If I’m being perfectly candid, we have seen and done some pretty adventurous things during our journey around the world. We’ve trekked in the mountains of Nepal, and over-landed on scooters through the back-country of Laos. We took a tiny boat along some of the wildest and most beautiful coastline in the Philippines, and went scuba diving in some of the world’s best waters. We’ve met real Geisha in Gion, and tried the foul-smelling “king of fruit”, durian, not once but THREE times! We’ve done some epic things, many of them things we never expected that we would ever do.
When it came to Sri Lanka, our last Asian destination before making the jump to Europe and then home, we wanted to do it right. We wanted to dive head-first into this exotic and seemingly little-known country and make the most of our (for us) blink-and-you’ll-miss-it three weeks in the country. And, above all, we wanted to have an adventure.
At first we were considering renting a motorcycle and over-landing, as we had done so many times in various other countries. We looked at various websites and found some okay options, but nothing really spoke to us; beyond that, Sri Lanka’s train system is supposed to be quite good and an attraction in and of themselves, so we were on the fence regarding motorcycles.
But then, lightning struck.
We were looking at a website for a place in Negombo and Steph pointed to the screen.
“Does that say we can rent a ‘three-wheeler?’ For real? That looks… awesome! We have to do it.”
Once the possibility of renting a tuk tuk to tour Sri Lanka made itself known, we knew we had to capitalize on it. The photos looked great, the price was reasonable (all things considered), and the idea of putting around the countryside on Sri Lanka’s most ubiquitous form of transport set our imaginations on fire. We sent an e-mail immediately and entered into negotiations. We crossed our fingers that our shot-in-the-dark choice would end up being the adventure we were looking for in Sri Lanka. Steph started thinking about names for our steed (since naming our rides—the ones we like, anyway— is an old tradition), and we settled on “King Tuk.”
So, what was it like to drive across Sri Lanka in a little red three-wheeler?
In a word, it was epic. If you need a few more words to convince you, consider the fact that although we originally only signed on to wrangle King Tuk for two weeks, within a day, we had called to extend to three.
Every stranger was a friendly, helpful stranger, full of advice and admiration for our journey. Nearly everyone in the country has either owned or driven their own tuk-tuk at some point or another, so help was always at hand, either asked for or otherwise. Police pulled us over just to chat, wandering strangers give us the thumbs-up and mouthed nice ride, without any hint of irony, as they walked by. Handshakes, smiles and looks of surprise were the norm. We were the subject of gossip in any small town and if we stayed for more than a day everyone knew just who we were just because of our unusual (well, for foreigners!) ride. Occasionally, a huckster would overcome their shock quickly enough to try and show us a “good” place to park, or a “good” place to shop, but they were usually easy to escape, considering we were free to drive anywhere we pleased.
The roof kept the sun off our necks and the rain off our faces and luggage. There was storage, an accessory plug, and even a cup-holder. The engine sounded like a hummingbird at highway speeds and, although King Tuk will never win any hill-climb contests, he got us where we were going every single time. We stopped anywhere we wanted, and never had to schlep our bags from guesthouse to guesthouse or argue over a fare with greedy taxi drivers; because we had our own transport, we never worried about rolling into a town without any reservations, and were often able to visit and stay in slightly more removed locations that few other tourists had the means to discover.
In a country as jaw-droppingly, mind alteringly beautiful as Sri Lanka, being able to really appreciate the journey from place to place was worth its weight in gold. No nightmare bus rides, no impatient taxi operators, and no train schedules. Just us, three wheels, the open road, and no agenda.
Of course, there is more to an adventure like this than simply waving at friendly strangers and rolling merrily down the road, so here are our tips, tricks and recommendations for those looking to follow in our tire tracks, so to speak.
Where to Rent, What to Pay
When we were researching tuk tuk rentals, we really only found one place, at least online. Pick ‘n’ Go Rentals is run by a friendly, burly, floppy-haired Sri Lankan named Rocky. He was courteous, helpful and quick during e-mail correspondence, and filled us with confidence both online and in person. Ultimately, we were immensely happy we decided to rent from Rocky and, for the most part, the entire transaction was smooth and worry-free.
