The Great Tuk Tuk Debate
The Phuket Gazette.
Watching Martin Scorsese's epic film Taxi Driver with star Robert De Niro playing demon-ridden Travis Bickle, who deadpans back when asked why he wanted to be a hack, croaks out, “Because I can't sleep nights.”
When I first moved to the island, I had this uneasy feeling that something wasn't right, that something was missing. It was hard to put my finger on, and after a few days of driving around it came to me in what can only be defined as a true moment of clarity; there were no taxis.
Did they only come out after I was asleep? Or were they in fact there but I just couldn't see them? (My eyesight isn't what it once was.) The only way to traverse this particular piece of paradise appeared to be car, motorbike or tuk-tuk.
Hate them or put up with them, the tuk-tuk, or, as I like to call them, tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk is the locally ubiquitous version of the taxi. Its roots can be traced back to the rickshaw or trishaw that over time became mechanized and morphed into both three- and four- wheel versions.
Now don't get me wrong, I have spent many late nights and early mornings speeding through the silent streets of Bangkok in a humble three-wheeled tuk-tuk. I have a wonderful and thrilling memory of urging the obliging wide-eyed driver and new best friend to go faster and faster. But that was a decade ago, and in Bangkok.
This is Phuket, and as the 2009 tourist season is rolling ahead a 'Great Debate' is again set upon us like a pack of hungry wolves clawing at our collective door.
Some years back a previous governor allowed yellow taxis with meters to hit the mean streets of banana land. And, as most locals remember, all hell broke loose, with vehicles burnt, tires slashed and some reported gunplay.
Since then it's been an uneasy and unholy alliance between metered taxis and the tuk-tuk-tuk-tuks. From time to time a cautious, slow moving yellow taxi can still be seen, but they appear to be on the endangered species list.
Reading about the recent tuk-tuk wars, blockades, tirades and dismal trashing of all things Phuket, certainly adds a sinister tone to the entire debate about their existence. But what is the true reality of these dark forces that pound the streets?
Although my physique could rightly be compared to a baby water buffalo in expensive running shoes, on most days as the dawn rises I too am out pounding the streets; training for triathlons.
Over the years, I've made a friend in a local tuk-tuk driver who also runs, swims and bikes in the same area, and we often trade smiles and wave as we go about out sweaty task.
If I happen to be with a friend as we pass, I often say, “He's a nice guy,” before adding, “He drives a tuk tuk.” More often then not it creates an immediate recoil, a muttered obscenity or just silence. I can understand the reactions to a certain extent.
However, I believe that in order to improve what is without a doubt one of the biggest negatives for tourists in Phuket, we have to try to understand these business operators and their reality.
Now don't get me wrong; I am in no way justifying the existence of tuk-tuks in Phuket. In fact, it gives me great pleasure to be able to go to Bangkok and get into a metered taxi. I enjoy spending the countless days plying the capital city with the comforting sounds of baht being counted on the noisy contraption.
When you speak to most Phuket tuk-tuk drivers, you learn that their income derives not only from transport but also from commissions – derived from delivering customers to restaurants, shops, precious mineral stores….
This system is more or less the same as that employed in most hotels, where staff receive commissions for generating customers. In some industries it's construed as marketing. In others it's considered corruption.
Most Phuket taxi drivers have to pay someone for the daily use of their vehicle, or else make car payments. They have families and children that need to be schooled. If you were to ask a Phuket taxi driver why he does what he does, you'll likely hear, “Because I have to; it's my job.”
Personally, as a backseat driver I'd suggest transforming the existing tuk-tuk armada into retrofitted taxis by simply installing meters.
Passengers would then be able to choose a vehicle, sedan taxi or tuk-tuk taxi. With both having meters, what would ultimately happen over time would be the culling of the herd through natural selection.
Now, as taxis in Bangkok receive more and more business, the older tuk-tuks are being gradually grandfathered out. As a result, this would also mean, unfortunately, that the 'late night speeding through the streets of Bangkok in a rickety tuk-tuk' mode of transport would soon be replaced by the less joyous, but safer, cruising in an air-conditioned taxi.