Tiktok the tuktuk
The little island where we escaped the monsoon for over a month is of course Sri Lanka. Plagued by a civil war for many years until 2009, a devastating tsunami in 2004, political and economical unrest in 2022, it had been on our list of places we would love to visit for a long time. And finally we had our chance as it was just a short hop on a direct flight from Chennai.
We decided we wanted to rent a tuktuk so we started our research and found the perfect place to rent one. It’s a company that rents the tuktuks from local families. They lose their prized possession during that time, but they have a steady income that allows them to spend their time differently (not driving a tuktuk all day). They could potentially be earning an additional income or spend more time with their family, knowing they have an income for the time you are renting their tuktuk.
Tuktuks are three-wheeled auto rikshaws, used by many countries for the transport of goods, as taxis or as a private vehicle as they are relatively cheap to own and run. They are open on the sides, but do have curtains that can be dropped down when it rains. The driver sits in the front part and uses the handlebars to drive it. Speed is controlled like a motorbike with the right-hand grip, and the clutch and gears are controlled with the left-hand grip. The right foot is used for braking, there is no brake on the handlebars. It does have a handbrake, but we found ours wasn’t really functioning so we carried a rock with us. Tuktuks have lights, including high beam, a reverse gear, a windscreen wiper (one speed only) and a horn which is used (very) frequently.
We were lucky Tiktok the tuktuk came with a 15L tank for fuel. During the last fuel crisis when you had to queue to fill up, sometimes for days, some locals became inventive and decided to enlarge the fuel tanks of their tuktuks (from 8L to 15L). We were also given a card with a QR code on it, a system they put in place when fuel was still scarce. It allows you to fill up a maximum number of littres each week, but only two petrol stations asked to scan our card as fuel availability is pretty much back to normal again.
During the time we rented the tuktuk we were responsible for its maintenance. Every day we would check the engine oil as well as the brake-fluid level. And every 1,000km we would stop at a local mechanic to get the axles greased. It’s important to make sure we return the tuktuk to the local family who own it in top condition!
Tuktuks originated in Japan and spread all over Asia, the majority are petrol engines, but nowadays more and more run on compressed natural gas, and even electric ones already exist (although we didn’t see any of those in Sri Lanka). They are also often called bajaj after the company that makes them, or three-wheel, auto rickshaw or baby taxi.
We picked up Tiktok our tuktuk the day after we arrived. We had already submitted some paperwork so they could arrange our Sri Lankan driver’s licenses, allowing us to drive them legally, and we were given a driving lesson on some quiet streets before we were allowed to head out the gate and start our adventure. In Sri Lanka you see tuktuks in all colours of the rainbow, although red and green are the most common ones. Tiktok was red and we loved her.
Tiktok gave us freedom. Freedom to stop anywhere for a picture, freedom to leave at anytime we wanted, freedom to visit any location, freedom to easily find a new guesthouse if the one you booked is actually already full, and freedom to explore the ancient ruins during the extremely hot days without overheating. She was awesome, although she did have her quirks and issues so occasionally we would be cursing her, but not for very long as in the end she was always reliable enough to get us where we needed to be.
We did a full lap of the country, only skipping the far north (Jaffna) as it does take a while to drive anywhere with a tuktuk. Maximum speed is 40km an hour on the roads in Sri Lanka. Most of the time it felt fast enough for us, we enjoyed looking around and having the aircon going (as long as we were moving!). In the hill country we would be happy if we could reach speeds of 20km an hour and at times even that was a dream as certain steep or bumpy sections were done in first gear….
Roads in Sri Lanka are in pretty good condition. Because they have so many tuktuks and motorbikes, any potholes have to be filled quickly as it would be dangerous otherwise. We only found a few minor roads in a very poor condition.
The traffic in Sri Lanka is busy in most areas and seems chaotic at first. But we found it was all very friendly and organised. Everyone knows buses have priority and they will remind you of this on their fast approach towards you or from behind. Trucks come next in the pecking order and as long as you give both of them their space you are fine. Merging traffic is given space, vehicles overtaking something as they drive towards you on a 2-lane road are allowed to continue. You just hit the brakes or swerve to the side if possible. And dogs as well as humans will listen to your horn and get out of your way. Cows are a different matter, you just have to slow down and get around them as they are queens of the road, even buses have to go around them. We loved it. Being part of the local road users was fun and we had many friendly waves and chats with other road users especially when Jude was behind the handlebars. Female tuktuk drivers are still a rarity although we did see four Sri Lankan ladies driving one too.
Nearly every day we would buy the local buffalo curd by the side of the road. It is made fresh daily and is absolutely delicious. Together we would easily demoslish a litre of this good stuff, eaten with some bananas also bought by the side of the road. Other options for lunch were the excellent corn on the cob, or any variety of fruit or vegetables they sell in the many stalls lining the roads. We loved the Sri Lankan curries with rice, but preferred to have different things to eat for breakfast and lunch. The homemade curries were often best and we usually tried to find a small local restaurant or eat with the family we were staying with. We had some incredible meals.
Sri Lanka also has a rail network, and some of those lines are incredibly scenic. We decided to leave Tiktok for a day with our lovely family in Nuwara Eliya and hop on the train from Nanu Oya (the nearest station) to Ella, and back of course to pick up Tiktok the tuktuk. The railway in that area was all built before 1900 and we’re pretty sure the trains are from that era too. We enjoyed the 10km per hour journey as we were lucky to get some seats. These trains, although still used by locals to travel, get very busy with tourists and reserved seating sells out weeks if not months in advance. We bought some 3rd class unreserved on the day of our journey and settled in for the five hour scenic tour, just to go 35km or so. It didn’t disappoint. Ella was very touristy, it felt a bit like Bali with prices to match Australia, it was our least favourite town of Sri Lanka (we loved all others!).
Twice the heavens opened up whilst on the road with our tuktuk. Tiktok took it all in her stride and kept us going. We simply unclipped the rolled-up flaps on the sides, attached them to the front of the cabin and stayed mostly dry. It does reduce visibility a bit, although you can leave a little triangle of flap hanging down so you can still see the mirrors.
We can highly recommend a holiday in Sri Lanka if you haven’t been there already, and make sure you rent a tuktuk if you do! It was so much fun! Let us know as we can get you a discount at the company we used.
We’ll be writing two more stories about Sri Lanka as we want to show you the sites of course, as well as the incredible wildlife. There is so much! For now, we’ll leave you with a little video of our route we drove with Tiktok the tuktuk, it even shows our train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Ella and back. We drove a total of 2364km with Tiktok the tuktuk in just over 5 weeks in this beautiful country. We even had to extend our visa (a first for both of us) as we wanted to stay longer than the standard 30 days. Next story we’ll show you all the places we visited!