How to drive a Tuk Tuk

Perhaps not something you’d usually be asking but very important if you’re joining a Tuk Tuk Club adventure in Northern Thailand, or are looking for a job as a Tuk Tuk driver in Bangkok (NOTE – sorry, if your heart was set on being a Bangkok Tuk Tuk driver you’re going to be disappointed, it’s a ‘reserved occupation’ for Thai national only but maybe in your next life..). So, how do you drive a Tuk Tuk?

This simple answer is that they’re actually pretty simple and intuitive to drive – cue sigh of relief – and most people, including this particular writer, can get to grips with driving a Tuk Tuk very quickly.

Starting to learn how to drive a Tuk Tuk

Here are the key ‘parts’

Steering: Tuk Tuks have handlebars mounted on the dashboard like a motorbike with grips for your hands. All you to do steer is turn the handlebars in the direction you want to travel. See, pretty easy so far isn’t it. EXPERT DRIVER TIP –  don’t turn too sharply, or at last don’t turn too sharply at speed because these are three wheelers and therefore can, if you try really hard, turn over. We’re not sure exactly what speed and angle of turn this happens at and have no real desire to find out so the simply note is, take it easy and don’t turn too sharply unless you’re going very slowly.

Steering part 2: Whilst general steering is super simple there is one further important point to think about. Everyone who drives a car is used to sitting at one side of the vehicle and you’re whole ‘spatial awareness’ of the vehicle is based around this when you’re fitting through narrow gaps, turning etc etc. In a Tuk Tuk remember you’re sitting in the middle of the vehicle – effectively at the tip of a triangle. The effect of this is that you can from time to time forget the ‘size’ of a Tuk Tuk and turn too sharply. However, there’s a simple way to guard against this – just imagine you’re driving a longer car / something with a trailer and take turns wider. Very easy to get used to but just a little tip to help you master these three wheel wonders.

The simple cockpit layout of a Tuk Tuk

Acceleration: Again, very simply but can take time to get used to if you’ve never ridden a motorbike / moped. Your right hand controls the throttle and you twist it towards you to go faster and away from you to go slower. Most Tuk Tuk throttles are spring loaded so when you relax your grip the Tuk Tuk immediately slows down. But remember this is most and not all Tuk Tuks! EXPERT DRIVER TRIP – there’s no need to rev the throttle and try to accelerate quickly. Although Red Bull in their wisdom do now have Tuk Tuk (well Rickshaw) races unless your competing there’s no need to try to do 0-60 in 3 seconds. And whilst you may see the odd show off Tuk Tuk driver in Bangkok pulling a wheely – really, why bother?

Braking: Of course one of the most important parts of driving any vehicle is knowing how to slow down and stop. Tuk Tuks have a foot brake, just like a car, on the right hand side. Press the brake to slow down but, just like a car, don’t slam your foot on the brake otherwise you will skid. EXPERT DRIVER TRIP We’ve not come across any Tuk Tuks yet that have ABS systems (the fancy stuff that stops your car at home skidding all the time) so gentle feet is the order of the day. Tuk Tuks also have a hand brake (on the right hand side of the vehicle) which is directly linked to the footbrake – perfect for parking on a hill, not really designed for handbrake turns.

A very young boy pretending to drive a Tuk Tuk
Thailand’s youngest Tuk Tuk driver?

Changing gear: Crumbs, so much to remember! You can get manual (stick shift) and automatic Tuk Tuks. The majority of taxi Tuk Tuks in Bangkok are manual (strange as the vast majority of cars in Thailand are automatic) but at The Tuk Tuk Club we have a healthy mixture with 50% of our fleet being automatic. We’ll look at manual gears first.

There’s a clutch for your left foot which works exactly like a car. Depress the clutch, change gear, raise the clutch and away you go. Once you’re moving along a bit faster depress the clutch, up into second gear and raise the clutch and lo and behold, you’re in second…and so on. Most Tuk Tuks have 5 forward gears and 1 reverse, more than you’re ever really need.

And where’s the gear stick? Just to keep things lively manual Tuk Tuks have the gear stick in one of two locations. The most common is right between your legs and for the ‘boy racers’ amongst the Tuk Tuk fraternity you’ll sometimes see a gear stick on the left hand side of the driver. Not easy for those used to driving on the right (and changing gear with their right hand) but actually a good idea – if you change gear with your right hand in a Tuk Tuk you’re taking your hand off the throttle and have less control so….

Automatics – this is where is gets really easy. No clutch to worry about, no ‘when do I change gear’, just put the gearstick into D and away you go. Whilst some do prefer manual gears (we have to be honest and say that we used to until we saw the light) automatics are great for a Tuk Tuk Adventure. Less to think about and more focus on the awesome roads and scenery all around you.

EXPERT DRIVING TIP – the clutch on most Tuk Tuks is fairly ‘sharp’. That means as you let the clutch ‘come up’ it very suddenly engages and can see you leaping forwards as if you’re starting a grand prix. The secret to looking like a pro is to be very very gentle with your left foot. Let the clutch up super slowly and all will be well. We’ve also got a tip for automatics – when going down steep hills slip the gear into a low gear (2 or 1) and let the engine take the strain. It stops you suddenly going faster than you thought and also stops the smell of burning ‘rubber’ as your brake pads overheat.

Anything else?

Well of course there are switches for indicators – on the handlebar controlled with your left thumb (remember to turn them off, you’re back in the 1970’s now and they don’t turn off automatically) – headlights, hazard lights and of course a windscreen wiper. A quick note on the windscreen wipers – they stop wherever you turn them off so if you’re a rainy season Tuk Tuk adventurer you’ll get used to that perfect moment to turn off the windscreen wiper so it’s not in the middle of the windscreen.

Tuk Tuks do of course also have a horn but we’d always suggest you leave these well alone when driving in Thailand. Rather than being a ‘watch out’ or ‘hmm, not sure you really want to do that’ sign as in many country, hooting your horn in Thailand is seen as quite an aggressive thing to do and can go down quite badly. However, to keep things interesting there are certain parts of roads where drivers will hoot their horn to ward off bad spirits (so in that case it’s fine to hoot away) or to let people know they’re coming round a corner (again, hoot away).

As you can see, Tuk Tuks are pretty easy to drive. A mix between a car and a moped but far more fun. And if you’re travelling with The Tuk Tuk Club on one of our Northern Thailand Adventures then you get a super detailed training session with our expert trainers before you go anywhere near the country lanes that our trips run along. There’s even a test to pass before you head off the training ground but rather than serious faces looking as if they hope you’ll fail, our trainers are incredibly encouraging, patient and expert at helping everyone get to grips with the perfect Thailand Adventure vehicle.

A big smile on the face of someone learning to drive a Tuk Tuk
A happy traveller learning to drive a Tuk Tuk

For more information on Tuk Tuks, Thailand and the adventures you can have on three wheels take a look here

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