Editors' Choice

Why Tuk-Tuks Make the Big Bucks

by Kristin Barendsen

A farang tries to tame the wildest creature of Thailand’s urban jungle.

It looks easy, like driving a car, except that the gas is a flick of the wrist. But when I take a deep breath and turn the key, I understand why tuk-tuks make the big bucks.

"Right hand, fuel!" Pon shouts from the back seat. The engine sputters and roars to life. "Left foot, clutch, let go!"

"I'm not in gear!"

"Gear number one!"

I move my right hand from the throttle to the gear stick between my knees. The engine dies instantly. Sweat and sunscreen drip into my eyes.

"Shift with left hand, not right hand," Pon insists.

"I can't shift with left hand," I protest. "I'm a farang!"

We're in a sprawling, deserted parking lot on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand's northern metropolis. I've accepted the outrageous offer of Pon, one of the country's few women tuk-tuk drivers, to teach me, a farang (gringo), how to drive a three-wheeled auto rickshaw. But so far I am failing this most unusual Driver's Ed lesson.

The wildest creatures of the Thai urban jungle, tuk-tuks can weave through gridlocked traffic and pull a U-turn within one lane with room to spare. They're a cross between a tricycle and a torpedo, with toy-sized wheels, open sides, a convertible canvas roof, and space enough to cram three tourists (or eight Thais) in back. The term "tuk-tuk" is an onomatopoeia for the two-stroke engine that provides a rhythmic backdrop, even a pulse, to every Thai city. Attempts to ban further manufacture of this top noise and air polluter have fizzled in the face of high tourist demand and the popular opinion that the tuk-tuk is quintessentially Thai, a symbol of nationalistic pride.

Like every expat in Chiang Mai, I had spent many an evening shoehorned into the back of a tuk-tuk with other passengers, careening through intersections at Hail-Mary speed. But never had I seen a fellow farang behind the wheel; Thais have the driving market cornered. When Pon had proposed to alter this balance of power even for an afternoon, the significance had not been lost on me. How many farangs ever have this opportunity, and how many would dare seize it? How would people react to the sight of me, female and blonde, driving down the road in this contraption?

I try to restart the engine, but nothing happens. "Close the key," Pon says. "If you forget to close key, big fire!" I watch in the rearview mirror as she illustrates her point with waving hands and explosive sound effects. "Not after one minute, but after ten. Because if not close key, gas stay on."

I close the key, then open it and rev the engine. The tuk-tuk heaves forward, a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

"Don't forget brake, right foot!" Pon warns me that her former student had forgotten the brake and "almost make big accident."

I hit a speed bump dead on, sending Pon airborne and then back to the plastic bench with an audible thud. "Hey, brake, I say!" she complains, rubbing her backside. "Sorry, girlfriend," I offer, but I can't help laughing. Karmically I've just repaid all the tuk-tuk drivers who have sprained my coccyx on the unforgiving seat.

I try to shift into second but grind the gears and stall. If you neglect the gas even momentarily, the engine dies into deafening silence. This is why, in Chiang Mai, there's never a still moment absent the slicing rev of the two-stroke engine.

"Shift with left hand, not right! I tell you already."

Eventually I can navigate the vehicle, whom Pon has named "Betsy," with relative ease, making ever-tightening circles. Pon relaxes a little, reclining with her feet up on the side rail and peeling mandarin oranges. While giving reverse gear a try, I tilt my head back and accept an orange slice into my mouth. The fruit is a burst of cool on a blazing hot day. I realize my back and legs are soaked in sweat.

"Should I take her into town?" I ask, but the question is rhetorical, as I've already decided I'm too chicken.

"Oh, mai pen rai," Pon replies, invoking the Thai national motto, "never mind." It's a philosophy that can be considered extreme denial of—or extreme adaptation t—life's difficulties. It's perhaps best epitomized in the way Thais drive any vehicle: turning onto busy streets without noting the status of oncoming traffic, weaving recklessly with ultimate trust in reincarnation.

