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TukTuks – What are they, and where did they come from

Tuk-tuks – What are they, and where did they come from?

Tuktuks – What are they, and where did they come from?

Since the days of Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter and his outdated Reliant Robin, three-wheelers like tuktuks in the West have carried a dubious reputation. Post-war Italy experimented with the Piaggio Ape, using it as a low-cost means to transport goods and occasionally people through narrow, cobbled streets. However, the rise of mass-produced, affordable cars soon rendered this concept obsolete. Adding to this, several start-ups from the 70s and 80s, such as the Sinclair C-5, failed to make a significant impact, nearly burying the idea of three-wheeled travel, including tuktuks.

The Asian Love for Three-Wheelers

However, the story takes a different turn in Asia. Known as the Auto Rickshaw in India, Baby Taxi in Bangladesh, and Bemo in Bali, three-wheelers have gained immense popularity. Japan exported some of the first three-wheelers to Thailand in the 1930s, including a donation of 20,000 second-hand units by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. The real boom began with the Daihatsu Midgit, introduced in kit form to Southeast Asia in the late 50s.

What Defines a Tuktuk

Various makes and models exist, but the tuktuk typically features a pressed sheet-metal body, an open frame, and three wheels. The driver’s cab at the front generally includes a bench seat and motorbike-style handlebars. It usually has a 4-speed gearbox with a hand clutch. Drivers can engage a reverse gear using a separate lever near their right leg. Basic instruments include a speedometer and fuel gauge, with some high-end models offering a radio and speaker system.

Evolution and Legends

While older models used oil-guzzling, two-stroke engines, the trend has shifted towards 4-stroke variants. Today, tuktuks may run on diesel, LPG, or even electric engines. A legend suggests that shortly after Indian independence, British troops left behind Harley Davidson motorcycles, which were later converted into powerful tuktuks, known as ‘Phat Phatis’. However, a 1998 environmental law ended the era of Harley-Tuk.

Tuktuks in Western Perception

Most Westerners experience tuktuks as passengers navigating unfamiliar cities at break-neck speeds. Often, drivers seem more interested in directing tourists to their relatives’ gift shops rather than their intended destinations. Generally, tuktuks have a reputation for tourist scams and overcharging. Nevertheless, many honest drivers exist, and the use of meters is improving transparency. Stories of travellers driving great distances in their tuktuks, including trips from the Far East to Europe, are not uncommon.

Self-Drive Adventures

Adventurous travellers often strike deals with local tuktuk owners for self-drive explorations. Recently, companies in Asia have emerged, offering tourists the chance to rent tuktuks with all necessary paperwork. These companies operate as standard car rental agencies, while socially-minded businesses also thrive.

The Social Impact of Tuktuks

Traditionally, tuktuk drivers are among the lowest-paid workers, earning as little as $20 for a long day’s work. They must cover fuel, insurance, road tax, and the vehicle’s cost. By matching travelers with local TukTuk owners for rentals, the income from these rentals can exceed the driver’s regular daily wage. This model also allows drivers to spend more time with their families.

tuktukrental.com, based in Katunayake, Negombo, exemplifies this approach. Founded by Australians Tom and Rich, along with Sri Lanka’s operations manager, Donna, the venture has been running since December 2016. They have sent over 30 travellers on the road, working with a network of eight local owners who use their Tuktuks to supplement their day jobs.


  • Posted July 2, 2017 9:18 am
    by Results Point

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