I’d better begin by defining my terms. Every foreigner I know in Sri Lanka calls these little beetling vehicles ‘tuk-tuks’ after the similar vehicles that are found in Thailand. But Sri Lankans themselves get a bit sniffy at the term. Nor do they take kindly to the vehicles being called ‘auto-rickshaws’, as they are in India. No, the preferred local terms seem to be ‘trishaws’ or plain old ‘three-wheelers’.
I’ve read a report that there are nearly a million tuk-tuks plying their trade – which is shuttling passengers and sometimes cargo across short distances – on the roads and streets of Sri Lanka. This means that in a country with a population of 21 million there’s one tuk-tuk in existence for roughly every score of its citizens. Mind you, you can believe those statistics when you see swarms of the things on the move at rush hour in downtown Colombo, passing you in weaving, buzzing streaks of red, blue and green. (Occasionally, you see an ultra-cool black tuk-tuk. The black one in my immediate neighbourhood is driven by a guy who also sports an awesome mullet. He’s such a dude.)
The décor inside Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks often reminds you of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity. Mounted on the dashboard might be a figurine of Buddha, indicating that the driver is of the Buddhist persuasion; or a little statue of the cheery elephant-headed god Ganesha, indicating that he’s likely to be a Hindu; or a cross, indicating a Christian; or there might be a verse from the Koran adorning the windscreen, indicating a Muslim. However, interior tuk-tuk design frequently incorporates non-religious themes too. For some reason, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a common motif, with Captain Jack Sparrow’s jolly face emblazoned across many a tuk-tuk’s upholstery. You get dungeons-and-dragons imagery too, and Bollywood-type stuff, and pictures of Native Americans and Harley Davidsons; and occasionally a weird hallucinogenic mixture of the lot.
I’ve been on board tuk-tuks that have looked as bare and functional as the inside of a cardboard box. On the other hand, I’ve been in ones whose interiors, bedecked with frills, tinsel and strings of coloured paper flowers, have resembled that of a 19th century Parisian bordello. Once, I climbed into one that happened to be decorated with emblems of Newcastle United Football Club. When I climbed out again at my destination, I mentioned to the driver that I’d lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years and I quite liked Newcastle United. The guy looked stunned. I suppose that of all the passengers he’d ever ferried around Colombo, I must have been the closest one to an actual, living, breathing Geordie.
Here are a few pieces of advice to foreign visitors to Colombo who decide to utilize the city’s immense army of tuk-tuks.
One. Avoid taking tuk-tuks that have been parked opportunistically outside a shop or restaurant or hotel that might qualify as being (even slightly) ‘touristy’. These are often guys who’ll try to pre-arrange a fare with you, and it’ll be considerably more than what it would be on a meter. And if they do use a meter, don’t be surprised if the meter suffers from numerical diarrhea, skittering out higher and higher prices. Instead, flog down a tuk-tuk that’s passing on the street – the driver’s less likely to be a vulture.
Two. Make sure the tuk-tuk has a meter and the driver uses it. And make sure that the starting price – and the blanket fare for the first 900 metres – on it is 50 rupees. Yes, I have Sri Lankan friends and colleagues who tell me they can travel around on tuk-tuks for less, but as a relatively well-heeled Westerner I think 50 rupees is fine and fair. Then, keep your eyes on the meter at the 0.9-of-a-kilometer stage. For once that distance is reached, the price goes up and keeps going up every subsequent 100 metres. Each time, the increase should be by four rupees: 54 rupees, then 58, then 62, and so on. If the meter starts climbing in bigger chunks, you’re being fleeced. Tell the driver to change the incremental charge to four – a surprising number of them will when they’re challenged about it. If the driver refuses, just tell him to stop and then get out. Don’t worry. This is Colombo. There’ll be another, hopefully-cheaper tuk-tuk along after a moment.
At nighttime, though, the charges are higher: 57.50 rupees as the customary starting charge and correspondingly more-expensive additional charges. Also, if your tuk-tuk is stationary for a period – as it often is in Colombo’s traffic jams – you’ll notice the meter logging on an extra two-rupee-a-minute ‘waiting fee’.
Three. If you’re taking a tuk-tuk into an area of the city that you don’t know very well, bring along a copy of the Colombo A-Z so that you can monitor where you’re going. This will alert you to the driver trying to treat you to ‘the scenic route’. (Or alternatively, they simply may not know where they’re going themselves. Tuk-tuk drivers get lost with surprising frequency – they’re not like those London black-taxicab drivers who’ve spent years memorizing every nook and cranny of the city as ‘the Knowledge’.) At the same time, bear in mind that Colombo’s one-way systems can be both torturous and illogical, and if the driver isn’t taking you the shortest, most direct way it may be because of these.
Four. Keep your pockets stocked with plenty of change because many tuk-tuk drivers never seem to have any.
The sharks tend to operate in the centre of Colombo, where there are more tourists to rip off. I usually don’t have issues with tuk-tuks in my neighbourhood, Wellawatta, which is a few kilometres away from the city-centre action. And when you find yourself in other Sri Lankan cities and towns where meters are much less common – I was in Kandy last week and ended up paying 250 rupees for a journey that would have cost me about 100 in Colombo – you soon start to view the tuk-tuk-driving fraternity in the country’s capital as a fine, upstanding bunch of blokes.
Finally, I should say that one night I was travelling through Wellawatta in a tuk-tuk when we stopped at a red light and another tuk-tuk drew up beside us in the adjacent lane. This one was covered in a camouflage pattern and had the words TUK-TUK SAFARI stenciled on its side. Its driver was dressed like a great white hunter, complete with a pith helmet. Also, the vehicle was open-roofed and in the back rode two foreign tourist ladies. They weren’t sitting, but standing, so that their upper halves jutted through the gap in the roof. They seemed to be surveying the street-life of nocturnal Colombo in the way that participants in a real safari would survey the animal-life of the African savannah.
My reaction to this? I believe that if you pay money to go on a tuk-tuk safari around Colombo, you don’t deserve to live.