We did, however, experience two hiccups with Pick ‘n’ Go Rentals. For one, we arrived early in the day and had to wait over an hour for Rocky to show up at his rather hard to locate shop. It was early, yes, but he knew in advance we were coming and said he would be there. We managed to reach him by phone and were told he would be there in “15 minutes”, but I guess our watches weren’t set to island time… Ultimately we let it go, because things like this happen, and that’s life in Asia, but there was a period of time when we were standing on the side of the street with all of our luggage piled around us, getting pitying looks and solicitations from the local tuk-tuk drivers where we were feeling a little less forgiving.
The second issue was that our tuk-tuk developed a rather nasty gas leak after our initial test-drive (pointed out by a nearby, and very excitable, tuk-tuk driver). As it happened, an in-line gas filter had failed, and it was quickly and easily replaced by Rocky before we signed any paperwork or paid any money. Though we were a little nervous, we decided to trust Rocky’s word that the tuk-tuk was in excellent condition and this was a fluke; our faith paid off as we never had even the remotest problem with the little beast for the rest of our rental period (which is actually pretty unusual, since tuk-tuks are notoriously persnickety). In any case, literally anyone in the entire country can help if there is a problem, and Rocky assured us that he would come and take care of anything that happened, anywhere, within 24 hours.
If you decide not to go with Pick ‘n’ Go, your choices (at least online) may be limited. Try calling or e-mailing other agencies and speaking to someone about the possibility; if you like to fly by the seat of your pants, you will probably find it fairly easy to find somewhere in Negombo (the epicenter of private transport rentals for the country) that rents tuk-tuks. According to this interview with another couple who toured Sri Lanka by tuk-tuk, Alma Tours in Negombo, appears to offer tuk-tuk rental as well. (Obviously we can’t speak to their services or quality as we didn’t go with them, so this is not a recommendation, merely some information.) This being Sri Lanka, I feel it’s extremely likely you’ll find someone who can work something out for you.
We paid about 18 USD/day, and left a 15,000LAK (about 115USD) deposit with Rocky that went towards our extra week of rental when we returned. The longer you rent for in advance, the better your daily rate, but if you extend, your discount is fixed for the initial period you agreed upon. That is to say, if you agree to two weeks, and extend to three once you’ve left, you won’t get the three-week rate, you’ll stay fixed at the two-week rate. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on where you rent from.
What You Need to Know About Operating Your Very Own Tuk-Tuk
There are really only two types of tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka: the Bajaj RE and the Piaggio Apé. We had a Bajaj RE205 (which is the newer model, signified by the 205 tacked on to the name. The older RE will not have the number appended to the name), and that is most likely what you will get as well. The Apé is slightly larger, but it is diesel, loud, rough and dirty to drive. They’re used more like small trucks, while the Bajaj is generally used to move people. There are more tuk-tuks on the road than anything else, so parts, repair, gas, tires, help, or anything you may need will always be at hand. Even in the remotest parts of the country, you’re more likely to see a little three-wheeler putting along than anything else.
Basics of operation
The Bajaj works essentially like a three-wheeled, old school Vespa: You shift by engaging the clutch lever and twisting the handlebar it’s attached to. They have four speeds forward and one in reverse; the brake is a foot pedal on the floor. If you can drive a manual transmission motorcycle, mastering the Bajaj will not take long. In our case, Rocky took us to a quiet part of the beach and gave me instructions on how to drive and shift, and took us down the road once he felt confident that I was capable. I will say that using the clutch/shifter can take a reasonable amount of hand strength, and on a day of busy shifting your hand will end up feeling sore and cramped. Of course, by the end I was used to it, but be prepared for a good workout at first. Also, the shifter operates via a cable, so try not to shift from anything other than neutral or first when the tuk-tuk isn’t moving, otherwise you’ll stretch the cable and shifting will become difficult. You may have to hunt for the right gear every so often, and you may also overshoot as well (from second to fourth, or third down to neutral). Don’t worry, even the seasoned pros have these problems.
