we just shook our heads.

But the next time we saw it happening, we were close enough that we could clearly hear the words being spoken. The scam was happening right in our path, as we were about to cross the street in that spot. There were five tuk-tuk drivers surrounding a foreign family with two children on the sidewalk, near a line of tuk-tuks. I could hear one of the drivers saying "It's closed right now" in English, as though reading it straight from the scammer's manual. I truly enjoyed walking up to the father of the family, gently touching his upper arm, and interrupting everyone to say to him, loudly enough for all the scammers to hear:

Listen, friend, this is an old scam. You are being scammed. Just walk away right now. Just go down to the corner over there, and stop the first passing tuk-tuk you see. You don't want these drivers who hang out at the entrances to the temples, okay?

What was even more satisfying was hearing him tell his family to follow him to the corner, that they would be taking a different tuk-tuk.  

How many people can fit in a tuk-tuk in Thailand
Big enough for six! A tuk-tuk in Ayutthaya, Thailand

#6  Avoid Phuket Tuk-Tuks
Even the first few minutes of research on the tuk-tuk situation on the island of Phuket was enough to convince me that I'd rather walk, or take any alternative transpo. We used a ride-hailing service for part of the time. The rest of the time we used a private driver personally known to our rental host, who charged a little less than the quotes I was getting on ride-hailing apps. Even with a personally-recommended private driver, I was sure to arrange every price in advance, before getting in.

He turned out to be a great driver though, and always went out of his way to help us - even helping to carry our bags long distances (we were staying at a "walk in" beach spot with no car access), and he waited for us as we loaded up on groceries on our way to our rental.  We used his services anytime he was available, and used ride-hailing apps the rest of the time. I wouldn't dream of getting into a tuk-tuk in the vicinity of the western-shore beach towns of Phuket. You are literally better off walking.

#7  Don't Look for Tuk-Tuks in Heavily Touristed Areas 
When you'll be doing a lot of walking from one site to the next (in any temple complex that is spread out all over a city, such as in Ayutthaya), arrange your tuk-tuk transportation before you start the day. If you wait until you're already at the temple complex, any tuk-tuks you see will very likely be already booked by other travelers. Even passing, empty tuk-tuks, when flagged down, would inform us that they had just dropped off someone and that they had to wait for them, so they were unavailable.

At one point we wasted thirty minutes trying to find a driver, being told "busy" and "waiting" over and over, while we were attempting to avoid a long, hot walk in the middle of the day. Every single empty tuk-tuk was already engaged by someone else who was on an hourly-rate tour of the city. We had to make our way to another part of town, where we finally caught a ride. The time to get that driver would have been before leaving our rental that morning. From that day on, we had our tuk-tuk plans already made with a driver before we set out for the day. We also arranged it a day ahead one time, and found the driver waiting for us at our door the next morning.

#8  Just Try It!
After finding that 4 out of 8 of our tips are related to avoiding scams and other negative issues, you may be having second thoughts. But, just to be clear: we loved riding the tuk-tuks in Thailand and Cambodia! It was so much fun as to be considered an attraction in itself. If you're in the right city for it, give it a go!

And if you find yourself in a place where the distance is too great for a tuk-tuk, a private minivan may be the way to go, as discussed in this post.

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