The Ultimate Tuk Tuk Survival Guide in Sri Lanka

Tuk tuks, (also known as rickshaws, trishaws, three-wheelers) are ubiquitous across Sri Lanka in a multitude of colour, in fact, you’ll rarely walk far anywhere without being approached by a driver, especially in Colombo.

They’re nimble in traffic, convenient to hop in and out at your leisure and for first time visitors, provide novelty ‘edge of seat’ entertainment on open air ground level- a true multi-sensory experience if there ever was one!

Tuk tuks are practical for a quick ride into town, whilst for the intrepid traveller; an adventurous option for longer journeys too.

It does benefit to be in the know with this local mode of transport before eagerly diving into the back seat, so to assist on your travels I’ve compiled a top tip survival guide to promote an easy, pain-free experience for locals and tourists alike…

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Tuk tuk outside a small corner shop a.k.a cade

1. Ask if they have a meter and most importantly, whether the meter is working/ they wish to turn it on. If two yeses, you should be in for an honest stress free ride, just double-check it’s actually switched on when you begin your journey. Meter tuks are readily available in Colombo but not so much elsewhere- if I’m honest I tend to avoid tuks without meters in the city unless 100% certain of how much I’m willing to pay- it’s less hassle.

2. If meterless, always agree a price before getting into the tuk. If you fail to agree a price before the wheels start spinning you are likely to be overcharged. Agreeing a price before getting in= no qualms. Make sure its clear and final- it’s always worth repeating the price and destination one more time before the engine starts. The majority of issues I’ve heard of in Sri Lanka have been failure to agree with solid clarity.

If the driver is in any way aggressive with negotiation, move on calmly and swiftly. It’s not worth the stress.

3. Ask locals the going rates. Asking a local or someone with insider knowledge (barman/ guesthouse owner for example) for the going rates can be very helpful. If the driver is still insistent on charging more, it will likely be a matter of seconds before you can find another so just walk away. Unless situated in a touting hotspot such as Colombo Fort Railway station (in which case they would probably prefer to wait to overcharge someone else) they won’t want to lose your custom.

4. If you find a good driver, save his number. A friendly, genuine (and most importantly, safe) driver is always a sacred find, especially if they communicate well in English too. Ask your hotel or guesthouse to call and arrange for you, otherwise pick up an inexpensive local sim and buy a data card for a more independent approach- it also helps to have apps such as google maps etc at times of need.

5. Don’t be pressurised into visiting places you don’t want to go. As a foreign traveller, drivers will often ask if you would like to visit a batik factory, gem museum, spice garden, tea centre etc on the way to your destination- more so out of Colombo. Their prime incentive is receiving commission with the prices often at a premium. Don’t feel pressurised to go- I always recommending doing your research first. You may find said detour takes a good part of the day and isn’t always ‘on the way’ as promised.

If agreeing to a detour mid journey, reclarify the price of the tuk tuk.

6. Learn a little lingo. You may find a few Sinhala words and phrases helpful when bargaining. You don’t need to learn too much, one or two phrases should be enough to lighten the spirits.

7. Avoiding fumes & tuk hair. Last but not least, should you choose to brave rush hour in a tuk tuk, it’s worth bringing something to cover your mouth as its not ideal being sandwiched between the smoggy fumes of buses. It’s also handy to have a wrap/ scarf whilst travelling to avoid windswept ‘tuk hair’- guys with longer locks may prefer a cap!

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Words of tuk tuk widsom

Should you remember these tips you will be set to go!

Any tips of your own? Feel free to post in the comments section below. 

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