I'm not sure if Pon means "never mind the possibility of death, let's take her into town," or "never mind that stupid idea, let's leave it for the day." Mai pen rai, I agree to leave it, and give her back the reins.

* * *


I first met Pon while navigating my bicycle slowly through a late-night traffic jam along Chiang Mai's "moat road," a multi-lane myriad of one-ways and U-turns that follows the moat around the old city. I heard insistent honking and turned to see a tuk-tuk commandeered by a stocky woman wearing flannel, a bandanna tied like a sweatband around her boyish haircut. Flashing a crooked-toothed smile, she reached a hand toward me with her business card. Though a motorbike was trying to cut between us, I extended my arm and grabbed the card. "Pon's Tuk-Tuk Service," it read. She winked.

It was an unusual way to flirt, but anything goes in Thailand.

One rainy evening a few weeks later, I was walking past the Night Bazaar, the city's outdoor gift market, where throngs of tuk-tuks lay in wait for the tourists swarming past. "Hey, beautiful!" a voice called. It was Pon, grinning and offering a bag of mandarin oranges. I climbed in her vehicle—not to flirt back, as she was too butch for me, but because I could tell already she was of "my people," and a fascinating woman.

I remarked to Pon that I rarely saw women tuk-tuk drivers. Pon confirmed that out of over 600 drivers in Chiang Mai, there were only "fifteen women maximum." We set off to find one of her female colleagues, but on the way the rain became a monsoon deluge that stranded us under the awning of a Shell station for an hour and a half.

When the storm let up Pon treated me to dinner at her favorite restaurant, a florescent-lit noodle shop, where she barked orders at the wait staff until our meals arrived. My bowl featured broth with noodles, pickled eggs, and a gray-purple block of cow's blood. Another only-in-Thailand moment, I thought as Pon gave me a pointed stare. "On the bicycle you look so beautiful and young," she said. "Now you look old and tired. Why?"

I told her that in my country, such a statement would be considered rude. When she repeated her observation even more emphatically, I replied, "You're not looking so good yourself, sistah." She laughed, but I could tell she hadn't caught the meaning.

"You want to drive a tuk-tuk? I teach you." It was my turn to laugh, but the seed was planted.

* * *


Since that evening I had run into Pon several more times. She kept me updated on her love life and its impressive cast of female and male characters who would exit stage right and re-enter on cue. I complained about my opposite, and ironic, problem—my house-arrest celibacy as a white woman in Asia, even as one who, like Pon, prefers both genders. While I told Pon the details of my failed dates, I was careful not to invite her to break my streak of purity.

Pon confided in me about former girlfriends, usually other drivers, who had abused her considerable generosity. "I want to help her, you know. I give her 4000 baht, then 2000 baht. She not pay me back. I think her good, her no good." She says that altogether she has lent 50,000 baht (about $1366 US) that she's never seen again.

Pon, 46, was born in Bangkok and has lived in Chiang Mai for 15 years. She learned how to drive "a bicycle age 6, motorbike age 9, car age 13." She had survived near-fatal accidents while piloting a motorbike and car, but mai pen rai, she got back on the diesel horse and started driving professionally two years before. She claimed to have mastered the art of tuk-tukking in just 10 minutes. "Why you don't believe me?" she asked.

Pon rents Betsy from a tuk-tuk dealer for 180 baht per day. Named after Pon's first crush "on American girl like you," Betsy is standard-issue black with yellow trim and plates, stickers advertising tourist attractions, and a masculine love-life talisman hanging from the rearview mirror. The gear-stick handle is a pool ball, green number 6. Pon also owns a new SUV that she uses to drive customers to farther-flung destinations like the mountains. She has six mobile phones, "because one might be out of order." Somehow she manages to run a side business renting motorbikes and bicycles. "You must be the wealthiest tuk-tuk driver in Chiang Mai," I observed. She laughed, but neither confirmed nor denied.

