Although without doubt a truly amazing place, the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok is a lot to handle for any first-time farang (foreigner) in Thailand. Its 11 million inhabitants, sometimes-stifling heat, lawless traffic and hovering high-rises can overload the senses as much as the mix of great sights, culture and incredible food.
Amidst the hubbub, no matter what you do and where you go, one of the many knots you have to untangle is Bangkok transport: You’ll see a variety of options zipping down the road, including regular-vehicle taxis, motorbike taxis and the iconic tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motor carriages) with their ‘taxi’ signs all lit up.
As a foreigner, you’re sometimes an easy target for tourist price-gouging and other tricks used by shifty drivers. Many just think of you as a dumb tourist and the chances are slim that you’ll be able to convince them otherwise. However, you can arm yourself with some useful information from the local Thai ladies who are a local connection in Bangkok. They offer you some little-known truths about tuk-tuks and taxis.
Car Taxis vs. Tuk-tuks
Local Thai people consider tuk-tuks to be somewhat less dignified than four-wheeled vehicle taxis, the latter with meters to measure distance and price. In a city like Bangkok, locals are only willing to take tuk-tuks for short trips where they know the exact distance to their destination and can calculate a fair price for themselves. The driver and passenger will both bargain hard to agree on a fair rate.
For foreigners, though, tuk-tuks can turn out to be even more expensive than vehicle taxis if you don’t know the going price and stand your ground on negotiations. Tuk-tuk drivers will try to charge fresh tourists 200 Thai baht (about US$6.50) for a distance they would quote 40 baht (US$1.50) to a Thai local.
Commissions and Tourist Traps
Watch out for tuk-tuk drivers who try to take you to their friends’ businesses. They do this in order to receive a commission. They’ll try to drop you at retailers, restaurants, hotels and even ping-pong shows where their buddies have something to sell you. Sometimes it can be worthwhile to just go with it – if you don’t play along, disreputable drivers might leave you somewhere half way to your destination.
Also, take note that the closer you are to a popular tourist attraction, the more a tuk-tuk driver will try to charge you. Walk a few blocks away from the roads adjacent to the major points of interest and that might save you a little on the tuk-tuk price. Watch out for car taxis in these areas, too – they’ll quote you a (very inflated) price and refuse to use their meters.
Motorbike Taxis vs. Tuk-tuks
Bangkok tuk-tuks are more expensive than in most other Thai cities, and it may be the case that a car taxi is actually cheaper than a tuk-tuk. But in the thick of afternoon rush-hour traffic, tuk-tuks have the advantage of being able to squeeze through narrower passages and avoid some of the congestion.
Another option is the motorbike taxi, which is even speedier and more agile in heavy traffic than the tuk-tuk. But before you hop on a motor taxi, ask yourself what your mother would think. She’s right on this one – motorcycles are dangerous. Motorbike taxi drivers can be a whole new level of crazy, and you can spot motorbike accidents on a regular basis.
Tuk-tuks at Night
Tuk-tuk rides at night might cost you even more than they would during the day. Since it’s nighttime, you’re a farang and you may have had a few drinks, drivers try to charge a premium. They’ll also be looking for a way to bring their bar-owner friends some business.
On the bright side, one thing to look forward to is the awesome glow-light décor that some tuk-tuk drivers have installed in their rides. In some cases, the tuk-tuk ride between bars and clubs will be the best light show of the night. It’s like a little rave party on wheels, speeding through the streets of Bangkok.
Try the ‘Tuk-tuk Stuffing’ Trick
Since tuk-tuk taxi drivers have so many tricks up their sleeves, it’s only fair to pass along this little one that local Thai people (especially students) like to pull on tuk-tuks to get the most for their money. Usually, maximum capacity for a tuk-tuk is three or four passengers. If a driver sees that a bigger group wants a ride, he might refuse. So, you pull a bait-and-switch.
Step 1: Most of the group hides somewhere nearby (or acts like unrelated bystanders).
Step 2: Two or three people from the group hail the tuk-tuk and negotiate a price.
Step 3: The negotiators board the tuk-tuk and gesture to their hiding friends.
Step 4: Quickly, everyone jumps on board the tuk-tuk and stuffs themselves into it, using whatever acrobatics are necessary to stay on and hoping the driver also has a sense of humour.