my life with the tuk-tuk

(R. Choochuey, S. Mirti, first published in “Domus”, n. 891, April 2006

A lot has been written (and seen) on the tuk-tuk and their prominent role in Bangkok impressive traffic landscape. Bangkok is a 8 million people city on a perennial traffic-jam. Regardless of the sky-train, of the newly built underground, the cars rule. Given this frame, the tuk-tuk (together with the moto-taxi) are the only possible chance to move quickly from a given point A to any point B in the map.

In the past, the tuk-tuk has been observed and analyzed as a clever and stunning design object. It has been even transformed into a fascinating series of pieces of art by Navin Rawanchaikul. This time, we want to introduce the reader to something different. The hidden side of the tuk-tuk universe: a day in the life of one of the thousand daring drivers, the ones who put their life at risk in Bangkok roads to carry us around.

Suntorn Muldee is 31 years old. He has been driving a Tuk-Tuk for living for already 6 years.

Like most of the drivers he is not from Bangkok. Originally he is from a small village in Roi-et, a province in North-eastern part of Thailand where the land is the less fertilized than the other part of the country. After finished his 6-year minimum education of elementary level, he left school and started to work as a farmer as everybody else his family.

At his early 20s, he left the village heading for the capital city seeking for a better life – a typical story of a man (and woman) from countryside. Through his connections of his village men who came to Bangkok earlier, he first got a job as in a mechanic. The internal immigration flow is often run by village connection. Other people from the same village are already in the big city and they are essential to provide support for the newcomer. The people from his same village found him a job as well as a place where to live.

So, he started his new metropolitan life as mechanic. After few years, he wanted to be more independent, and he managed to learn how to drive the tuk-tuk. Again it was a process run via connections and friends. Anyway, after some weeks spent on the road learning, he was able to move on, becoming a tuk-tuk driver.

To be a tuk-tuk driver, he had to past a driving exam for a license, which has to be renewed every year. We were curious to see his license, but for the moment it has been taken away by a policeman few weeks ago (because of a questionable parking). Luckily for him, Bangkok is the city where boundaries and rules are rather blurred. If the police stops him again, this fact that he has not the license can be fixed in multiple ways (unfortunately, most of them can’t be described in a printed article).

After he learned how to drive, Suntorn had to be introduced to the owner of the tuk-tuk. An important element of the tuk-tuk business is this fact that none of the drivers owns the machine. They rent it on a daily base, paying a daily fee to the owner. In this extent the tuk-tuk is radically different from the taxi. The taxi-driver often owns his car, while the tuk-tuk is always on a rental base.

In his case, the same friend from the village who taught him how to drive, guaranteed him with the tuk-tuk owner.
Suntorn explained to us that the person who owns the tuk-tuk he drives, has other 13 tuk-tuk, he is a very nice guy and he always helps the drivers when they have a problem with accidents or other unpleasant events.
Although all the cars have insurance, sometimes the insurance does not cover the full cost of the accident. If such a thing happen, then the nice owner helps to fix the whole.

His day starts at little bit after noon, when he wakes up. After putting on his uniform, of a light-blue shirt and dark pants, he leaves for work.
The uniform is something he bought because he likes to be ordered and clean. But it is not a given element.
The first thing of the day is to pray at home. After getting an important ‘supernatural’ support for his long day, he is ready to leave home. On the way walking to the tuk-tuk parking, he would have his first meal. His shift begins a 2 pm. lasting for 12 hours until 2 am.

The tuk-tuk are always going, on two shifts (2 am to 2 pm and 2 pm to 2 am), the same tuk-tuk is run by two drivers. To make things easy he shares is room with other three drivers. While two rests, two drives. The shift system allows the four of them to live in a two people room.
Finally, before to leave for his day, he has to pay the rent of the day, 270 Baht (5.4 Euro).

How much he would make in a day? Usually it is around 500-700 Baht. After the rent and the gas, 200-400 Baht (4-8 Euro) remains making his earn. So in a month he make about 5,000-7,000 Baht (100-140 Euro).
Is it little? Is it much? It depends from which point of view you take. Let’s see how much are his expense. The small room (of about 3.00 x 4.00 meter ) shared with the other three friends, is about 350 Baht per person per month. His roommates are people from the same town, driving a tuk-tuk or a taxi. The room has no toilet (shared with the other tenants in the building) and there is no kitchen. To ea, they simply go out to a food street venders – which you can find everywhere in Bangkok.

Suntorn has no family yet, no girlfriend either. He is rather happy with his single life run together with his friends. The money he earns is enough to send some monthly contribution to his parents who are farming in his village with his younger brother. He rarely goes back to his hometown, because the trip would cost him about 600 Baht (12 euro). Some of his roomates have a family (wife and children) in a village. In this case, they would go back every other month to visit them. Also during the wet rice season (June-August), several of them go back to work on their agricultural works related to their land.

In the day spent together, Suntorn took us in the different places related to his life. The tuk-tuk owner, the mechanic, the places where he eats and spend time with his friends. He was kind enough to take us to see his house and to meet the friends sharing his room. A lot of talk, a lot of interesting glimpses on their life. We talked about his work, his life, sport (they follow closely the Thai-boxe scene, because of the sport as well as the gambling related to it), politics.

Asking Suntorn about the recent election, he did not vote, because he did not want to pay for the expense of going back to his hometown. However, he is happy that Shinawatra Thaksin earned his second term. “As a prime minister, Thaksin is good, he does what he says. And he has made the economy better.” From Suntorn’s point of view, what Thaksin is doing is quite visible compared to the previous government.
We also talked about his future. Although he does not know too much about it, he is optimistic. For the time being he thinks to keep driving the tuk-tuk, because it is independent activity and, moreover, he does not know what else to do better.

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