The Bajaj is either equipped with a 200 or 205cc engine, and most top out at 55 or 60 km/h on flat ground. I recommend keeping it closer to 40 or 45 km/h because, in most areas, that is the legal limit for a tuk-tuk. In any case, anything over 30 km/h will feel… unstable, especially on a sharp curve, so watch your speed! These are not machines designed for quick maneuvers, so leave your motorcycle instincts at the door.
What to Look for Before You Take Possession
I am by no means a tuk-tuk expert, so this section will be short. Essentially, a tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorcycle with a roof, so inspect it the way you would a rental motorbike. Check the tires and brakes for excessive wear. Check all the lights and indicators. Look for (and document) any dents and scratches. When shifting, the shifts should be fairly smooth, but don’t be surprised if you miss second gear shifting up from first, and fall into neutral instead—this is a common occurrence, and shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Make sure the engine runs smoothly and that there isn’t excessive exhaust noise. Make sure the brakes stop the tuk-tuk well and that the pedal doesn’t feel spongy. If given the opportunity, let the tuk-tuk sit for a bit and make sure there aren’t any fluid leaks.
In most cases, any repairs required on the road will come out of your pocket, so make sure that you are comfortable with the operating condition of the tuk-tuk before you sign anything or hand over any money.
Stay Safe… and Legal!
As I mentioned above, keep your speed down! Though you might be able to manage 60 km/h, I don’t recommend it. Sharp turns and avoidance maneuvers are just not an option with a three-wheeled vehicle. Beyond the physics of driving a motorized tripod, there is another consideration: traffic. You’ll encounter all sorts of things on the road in Sri Lanka, from animals to other tuk-tuks to tractors and pedestrians. Perhaps the greatest menace on the roads, however, is the buses. They are numerous, they drive aggressively, and they stop often and usually at random (though also in designated bus-stops). Apart from buses, as long as you are not in Colombo, traffic moves slowly enough that keeping your wits about you (provided you have experience driving in Asia) will suffice, so long as you keep your speed down.
Beyond traffic, which was generally calm and limited outside cities, the second-biggest road hazard is the Sri Lankan police. They will stop you, even if it is only to chat, and they will check your papers.
It is absolutely critical that you have an international driving license with a motorcycle endorsement, because it will be asked for.
Make sure you know where in the little book that accompanies your license it specifies that you are certified to drive a three-wheeled vehicle. This usually accompanies a motorcycle certification, but be sure. We were pulled over MANY times by the police because foreigners driving tuk-tuks are about as common as us riding a unicorn around the country; most Sri Lankans don’t even realize it is possible. The first police officers who pulled us over extracted a $5US bribe from us because they insisted that my international permit did not cover tuk-tuks; if you are only endorsed to drive a car in your home country, then this is probably true. However, if you are endorsed to drive a motorcycle—as I am—then in all likelihood, your international driving certification will also cover a tuk-tuk.
After our first encounter with the cops, we actually took the (nominal) time needed to read what the accompanying booklet for my international permit covered. The motorcycle category also explicitly mentioned “three wheelers”, meaning the next time we were pulled over and told we weren’t allowed to be driving a tuk-tuk, we felt confident enough to argue, backed up as we were by some additional documentation. This seemed to be enough to allow us to avoid any future bribes.
The tuk-tuk should also come with insurance information, as well as registration. Also make sure any tags attached to the windshield have the current year on them.
I’ll say it again: watch your speed. There are speed traps, and from what we understood, the national speed-limit for tuk-tuks (which is lower than that for trucks and buses) was recently lowered to 40 km/h. So just watch it. Most little villages have traffic police smack in the middle, and if they whistle, you must stop, because they WILL pursue you. Believe me, I know from personal experience.
