Cambodian tuk tuks – they’re a part of the urban landscape, something of an icon in every major city. They’re different to the tuk tuks of Thailand, jeepneys of the Philippines and the rickshaws of India; they have their own sense of character – just like the people who operate them.
They are convenient, affordable and practical. And no visit to the Kingdom is complete without at least one journey in a tuk tuk.
But it’s amazing how much angst and confusion they produce. We have, at times, been astounded by the rudeness and the meanness of people liaising with the tuk tuk drivers. There’s a lack of understanding, sometimes something akin to fear or just plain arrogance. We have had our own frustrating experiences but they were probably our fault and for the most part we know where we went wrong.
I love the tuk tuk drivers. I regularly stop and have a chat with a whole string of them as I walk down the street, conversing in English or my spattering of Khmer. They often laugh at me, or with me. They ask where I am from, where I am going, about my country or their country or my day. They tell me about their work – or lack of it, their families and their backgrounds. They nearly all have a wonderful sense of humour, want to improve their English and want to work, although it may not always appear that way.
You might walk past six in a row and every driver will call out and ask if you want a tuk tuk. Yes, it can be tedious but where is the harm in smiling and offering a polite response? I am amazed at the number of people who refuse to make eye contact and completely ignore them. It’s just rude. Smile, say “no thank you” and keep on walking if you don’t want their services. Or stop and say hallo. It could just make your day.
On more than one occasion, when I have politely said: “no thank you” I have been rewarded with a huge smile and a reply of “okay, thank you” or “have a good day”. It is sometimes heartbreaking when you know how desperate for work they are.
To take away some of the anxiety and confusion, here’s a few tips about using Cambodian tuk tuks.
It goes without saying really. A smile always goes a long way. And more than likely you will be rewarded with one of Cambodia’s huge, warm smiles in response. It breaks the ice and makes the conversation a little easier to get started.
You will possibly have a number of miscommunications or misunderstandings. It is best handled if you can be patient and polite and try and help find a solution. It’s even better if you’re not in a hurry and you can laugh about it. Cambodians love a good joke and are happy to see the funny side if there is one.
English is their second language. Maybe it’s also your second language. This can really cause confusion when people are trying to grasp your accent, pronunciation and grammar as well as unfamiliar words.
Many drivers have learnt English just through interacting with tourists and have various levels of proficiency.
Speak slow and clear. Use simple words. If they don’t understand try and find another way to say it, using different words. Don’t shout. Don’t be patronising. Stay calm.
Yes, doesn’t always mean yes
It could mean probably, maybe or no. But they will nearly always say yes. So you could find yourself agreeing to a fare and a few minutes down the road the driver, who told you he knew your destination, is asking people on the street for directions. It can be frustrating and it can be entertaining. Be patient. It’s part of the experience.
Have a map
Where possible, have a map of the area. Know where you are on the map and know where your destination is. It is possible your tuk tuk driver cannot read or write, or cannot read a map, even if he acts like he can. Many of these drivers have come from poor, rural backgrounds where education is often limited and learning to read or write English is not offered.
But also know that some are very good at reading English and maps, have a good command of English and some other languages and understand the needs of tourists.
Your street name probably doesn’t mean anything
Street names are a relatively new concept in Cambodia. Many tuk tuk drivers do not know the street names. They respond better to landmarks when giving directions.
Take phone numbers
There are so many hotels, villas, guesthouses and hostels it is impossible for every tuk tuk driver to know all of them. Generally, they know the ones they deal with the most. If you are going to a particular restaurant, take the number, just in case you can’t find it. And make sure you have a business card or the number of your hotel. That way, drivers can call the number and get directions. It really does reduce stress.
Expect the unexpected
What seems like a straightforward arrangement sometimes isn’t. Sometimes the person you negotiated with is not the person who will drive you, or they will use another tuk tuk, or any number of other random things could take place. Don’t stress. Stay calm. Try and work out what is happening, or go with the flow. But be alert, especially at night.
If your hotel offers a free pickup from the airport or bus station, it is possible your tuk tuk driver is not getting paid for that pickup. The general idea is they will make their money by booking you for tours. So a tip is always welcome. If you are not going to use their services during your stay, consider paying them. Drivers have to pay a parking fee or a tax for entering the airport so don’t be surprised if you have to walk out the main gate with your luggage.
If you book tours through your hotel or guesthouse, it is possible the hotel will take a commission from the tuk tuk drivers they organise for you. It could be two or three dollars from a $15 trip. Not all places do it. Personally, I think it is mean. It is very small profit for the hotel but can make a huge difference to the driver.
You can ask if this happens at your accommodation or, you can just negotiate with the drivers on the street. Of course, the benefit of going through the hotel is that they usually have regular, reliable and trustworthy drivers they work with.
Pricing can be the toughest part of organising your tuk tuk. Some drivers leave it up to you, which can be hard when you’re new to the area and don’t know the going rates. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of inconsistency with pricing.
Be fair when negotiating. Fuel costs almost as much in Cambodia as it does in western countries but the wages here are tiny. They also have wear and tear on the tuk tuk and the motorbike.
We’ve often heard people trying to screw a $2 fare down to $1.50 or even $1. Is that 50 cents or dollar going to make that much difference to you? It could mean your driver gets to eat dinner. Yes, things really are that precarious for some of these guys, especially in low season.
You’ll see many drivers asleep in their tuk tuks, sprawled on the seats or set up in a hammock. It might look lazy to you but don’t be too judgemental. Some days are HOT. I mean really hot. And who doesn’t feel a bit sleepy on a hot afternoon?
It can also be pretty boring sitting around waiting for a fare. Many snooze while waiting for you at your various tourist destinations. Some work the tourist areas until late at night. Some are up at the crack of dawn for sunrise experiences. Some burn the candle at both ends. Many don’t eat enough.
Don’t begrudge them a snooze while you are exploring the sights. They’ll jump straight back into action when you are ready to go.
Income for tuk tuk drivers is precarious. Competition is increasing, fuel is expensive and the vehicles need maintenance. Sometimes monthly fees are paid to be able to work with a particular hotel. So they make money where they can. Many enterprises pay the drivers a commission for bringing in tourists and some restaurants will give them a free meal. If you tell them you don’t want to go to a certain restaurant, most will oblige. You can make this easier for them by inviting them to join you for lunch (many will politely refuse) or offer to buy them lunch.
It doesn’t always go smoothly
Scams exist. You are not always a priority. And some drivers will grossly overcharge you. It’s best if you can do some research or ask your hotel about the going rate. Being a good judge of character is always important when you travel and you should decide how you feel about your driver before agreeing to the fare. If you are out drinking, beware of using the driver who has been parked outside all night watching you get intoxicated.
But things should work better if you play fair, be polite and do your research. Most drivers are fabulous and just want to make an honest living and earn enough to give their families an opportunity to get ahead.
Cambodian tuk tuks are a fun experience and the drivers are generally friendly and keen to help you out. Low season is a real struggle for them and some can go days without earning anything, or might only earn one or two dollars.
Give them a break, treat them with respect, be patient. Your tuk tuk experience could be the highlight of your visit. A trip into the countryside with a wonderful driver was memorable for us and over the years he has become a great friend. So embrace the challenges and have have fun with your driver.