Granted, Pon works hard for her money. She sleeps a maximum of 6 hours per night, and she plies the tourist-thick streets between Tha Pae Gate and the Night Bazaar for 14 to 18 hours a day. This staggering figure does, however, include frequent breaks to hang out with customers and colleagues. "I like foreigner," she waxed with a wistful smile. "Because they have more money. And my heart same-same American people."

"Same-same, but different," I qualified.

* * *


Whenever I saw Pon on the street, she would offer feedback on my appearance. "Why you gain weight?"

"Because I visited my family in the States, and I ate a lot of bread and cheese."

"Why you do that?"

This was why I kept procrastinating my driving lesson—it wasn't every day that I wanted to be called uan, fat.

Finally I resolved to make the date. I called Pon several times over the course of a week. "I have customer now. I call you later," she said each time.

Then one morning she showed up unannounced at my guesthouse, ready to teach. As we took off in a cloud of blue smoke toward the parking lot that would serve as my training grounds, she turned to face me. "Kristin, you skinny now. Why you lose weight? You look better before."

* * *


After our lesson we drive away from the lot, Pon once again in the pilot's seat. I refuse her offers to take me to the umbrella factory, the bungee jump, and her cousin's marble shop, venues that will pay her a commission for my white-skinned output of cash. I want to treat her to Japanese food, which she has never tried. While we wait for our combination platters, I complain about the absence of a lesbian bar in Chiang Mai. Pon narrows her eyes, asking me why I would want such a thing. I explain, "I'm from San Francisco, where there are lots of places—bars, cafés, bookstores—to meet people like us, make friends. Wouldn't you want that here?"

"My whole life is like a lesbian bar," she replies. "Why would I want to pay for whiskey?"

"A lesbian bar on three wheels," I add. "Touché."

To illustrate her point, Pon takes four wrapped toothpicks from the dispenser on our table. She places one toothpick in opposition to the other three, which, lined up side by side, represent her current lovers—French woman, Thai woman, Canadian man. None live in Chiang Mai, none know about each other, and all are planning to visit during the same two-week span. I express my admiration of the seductive prowess that got her into this mess.

"Big problem, Kristin. What should I do?"

"You should say, ‘I have customer now. I call you later.'"

She mimes the single toothpick running away from all the others. I mime them chasing her, yelling, "taxi, taxi!"

* * *


When we part for the day, I give her an American hug and 200 baht (US $5.50) for her expertise. But something feels incomplete: I haven't really done it. I still long to take the tuk-tuk on the road—the real Thai road in all its raw insanity. I long to make an unforgettable spectacle of myself.

The next morning, I see Pon parked outside Tha Pae Gate, the ruins of an ancient city wall that borders the moat. She waves an orange at me. "I want to do it," I beg. "Let me drive just down Loi Kroh."

"You sure?"

"Yes, sure."

"You sure?"

I turn the key. And with the honking red-truck taxis and silver SUVs bearing down on me, I understand how much Buddhist equanimity is required in this job. "Mai pen rai," I whisper to myself, drawing in a long breath and trying to slow my heart, which revs like a two-stroke engine. As Pon in the back seat waves traffic around us, I give Betsy the gas and we take off down the moat road. Never mind that I am driving down the left side of the street—this I am used to by now.

I turn onto Loi Kroh, a street lined with girlie bars and swarming with tourists. I spot an elderly farang gentleman and his twentysomething Thai companion, and I slow to attract them. "Hallo Sah!" I call in my best Thai accent. "Sah! Tuk-tuk?"

I expect this couple, and indeed everyone on the street, to drop their jaws and stare. I would have stared. But they don't even glance in my direction, just give me exasperated waves of the hand.