Sri Lankan traffic laws are fairly flexible, though not nearly to the same degree as somewhere like Vietnam or Laos. While you can usually do what you need to do to get by, it is generally expected that you will signal, share the road (unless you’re a bus), stay in your lane, not cross solid center lines, yield to pedestrians in zebra crossings, and generally drive politely. That said, obvious violations will get you a ticket, and you may not be able to bribe your way out of it. So drive conservatively, and if in doubt err on the side of caution.
Some Traffic Do’s and Don’t’s
Cross a solid white line in front of a traffic policeman
Go through Colombo during rush hour without a map 🙂
Forget your papers
Go more than 150km without getting gas
Brake and try to steer at the same time
Run your headlight during the day
Drive a tuk-tuk if you’re not familiar with Asian traffic
Drive on sand/the beach. You will get stuck trying to turn
Drive on the left
Stop often to talk to people and soak in the scenery
Wear sun screen – you have a roof, but the sun will still get you!
Carry a map or GPS
Carry a phone with a Sri Lankan SIM card (they are easy to get at the airport)
Would We Recommend Renting a Tuk-Tuk? What We Liked, and What We Didn’t
If you have experience driving in Asian traffic, and can operate a manual clutch motorcycle, we fully, enthusiastically recommend renting a tuk-tuk!
What we liked:
- You have a roof and rain flaps, so a sudden downpour or a rainy day won’t stop you if you want to/need to go somewhere
- While the sun can still get in from the sides, the roof is great for keeping you cool and less burned
- You have a place to put your bags. We carried two 50L bags and two daypacks and had room to spare
- Everybody will be curious, want to talk to you, and word of the foreigners in a tuk-tuk will spread through small towns faster than you can imagine
- Freedom. You can stop, stay, eat and visit anywhere you want. No negotiating fees, no long walks between guesthouses, no being trapped with one restaurant, no overpriced trips to sights and no shopping stops (unless you want to)
- The seating is a lot more comfortable than a motorcycle
- Finding gas is really easy, and there is usually someone around to help if you need it
- The Bajaj was bullet-proof: it started every time, ran like a top, shifted great and never once let us down. It was clearly a well-made machine
- Our tuk-tuk also had an accessory port, making it easy to charge our phone and always have GPS available. We could even play music!
What we didn’t like:
- It’s not a fast way to get around. A 150km day can be a long day (especially when you stop as much as we did), and the driver will be tired at the end
- The roads in Sri Lanka vary between really quite good and tooth-rattlingly bad. It’s really hard to know how a road will be in advance, and sometimes a road can go from table-top smooth asphalt to moon-like craters in the span of a few kilometers
- While the seats are nice, there isn’t much suspension, so when the aforementioned roads get bad, it’s not very fun.
- We sometimes felt pressure to keep moving, since every day the tuk-tuk sits fallow is a day we paid about 20 dollars for something we weren’t using, in a sense. Sri Lanka is generally a very cheap country, and that money could easily double our daily costs.
- Though WE didn’t mind this, you will get a lot of attention. If you’re a low-profile traveler who likes to fly below the radar, this is a bad choice.
- Steph REALLY wanted to take one train ride while we were in Sri Lanka, and we weren’t able to fit this in because of the tuk-tuk. Also, we generally find that local transport is a nice way to experience another facet of local life and meet people we otherwise might not; although the tuk-tuk certainly opened certain doors for us, we did (at times) miss rubbing elbows with the locals on public transport
So that’s it! We absolutely loved our three-wheeled adventure, and would recommend it to anyone who feels capable of piloting what is possibly one of the most eccentric (and adorable) vehicles in Asia. If you want a different way to see one of the world’s most beautiful countries, love getting off the beaten track, and want an effortless introduction to the wonderful people who live there and one heck of an ice-breaker, we can’t think of anything better.
Tell us: Have you ever driven yourself through a foreign country? Would you recommend it? Do you have any other questions about renting or driving a tuk-tuk that we didn’t cover here? If so, head down to the comments and let us know!
/* EDIT */
After several requests for the route we took, I’m including a google map that pretty well plots out where we went. It has all our stops and, to the best of my memory, the route is accurate. Hope this helps any curious travelers out there!