I can clearly remember the very first time I got behind the ‘wheel’ of a Tuk Tuk in Thailand. A friend of a friend (of a friend of a friend!) had lent me his main source of income, ‘whatever you do don’t crash it’ were his parting words and my heart was beating at an insane speed. I pretended I was taking in all his instructions and desperately trying to assume an air of ‘cool’ – hard to do when it’s 35C and your somewhat nervous.
Hmmm, so it’s half motorbike with the throttle on the right hand, but also half car with the clutch on my left foot and the brake pedal on my right. And the gear stick is in between my legs….
Heading slowly and somewhat jerkily down our local street I ventured out into suburban Bangkok rush hour traffic. Perhaps not very sensible but the thinking was, if I can cope with this then I can cope with anything!
Slowly I pulled out into the ‘flow’ or irate traffic and immediately caused chaos. Driving at around 5kmh I could feel the pick up trucks, minivans, cars and motorbikes getting more and more frustrated with this weird Tuk Tuk ambling along. ‘Come on Dad, this is embarressing’ was the shout from the back, so twisting the throttle slightly I upped the speed to somewhere in the region of 7kmh. Aha, we’re getting somewhere with this I thought and before I knew it (although in reality probably around 30 minutes) we’d done a little loop around our community and were back home.
Sweating, excited and full of adrenaline this might not have seemed the most auspicious start but I was hooked.
Dropping the children off for safety (might be getting to a top speed of 15kmh this time!) I headed out again, and again, and again. Pretty soon I was feeling good about this, it became fairly natural to increase speed and fiddle between my legs to change gear and keep up with the random flow of traffic around me. The brakes were easy – just like driving a car – and the throttle too. For sure, every now and then I hit the brake thinking it was the accelerator or forget to twist the throttle and wondered why I was slowing but progress was being made, even if I did still continue to drive with the handbrake on! Once that was pointed out confidence surged through me – and it had to as the next day I was heading off on a bit of an adventure driving the Tuk Tuk from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and points beyond.
Early the next morning, I’m still sweating and slightly nervous about taming the Tuk Tuk but within 30 minutes things are fairly relaxed. It’s not really that difficult – right hand for speed, right foot to stop, quickly, left foot for clutch and a quick fiddle between the legs to change gear. And whether it was the site of a foreigner driving or the esteem in which other drivers hold the noble Tuk Tuk, other road users were fantastic giving lots of space, waves and thumbs up. By lunchtime I felt like an expert (as well as having had an insight into celebrity life where everyone wants your photo!) and realised that Tuk Tuks have all the stability of a car with the zippiness and fun of a motorbike and are easier to learn to drive than either of them. Of course, you have to remember to take it easy round a sharp bend, and release the handbrake, but even the best car has it’s limit somewhere. All this combined with natures air-conditioning (at least when moving) and I was convinced that Tuk Tuks are the only way forwards.
And if I can drive a Tuk Tuk then surely anyone can – it really is simple but I’d recommend taking your first trip on a quiet country lane rather than the chaos of suburban Bangkok/s rush hour streets.