From the simple cyclo to the most decked-out, sparkly tuk tuk, getting a ride in Southeast Asia is an adventure. Having evolved from the need to navigate narrow streets quickly, efficiently and cheaply, these vehicles can whisk you from one side of town to the other, usually with ease. Just be sure to negotiate a price before you get in!
1. Tuk Tuk
There are many types of tuk tuks throughout Southeast Asia (among other places). It’s fun to see the all of the varieties and ingenuity put into these motorized three-wheelers. Usually, there is a sheet-metal body on a frame, creating a cabin, with a some kind of roof over the top, and a separate area where the driver sits. Everywhere, tuk tuks are highly personalized, sometimes with brightly-colored paint jobs, favorite character themes, metallics, family photos tucked into corners, flowers and mirrors. There are also usually amulets or prayers for safety and good business. In Cambodia (particularly Siem Reap), tuk tuks are commonly a motorcycle with a trailer where the passengers sit. This is a great idea, since the trailer can be detached when necessary, and the motorcycle can be employed for other uses (like going to get fuel, as was the case for us one time). In Phnom Penh there are more of the one-piece type, using just the front end of a motorcycle, with handlebar controls rather than a steering wheel, and the cart built onto the back. In places like Bangkok, where a ride in a tuk tuk is on every tourist’s to-do list, do some research on what you should pay for a short ride. If you don’t, just be ready to pay up, and think of it as one of your many travel “experiences.”
This bicycle or tricycle taxi is modified to accommodate seats for passengers. In Vietnam and Indonesia, , unlike the bicycle rickshaws of India, passengers ride in front of the driver. We thought this configuration looked a bit unnerving as passengers are propelled face-first into traffic. We saw several companies in Hue, Vietnam advertising a greener way to see the sights in that city by cyclo. Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s streets were lined with becaks in every color scheme imaginable. Thailand’s version, the Samlor is quickly disappearing, though you can still find them in smaller cities.
3. Water Taxi/Longtail
It doesn’t take a long time in Bangkok to want to try and find a way to BEAT THAT BANGKOK TRAFFIC! The larger Chao Phraya Express water taxi has stops up and down the Chao Phraya River, with convenient ones at some of the major sightseeing destinations. Smaller longtail boats, with the propeller mounted on a long driveshaft, traverse many of the smaller canals around the city. Watch your head and hands though; some of the canals are narrow and the longtails pass under some pretty low bridges. Longtails can be found around some of the islands in Southeast Asia as well.
These are usually a pick-up truck with open sides and back. You enter through the rear and sit on a bench that runs along either side of the vehicle. They can be used as a private or shared taxi, but more likely they are a shared ride along a predetermined route. That doesn’t mean there are set stops though, so be sure to shout if you need to get out! The songthaew was particularly popular in Chiang Mai, Thailand and throughout Laos.
5. Xe Ôm/Moto Taxi
Motorcycles and scooters are everywhere in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam seems to be the epicenter. Xe Ôm roughly translates as motorbike hug, and you’d better pick a cute driver, ’cause you’re likely to have to hold on tight. While it’s an inevitably dangerous option, most of these guys are true masters of navigating through some seriously crazy traffic patterns. A special license isn’t required, but try and choose one with an extra helmet for you.
Bonus: Horse-cart, Gili Islands, Indonesia
In the Gilis, three small islands northwest of Lombok in Indonesia, there are no motorized vehicles. Tourists who’ve got one too many pieces of luggage, or locals who need to move something heavy utilize these horse-driven carts to get around the islands. We also saw horse and carriages in Sumbawa and in Yogyakarta.