For the uninitiated: a tuk-tuk (pronounced took-took, as in "the tuk-tuk took me to a cookbook nook") is just a little cart that gets pulled behind a motor cycle or little truck that you sit in. Sometimes it's only big enough for two, sometimes it's big enough for eight. It is a couple of levels below a taxi, one level below walking.
I have no idea how tuk-tuk drivers survive. They lounge around talking to other tuk-tuk drivers, lying in the cabs of their mini-trucks, leaning back in their carts, or napping in hammocks strung up in the back. And they do this all day. You can walk by a cluster of them when you leave in the morning, when you come back for lunch, and when you go to bed, and they're always there, exactly as you left them. And of course each time you walk by them you're met with shouts, one after the other from different overlapping voices: "tuk tuk?!" "My friend, tuk-tuk for you?" "You want tuk-tuk?"
The worst part is that despite how easy it is to find them, they try to rip you off so badly that it's almost never worth actually taking one. When you ask a waiter or local how much you SHOULD pay to get somewhere, and then ask them have them double the price because you're white, the drivers still ask at least double that price. In Laos when I was negotiating with a group of them (they travel in packs) they were all offering me ridiculously inflated prices for a trip to a nearby temple. Fortunately, I had just asked a waiter and gotten the quote, and was feeling ready to stymie them by being better prepared than they were.
Horde: "Oh very far, very far. (Yes, very far.) 40,000."
Me: "40,000? 20,000."
Horde: "40! 40! Good price for you!"
And now for my secret weapon.
Me: "It should be 20,000. I asked them [pointing towards the cafe] and they said it should be 20,000."
Immediately and simultaneously, each reached into their respective vehicles and pulled out the same laminated list of fares. They pointed. There was the name of the temple. And there was the price printed right beside it: 40,000. Damn them.
Right now I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are so many here that if you even make eye contact with someone on the street, it is met with an inquisitive "tuk-tuk?"
One horde hangs out playing a version of chess in the driveway of my guest house. I made a deal with one (not a very good deal) to cover my temple viewing days. I tuk, er, took, a ride with him out to the temples today to watch the sunset from the ruins. When we got back, I stepped out of the cart and walked to the bathroom. Two minutes later I walked back to the street to get some dinner. My driver, their friend, was still parking. I glanced towards their chess game. Instantly came two voices, one on top of the other: "Tuk-tuk?" "You want tuk-tuk?"
Before I left Laos I had gotten pretty good at bargaining with them.
30-40 minutes outside of Luang Prabang are some absolutely gorgeous waterfalls. The big falls themselves are impressive but not awe-inspiring. The smaller falls, however, are 14-tiered and spread throughout the jungle, each falling into a blue pool that you can swim in. (Picture below) As soon as you step foot in the water, little fish start nibbling the skin on your toes. When you go deeper they disappear. The water is quite opaque at more than three feet deep, but you can tell when you're getting close to the bank because you start to feel little nibbles.
If you want to visit the falls (which you do) and you want to avoid a costly tour, tuk-tuks are your only option. I was told to pay 30,000. When I was looking to go, I was first offered 150,000. I talked him down to 50,000. He wouldn't go any lower. This time, I tried a new tactic. I told him that I had another driver across the street that was leaving in an hour that was going to take 30,000, and I would just wait for him. He looked across the street at the supposed offender and stroked his chin, pained. "Ok, you pay 30. But shh!" and he put his finger to his lips. "Others pay 50, you pay 30. Shh!" He led me to his tuk-tuk, which already had three people in back. I started to climb in, but he pulled me down and put me in the cab up front with him. He started to drive. "My friend, you pay now" and he gestured discreetly to the seat between us. "Don't say!" and he gestured towards the back. It made me feel a little guilty.
At the falls I bought a knife for my brother. On the way back the driver let me ride with the others in the back, and I stuck the knife under the seat, promising myself not to forget it. I forgot it. Back in town, he drove to a group of tuk-tuks and turned off the engine. We climbed out and I started the walk back. The streets were thick with them, lounging in their hammocks and leaning against their trucks, lazily opening an eye and yawning "tuk-tuk?" I was two blocks away before I realized I had left it. I started to jog back. There was his tuk-tuk coming at me down the road. His window was down. I shouted "Hey!" Nothing. "Wait!" Nope. He was past me. "Hey you! Please! Stop! Sir!" He didn't even slow down. I knew what I had to do. "TUK-TUK!!" He came screeching to a halt in the middle of the road. Every head on the street whipped towards me, an engine started, and 10 excited voices shouted "you want tuk-tuk?!"
I got the knife back, but it cost 40 dollars to ship to the US, so I kind of wish I hadn't. I'm going to see Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow, and will be taking a tuk-tuk.