Thailand on Three Wheels—With and Without an Engine
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

On a return trip to Thailand, a writer gets to know the country's iconic three-wheeled modes of passage, rolling with the tuk-tuk and trishaw troops in and near Chiang Mai.

Tourists in a tuk tuk

Sometimes, laughter is the shortest distance between strangers. Remember the nervous anticipation you experienced when taking the driving test to get your driver's license? Well, you can relive the experience in Thailand in happy tongue-in-cheek mode when you learn how to drive—and rock—a five-speed three-wheeled Thai tuk-tuk. Driver training was never this much fun.

fancy tuk tuk

Based in Chiang Mai, The Tuk Tuk Club's signature experience is an 11-day journey through the heart of Northern Thailand. I got a taste with a full day-trip, which launches with training on a disused basketball court, adorned with red cones, an hour outside the buzz of Chiang Mai. It’s next to a field where a family of Karen farmers pick onions. If you know how to drive anything with a clutch, you're halfway there. Pupils who've owned a motorcycle—moped even—are already semi pro, as this is basically a tubby, hooded ATV tricycle. I was in one of six tuk-tuks, each holding two or three eager apprentices. Part serious and part comedic, the learning process involves you learning to zigzag through cones, back up, and change gears while driving uphill. A highly entertaining guide, Smithy, cracks jokes throughout this process and continues to pan the student body throughout the day.

The club's owner, Bruce Haxton, is a UK expat and travel industry veteran whose love affair with Thailand began in 1988 when he arrived as a teen backpacker. Haxton pined to drive a tuk-tuk around Thailand but was always either too busy or met by a "no can do" wall of resistance. Eventually, he borrowed a tuk-tuk from a Bangkok taxi driver, drove it 435 miles to Chiang Mai, then undertook the route that now makes up the club's 11-day tour. He was hooked. Three years in the making, he melded what he thinks is the best of the country with getting the first six tuk-tuks built and delivered. Now, they're off and running with 12 custom-built Bangkok-classic tuk tuks. All bright orange, they have extra legroom and are wired for Bluetooth sound. They were built by the same specialty manufacturer who crafted the prop tuk-tuk used in the movie Hangover Part II.

The club's tuk-tuk's all have names. I drove Rock.

Driving on Thai Roads

After 45 minutes of trial and error, everyone passed the test, and our convoy of six stylish tuk-tuks hit the road. Once you encounter pavement reality, you need to keep reminding yourself that Thailand drives on the left side of the road and that your eyes need to stay on it, taking a temporary reprieve from ogling the beautiful people and landscapes. And, oh yeah, there's oncoming traffic, and people and dogs crossing streets, too. Initially, you cruise lightly trafficked backroads that wind through agricultural greenery and tiny villages that are encircled by misty mountains. The first two stops are non-touristy temples. But the highlight of the trip for me was how the Thai locals chuckled at the prospect of an ambitious caravan of Western tuk-tuk pilots.

Miss Universe dress Thailand

Arriving at a Thai destination in a self-driven tuk-tuk is way different than stepping off a tour bus. It occurred to me that a Westerner driving a tuk-tuk through rural Thailand is akin to a Thai person building a snowman in Denmark or riding a Harley Davidson across Kansas. But I wasn't the only person feeling a bit of celebrity status. In a 2015 Miss Universe contest, Miss Thailand wore a tuk-tuk dress and won the Best National Costume award. The winning design, Tuk-tuk (or Sam Lor) Thailand, was chosen from 356 entries and fashioned by a Culture Ministry representative. See, tuk-tuk's are cool, sexy even. Real pride needs no flag.

We soon hit a main road and journeyed a half hour to an Asian elephant sanctuary, where we ate lunch with elephants in sight. I'd previously avoided this sort of touristy undertaking because of a few naysayers, but feeding elephants is cathartic. Their gently maneuvering trunks are more dexterous than a surgeon's hand. We then followed the herd of five downhill for a half-mile toward a river, hiking along it until the posse arrived at a confluence with a bigger river in which the elephants immediately dove in. Following these incredible animals (along with three enthusiastic puppies) to their happy place was a very special moment—and a reminder that all animals want things their way. En route to that swimming hole, two elephant minders had to jostle the two babies in the herd to stop halting for mud-puddle baths and detour the three adults keen on munching trees.

Thailand elephant bathing near Chiang Mai

Once in the water, the two babies rollicked about joyously and were constantly wrestling and dunking each other. Remember dunking your friends? There is no doubt that these kids were having a blast. The entire tuk-tuk group participated in using water buckets to splash and wash the elephants, a divine moment.

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: Thailand on Three Wheels—With and Without an Engine

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy The Directions to Happiness at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy Globetrotter Dogma at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Buy In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology at your local bookstore, or get it online here:

Sign Up