During my time in Sri Lanka I have two goals: to visit the American ambassador (who is one of my best-good friends and I will brag about her until the day I die) and drive a tuk tuk. After spending a few days with my pal and her bodyguards in her armored BMW, I strike out on my own and rent my dream economy car—a classic shitbox. Or shit-triangle, as the case may be.
What the heck is a tuk tuk?
The three-wheeled tuk tuk is a cross between a motorcycle and a very small car. Its front wheel is steered by a set of motorcycle handlebars, while the power goes to the two rear wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission. It has a canvas roof, roll-down plastic doors for rain, and a windshield with a single wiper blade. A bench seat in the rear takes up all of the 51.0-inch width and the front has a single seat. Its tiny 200-cc engine is good for 10 hp and a modicum of torque. Several companies make them, but mine was manufactured by Bajaj out of India.
A rental company delivers my tuk tuk in the gorgeous fort town of Galle and sends someone to show me the ropes. To start it, I just turn the key and give it a tiny bit of gas. I try to rev it hard at first and my tuk-tuk tutor gives me a verbal slap on the wrist. I’ve almost flooded the engine.
Like a traditional motorcycle, the right foot operates the brake and the clutch is manipulated by the left hand. However, there is no brake lever for my right hand and no gear lever for my left foot. Instead, gear changes are performed by twisting the left handle, and, sorry, but the only brake is up front. Good luck!
Like a motorcycle, neutral can be tough to find, but shifting into reverse is the real pickle. To get going, I have to shift into neutral, engage a giant lever that pushes down from the dash, and then put the tuk tuk in first. Honestly, it’s easier to just get out and push. This thing weighs less than 800 pounds, after all.
I have few luxuries here—seat belts, for one, but also a USB port and a cell phone holder that is almost secure.
I get some good practice in the nearly car-free walled section of Galle. Sri Lankans drive on the left side of the road, and it takes me a hot second to get used to it, sometimes straying to the right side while I concentrate on shifting. Regardless, I have Google Maps downloaded offline and my goal is to just drive and see what happens. My only plan is to be at my next hotel in time to enjoy the pool for a while.
First drive: Tuk tuk to tea
I decide to go to the Handunugoda tea plantation, traversing the two-lane road that runs along the coast line. If texting and driving is dangerous in the States, it’s double jeopardy here. Lanes are mere suggestions and people use all available space to get to their destination. Stray dogs dart onto the road regularly, people turn in front of me, and if I’m not being passed by a bus belching out diesel smoke then I’m stuck behind one, breathing the fumes.
The roads to the plantation are all paved, but things get a bit more dodgy on the way to my hotel. First, the road gets rough, then barely wide enough for my tuk tuk, then all pavement disappears, replaced by rutted mud.
“That’s fine,” I think. “I’m a podium-winning off-road driver. I can handle this.”
I downshift and gun it—maybe a little too much. I’m driving like I’m trying to get a heavy-duty truck instead of a lightweight runabout through the mud. Some mud splatters into the door-less cabin and the rear slides around just a touch, but the tuk tuk handles it like a champ.
Get to know the locals
The next day the tuk tuk brings me on a new adventure with a few locals. A fruit vendor retrieves my phone when it bounces out of the tuk tuk on a busy street. As a thank you I buy a watermelon, throwing it into the small storage area behind the rear seat. I don’t really have a way to eat said watermelon, but what the heck. It may come in handy as a bargaining chip later.
A bit farther down the road I stop to chat with a group of tuk-tuk drivers and I’m immediately surrounded by a dozen dudes, peppering me with questions. Where am I from? Why am I driving a tuk tuk? How do I like Sri Lanka?
One of them decides he’s going to test my driving skills. He jumps in the backseat and directs me out to the busy four-lane street. When I don’t signal soon enough he reaches over my shoulder to flip the switch. He chides me for driving too fast but praises me for my right-hand turns into traffic. The next thing I know I have apparently agreed to get him a visa to come to America. I don’t think my sarcasm is understood by the Sri Lankans. The poor man might still be waiting for me to come back and marry him.
Oops, I stalled it again
Later that day, my confidence buoyed by the professional tuk-tuk driver’s praise, I decide to take the lead in a right-hand turn on to a busy street. Driving on the left side of the road means a right turn takes me across traffic. Usually I just wait until something bigger is also making the turn, then I just go along with them. This time, I lead the pack. And I stall it.
I’m basically sitting in traffic like a rock with cars flowing around me making their right turns and a big ol’ truck looming toward me in a broadside position. I panic a tiny bit and try to restart the tuk tuk.
Why won’t it start?
Ah shit! I’m in first gear. Okay, neutral, neutral, neutral! How do I put it in neutral again? I can see the truck driver’s eyes now. There is no anger or annoyance. It’s like he runs over dumb Americans who can’t drive every day.
I get the tuk tuk started and scoot out of his way just in time, but I’m sweating like a mofo and my heart is going a billion miles a minute. Time to relax with a $12 massage at the local ayurvedic spa.
Tuk tuk terrific
I loved driving the tuk tuk for the sense of freedom it gave me, but also because it brought me a bit closer to the locals. Would I ever have had the chance to joke around with a bunch of drivers had I not been driving the three-wheeled shit triangle? Probably not. Driving a working-class vehicle, feeling the humidity in the air, smelling the curry, hearing the myriad horns in traffic as folks made their way around the island was infinitely better than being ensconced in my ambassador friend’s air-conditioned luxury SUV. Was it dangerous? Meh. Maybe. Even when I stalled in traffic, local drivers just went around me. The big truck would have done the same had I not gotten going again. Even traveling as a single woman I never got harassed or felt unsafe. The people were delightful and curious.
While the cost to rent a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka can start as low as $14 per day, my three-day adventure was a bit more. My travel plans meant I couldn’t pick up or drop off the vehicle at the main office, so that was a $70 upcharge on either side. My short rental period cost me $90. I also paid the rental company $40 to procure my Sri Lankan driver’s license. All told, I spent $270, and my $150 deposit was refunded.
Electric tuk tuks are also available, but I didn’t want the extra stress of figuring out how to charge. I have no idea how many miles I drove in total, but the little guy took four liters of petrol when I was done, or about a gallon. I paid $1.10 per liter, a little less than what I pay for gas in California.
I loved my tuk tuk so much I immediately signed up for another adventure, this time for 12 days driving a tuk tuk across India with The Adventurists. It will undoubtedly be more difficult, climbing the Himalayas in that tiny thing and hauling around camping gear and three people, but love makes people do some pretty dumb things.
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