Motoring through crowded streets in auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks), is my favorite mode of transportation in India. They are loud. They are subject to the wind and rain. They miraculously come within millimeters of pedestrians, cows, scooters, bikes, and other auto rickshaws. And they are fun as hell.
The three-wheeled vehicles are covered but door-less. With a two-stroke engine and handlebar controls, it's similar to a ride at Disneyland, albeit without the circular track to nowhere. Unlike a sanitized, elevated ride in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive tourist vehicle, tuk tuks are the best mode of transport for a close-up look at daily life. You'll whiz past vegetable markets and get a whiff of ripe bananas, hear locals haggle over goods, and get a birds eye view of monkey shenanigans on the roadside.
Tuk tuks are inexpensive rides compared to taxis or hired cars and quite comfortable forms of transportation for two or three people. However, it's not uncommon to see riders crammed within the small confines of the cab, limbs akimbo and protruding from the vehicle.
Some tuk tuk drivers show pride of ownership. They cover the seats with fancy fabrics or colored Naugahyde, embellish them with stitched-in heart shapes, trim them in fringe and tassels, and decorate them with deities.
Auto rickshaws are used throughout India but rules vary regarding fares. In some areas the meters are working, running and required. In others, meters are often "broken", so you must use your bargaining skills.
If you're on an organized tour, don't deprive yourself of this experience. If you're on business consider hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day. Just negotiate in advance.
Tuk Tuk Tips
- Ask the hotel where you're staying what a ride should cost from point A to B. If you're already out flagging down a tuk tuk,, think half of the quoted price and go from there. Always establish a price in advance.
- Don't assume a driver knows where your destination is. The driver may be from a different state or village and driving his auto rickshaw in an adopted city. I once tried going to an early morning yoga class with map and address in hand only to be dropped off in the middle of, well, I don't know where it was. It took two more tuk tuk rides before I found the yoga class.
- Bring a map and point out your destination if the driver is unfamiliar with its location.
- Use common sense. A fellow traveler was adamant about paying a fair, non-tourist price. The driver asked for 80 rupees. She insisted the quoted fare (approximately $1.75) was too much. Perhaps. Well, probably. But there were no other tuk tuks in sight on this long stretch of road. The driver spoke good English and clearly knew the location of our chosen destination. That, in my book, was worth the extra 50 cents he was charging.
- I sometimes walk to where the tuk tuk drivers congregate. I look for drivers whose vehicles are neat and clean and speak English since my Hindi is limited. It's more efficient for both of us.
- If a driver insists on taking you to a friend's, uncle or cousin's shop, insist on getting to your desired destination. Chances are, they are taking you to a shop where prices will be high due to their commission.
- Drivers work hard and work long hours. Tips are appreciated.
For the Adventurous
You don't have to take a back seat in these crazy little motorized contraptions. Consider driving your own tuk tuk for the Rickshaw Challenge. This "amazing race for the clinically insane" has an outlined route that traverses across several microclimates, and through suburban, country, and city roads. July 31 through August 13, 2009.