A few times a week I commute to or from the office by tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are a great invention. They call them different things in different places. Baby-taxis. Auto-rickshaws. And a bunch of other things I’m sure. They come in different sizes and styles. The remorks of Siam Reap are two-wheeled trailers that seat 2-4 people, hitched onto the back of a motorbike. The Thailand’s tuk-tuks are delux, padded things all dressed up for the farang, cushy and spacious with shiny dangly bits and soft cushions, while Bangladesh’s baby-taxis are basically a sardine-can with three wheels and a bike-grip steering column. Here, most of the ones I ride in, the two-seater bench at the back is loose and the suspension can be felt from your coccis to your cranium on every pothole. I say two-seater, but with the right negotiation I’ve been one of a creatively-packed foursome in the back.
I like travelling by tuk-tuk. Any other vehicle, and traffic is just, well, traffic. But in a tuk-tuk, it’s a part of life. Instead of passing through it in your little glass cage, air-conditioning blasting while the clock on the dashboard ticks away the minutes of your life and reminds you you’re going to be late again, you’re actually a part of it. You’re not just travelling down the street. You are the street.
I think it’s the sensory nature of the commute. Sure, it’s hot and it’s sweaty and it’s dirty and you’re blasted with fumes. Yep, every time the car behind you hits the horn it feels like your eardrum just got perforated. But there’s something communal about being part of the street life, something visceral, with your feet just a few inches off the tarmac and your lungs beating with the pulse of the inner-city. The smell of cooking from a food cart, and the way the headlamps of approaching cars flood the interior of the little vehicle with searing white light, and the glances of children in a passing sedan looking down at you. You stop half-way into a marked crosswalk and pedestrians surge around you like you’re on a stool in the middle of the road. A passenger riding pillion on a passing motorbike turns his head and gives you a little nod as he slips between the mottled rows of crawling traffic. The deep rumble of a powerful diesel engine shakes the air and you glance sideways to find yourself eye-to-fender with a sprawling city bus, the top of the tyre about level with your forehead. You pull up at an intersection, and the heady tang of insence from a roadside shrine wafts above the stale smell of hot rubber and fumes and pricks your nostrils.
I’m sure if I had to ride one all the time they’d get old. But a few times a week, and I have to say, tuk-tuks have it over Land Cruisers any day…