The Secret Life of a Tuk-Tuk Driver

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Mid-September in Bangkok, our first night in Thailand. We had only just stepped out of our hostel to have a quick look around before dinner, but were now completely lost. As the setting sun’s view of the city is suddenly obscured by harsh thunderclouds, rain comes bulleting down in large, warm drops. Wet, tired and hungry, we see a man in white walksup to us, like and angel through the rain. He is smiling. ‘You from England?’ he asks with a strangely cockney accent, then, ‘My name Jimmy, you?’ We introduce ourselves. He explains that he is the security guard for the Iron Palace, but it is closed for a Thai public holiday. He says that today all tuk tuks are only 10 Baht (20p) and ushers us towards a smiling driver: Dom. Jack and I look at each other. We enter the poorly constructed vehicle and moments later we’re hurtling through the streets at breakneck speeds.

We have no idea it’s all part of a con.

For those of you who are not familiar with tuk tuks, they are essentially a cross between the back end of a rickshaw and the front of a very wide Vespa. A tuk tuk driver will eat, nap and even shave in his vehicle and can spend up to 12 hours a day cruising around for a fare. They started out as a legitimate form of transport and even today still are for Thai locals- that said, they also have an unexplained affinity for the wrong side of the road. However, about 20 or 30 years ago something changed. The massive growth of tourism in Thailand gave them a chance to make a bit of extra cash, and not simply by taking people from A to B.

Some vendors give drivers a small reward for sending potential customers their way. This evolved into the first con we encountered: The Thai Tailor Scam. Dom said he was taking us to the Golden Buddha, but he first needed to get some food for later. We assumed we were his last fare of the day, so did not question him. He stopped us outside a Tailor’s and said that we should go and have a look inside. We did. Instantly loud tailors dressed in garishly shiny clothes surrounded us. ‘What cut? What material? 2 Jackets or 3? Real Italian Silk. Deliver to Hotel. Cheap-cheap!’ ‘No we’re just looking.’ With that they lost it. They started to become increasingly hostile, insinuated that we were stealing and suggested we pay them 1,000 Baht each before we left. We said (truthfully) that we didn’t have the money and ran out into Dom’s open arms.

Some people aren’t so lucky. They get suckered in with sweet talk and are amazed at the relatively low prices. On ordering their garments they are asked to pay upfront, which they do. They will leave to find that their driver has been paid in petrol coupons and has vanished. To make matters worse, the garments either never arrive at the hotel or do arrive, but are made out of polyester or nylon and are shoddily sewn together.

Backpackers are considered slightly more discerning than family tourists due to their lack of money, however, Mr & Mrs Tuk catch them out too. The Tourist Agency scam is very much like the Tailor scam. Tuk-tuk man takes you to a tourist agency, saying it i‘Government sanctioned. You walk in, and, if you don’t have plans you get sweet talked into buying a trip with them. They say that the government also subsidises them, you believe this because it vaguely makes sense- the reason given, ironically, is ‘to stop tourists getting ripped off’. You book your extortionately priced trip, but agree to pay on the next day. Tuk-tuk man gets his petrol. He stays around this time though, takes your mobile number. You go home and check the website: It looks legitimate. You google it: it seems fine. The next day Mr Tuk calls you. He says he’s outside your hostel and waiting to take you to the agency. You don’t want to be rude, so you go and pay. Later you find the same trip for £200 cheaper in a shop window. Not so friendly to the backpacker budget after all.

Our story ends differently. We ignore the call from Dom. He waits outside our hostel but we’re not in – we’re safely down the next road in a different hostel. When he dropped us off the night before we made sure he dropped us off at the wrong place; He came back every morning for the next three days. We may have outsmarted him, but in the end it is depressing to realise that the Tuk-Tuk drivers have no other choice. The bad press from scams being blown out in the open have greatly diminished their business and has meant that often it is no longer viable for them to tuk honestly.

Tourism and greed has changed what was once a relatively respectable trade into a murky job filled with lies and fake smiles. But hey, what am I complaining for? I did get a tour of Bangkok for 10p.

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