BANGKOK, Thailand — Before passengers board a tuktuk there is some haggling over the fare, a vague exchange about the destination and, for the nervous, sometimes a prayer.
Then it's hang on for a weaving, roller-coaster ride aboard a gaudily-painted, motorized three-wheeler zipping through Bangkok's clogged, polluted streets.
For anyone negotiating the city's eccentric one-way street system, this hybrid buggy-rickshaw-motorcycle-golf cart makes up in speed and agility what it lacks in comfort.
Those who choose an open-sided tuktuk over a four-wheel taxi trade clean lungs and relative safety for a cheaper fare and an invigorating rush of wind.
The effect on newcomers--and most tourists try their luck--can be hair-raising.
Natives Say No Thanks
Most Thais who can afford an air-conditioned taxi recoil from using a tuktuk. "I would rather walk," sneers a middle-class young woman when invited for a ride. Hers is an extreme gesture considering the stultifying heat, noise and smog engulfing the sidewalks.
Bangkok's 7,406 registered tuktuks compete for road space and passengers with motorcycles, taxis and buses as well as hordes of private cars in this rapidly expanding city of nearly 6 million.
The tuktuk was developed in the early 1960s when Prime Minister Sarit Thanarit decreed that the pedaled tricycle--the samlor-- was archaic and undignified.
Maneuvering an unstable tuktuk through undisciplined and heavy traffic is faster, but not much more pleasant.
"You only drive a tuktuk if you've got nothing better to do," said Boonchai Jirachanakun, chairman of the Assn. of Tuktuk Drivers. "It's a tough job. It's exhausting. Sometimes you can drive round all day and not get a single fare."
After paying about 100 baht ($4) a day in rent and another 80 baht ($3.20) for gasoline, the average driver makes a profit of some 100 baht a day, he said.
"That's just about enough to feed a family on."
The vehicles are hired on a daily basis from one of about 100 owners, who keep them on the road by cannibalizing all sorts of other vehicles.
Drivers say their vehicles are no more dangerous than taxis, but the occasional sight of a tuktuk on its side after sloppy cornering does not inspire confidence.
Thiravuth Tetiamsakul, a grizzled, jolly driver of 53, has been at the handlebars of a tuktuk for 20 years.
"I used to be a painter. But then you have a boss telling you what to do," he said. "With tuktuks there's freedom. You can go where you want, and if you want to stop, you stop."