I realize they are jaded by touts and I am doing the accent too well. "Speak American!" Pon urges. I try a Texas drawl. "Howdy, y'all, taxi!" The man looks at me, but his face registers blankness—what he sees does not compute.

I stop at the Night Bazaar, where Pon explains our antics to her smiling colleagues and competitors parked there. When I see two women walking with heads lolling under the weight of their mammoth backpacks, I call out, "Taxi, Madame!" and honk enthusiastically. They politely decline with an English-accented, "thanks, we're just walking to our hotel." They don't seem the least bit fazed. Maybe they are fresh off the plane and can't appreciate the import of what they are seeing. Or maybe they're already living by mai pen rai—here translated as, "yeah? So what."

I want to be noticed; it's one of the reasons I live abroad, to have an unusual life. Normally just riding my bicycle I turn heads, inspire cries of "Hallo falang!" from children playing on the sidewalks. So why, I wonder, am I now being treated as just another of the city's 600 tuk-tuk drivers?

I continue down the busy Night Bazaar road, choking on fumes and watching my mirrors, which show red-truck taxis weaving desperately to pass me as my engine screams in second gear. A few street vendors smile, and one gives me a thumbs-up. Still, not the reception I had expected.

The next foreigner I see looks like he's been on a bender for days. "Tuk-tuk!" I cry and pursue him onto a side street, stopping in front of him so that Betsy blocks his path. He gives me an addled glance and starts to walk around us. "Ride to your hotel, forty baht!" I offer.

"Twenty baht," he counters.

"Thirty." He climbs in back with Pon.

"Where to?" I ask. Lucky for all of us, his guesthouse is only a few blocks away. He reeks of cheap whiskey and the formaldehyde that is said to be a key ingredient in Thai beer. Gavin, from Sydney, says he came to Chiang Mai on holiday a month ago and deliberately missed his flight back. "It's the girls," he candidly slurs. "They're not like the sheilas back home." Pon murmurs encouragement; I choose not to touch that one.

I approach a busy, signal-less intersection where a smirking policeman stops traffic in all directions to wave me through.

"By the way, this isn't exactly legal, is it?" Gavin asks. We laugh.

"No way!" Pon replies. "You need license." She says farangs can take the licensing exam if they can read and write Thai.

"I heard you can just pay more and not take the test," Gavin says. "I mean, for any driving license."

"Oh sure, just pay more."

A few blocks down, three Thai teenagers on a motorcycle slow to let me lurch past as I struggle to shift into third. "Farang khap tuk-tuk!" one exclaims, and they all giggle. This is more like it.

I stop at Gavin's guesthouse, "John's Place," at $2.50 per day among the cheapest digs in the city.

"Okay, Gavin, what do you think about me, a white woman, driving this tuk-tuk?" I ask.

"Well you know, it's kind of unusual I suppose, but this is Thailand. I saw things last night that would shock you to high heaven. This is just, well, a bit of a laugh." He weaves up the sidewalk to John's.

He's right. Only-in-Thailand meets mai pen rai. I'm just an expat driving a tuk-tuk, and Pon is just my butch mentor. In a country where the extraordinary is ordinary, this is only another moment of another day. But with that realization I feel a giddy surge of love for this bizarre, marvelous, polluted place I am calling home.

When we return to Tha Pae Gate, I park on the shoulder and let Pon take over. We slap hands in a victorious high-five. Pon appreciates my triumph, even if no one else does.

"Were you afraid?" she asks me.

"A little. Were you?"

"A lot!" She laughs so hard and long that I see she must have been terrified. I give her a kiss on both cheeks as reassurance, apology, and thanks. "But you drive great," she says. "Falang khap tuk-tuk." She takes a deep breath and holds out a slice. "Orange?" she offers. I open my mouth wide.


Kristin Barendsen writes about travel, yoga, and the arts from her home in Santa Fe. She is the author of the forthcoming book Photography and New Mexico. This story won the Gold Award for Most Unforgettable Character in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Kristin Barendsen

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