Luxury Cars

I drove all the way to Sri Lanka to drive a tuk tuk

During my time in Sri Lanka I have two goals: to visit the American ambassador (who is one of my best friends and who I will brag about until the day I die) and to drive a tuk tuk. After spending a few days with my girlfriend and her bodyguards in her armored BMW, I go out on my own and rent my dream shitbox. Or a fucking triangle, as the case may be.

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

What the hell is a tuk tuk?

The three-wheeled tuk tuk is a cross between a motorcycle and a very small car. The front wheel is steered via a motorcycle handlebar, while the power is transmitted to the two rear wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission. It features a canvas roof, roll-up plastic doors to keep out rain, and a windshield with a single wiper blade. A bench seat in the rear takes up the entire width of 51.0 inches and there is a single seat in the front. Its tiny 200cc engine produces 10 horsepower and a minimum of torque. Several companies make them, but mine was made by Bajaj in India.

My tuk tuk is handed over to me in the beautiful fortified city of Galle and the rental company sends someone to show me how it works. To start it, I just turn the key and give it a little gas. I first try to accelerate hard and my tuk-tuk instructor gives me a verbal slap on the wrist. I almost flooded the engine. Like a traditional motorcycle, the right foot operates the brake and the clutch is operated with the left hand. However, there is no brake lever for my right hand and no gear lever for my left foot. Instead, changing gears is done by turning the left handle, and unfortunately the only brake is at the front. Good luck!

Like a motorcycle, finding neutral can be difficult, but engaging reverse is the real challenge. To get started I have to shift into neutral, pull a huge lever that pushes down from the dashboard, and then put the tuk tuk in first. Honestly, it’s easier to just get out and push. After all, this thing weighs less than 800 pounds.

I have few luxuries here. On the one hand, seat belts, but also a USB port and an almost secure cell phone holder.

I get good exercise in the almost car-free, walled part of Galle. In Sri Lanka they drive on the left side of the road and it took me a hot second to get used to it. Sometimes I stray to the right side while concentrating on shifting. Regardless, I downloaded Google Maps into my offline maps and my goal is to just drive off and see what happens. My only plan is to get to my next hotel in time to enjoy the pool for a while.

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

First drive

I decide to go there Handunugoda You drive to the tea plantation, crossing the two-lane road that runs along the coast. If texting and driving are dangerous in the United States, it’s a double danger here. Lanes are mere suggestions and people use all available space to get to their destination. Stray dogs regularly scurry into the street, people turn in front of me, and when I’m not being overtaken by a bus spewing diesel smoke, I’m stuck behind one and breathing in the fumes.

The roads to the plantation are all paved, but things get a little more difficult on the way to my hotel. First the road becomes bumpy, then barely wide enough for my tuk tuk, then all the asphalt disappears and is replaced by rutted mud. “That’s fine,” I think. “I am an off-road rider who is on the podium. I can handle it.”

I downshift and accelerate – maybe a little too much. I drive like I’m trying to get a heavy-duty truck through the mud instead of a light runabout. Some mud splashes into the doorless cabin and the rear slides around just slightly, but the Tuk Tuk handles it like a champ.

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Get to know the locals

The next day the tuk tuk takes me on a new adventure with a few locals. A fruit seller retrieves my phone as it jumps out of the tuk tuk on a busy street. As a thank you, I buy a watermelon and throw it into the small storage space behind the back seat. I don’t really have the option to eat said watermelon, but whatever. It could be useful later as a basis for negotiations.

A little further down the road, I stop to chat with a group of tuk-tuk drivers and am immediately surrounded by a dozen guys peppering me with questions. Where do I come from? Why do I drive a tuk tuk? How do I like Sri Lanka?

One of them decides to put my driving skills to the test. He jumps into the back seat and leads me onto the busy four-lane road. When I don’t signal quickly enough, he reaches over my shoulder to flip the switch. He chides me for driving too fast, but praises me for turning right into traffic. The next thing I know, I apparently agreed to get him a visa to come to America. I don’t think my sarcasm will be understood by Sri Lankans. The poor man could still be waiting for me to come back and marry him.

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Oops, I stalled again

Later that day, my confidence was boosted by the praise of the professional tuk-tuk driver and I decide to take the lead on a right-hand bend on a busy road. If I drive on the left side of the road, I drive through traffic when I turn right. Normally I just wait until something bigger comes around and then I just go with it. This time I’m leading the pack. And I’m holding out.

Basically, I’m sitting like a stone in traffic while cars around me turn right and a big old truck comes broadside towards me. I panic a little and try to restart the tuk tuk. Why doesn’t it start? Oh shit! I’m in first gear. Okay, neutral, neutral, neutral! How do I put it back to neutral? I can see the truck driver’s eyes now. There is no anger or annoyance. It’s like he’s running over stupid Americans who can’t drive every day.

I start the tuk tuk and slide out of his way just in time, but I’m sweating like a fool and my heart is beating a billion miles a minute. Time to relax with a $12 massage at the local Ayurvedic spa.

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Driving a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

Tuk Tuk great

I loved tuk-tuk driving because of the feeling of freedom it gave me, but also because it brought me a little closer to the locals. Would I have ever had the opportunity to joke with a few drivers if I hadn’t driven the three-wheeled fucking triangle? Probably not. Driving a working-class vehicle, feeling the humidity, smelling the curry, and hearing the countless honks in traffic as people drove across the island was infinitely nicer than cozying up in my ambassador friend’s air-conditioned luxury SUV . Was it dangerous? Meh. Perhaps. Even when I got stuck in a traffic jam, the local drivers simply bypassed me. The big truck would have done the same thing if I hadn’t started driving again. Even though I traveled as a single woman, I was never harassed or felt unsafe. The people were delightful and curious.

While the cost of renting a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka is already $14 per day, my three-day adventure was a bit more expensive. Due to my travel plans, I was unable to pick up or drop off the vehicle at the main office, so there was an additional charge of $70 on both sides. My short rental period cost me $90. I also paid the car rental company $40 to get my Sri Lankan driver’s license. All in all I spent $270 and my $150 deposit was refunded.

There are also electric tuk-tuks, but I wanted to save myself the extra stress of figuring out how to charge. I have no idea how many total miles I drove, but the little guy used four liters of gas by the time I was done, so 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 that I immediately signed up for another adventure, this time a 12-day tuk tuk ride across India The adventurers. It will undoubtedly be harder to climb the Himalayas with this tiny thing and lug around camping gear and three people, but love makes people do some pretty stupid things.

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