Tuk-tuks: Riding in style in Sri Lanka’s Ferraris

His name was Lakshan. “But you can call me Lucky.”

Our meeting did seem rather fortuitous. With a couple of hours’ free time in my itinerary, I had set out for a walk around Kalutara town. I was about 15 minutes down a long, dusty road when the sultry heavens decided to open, leaving me soaked and stranded.

Out of nowhere, like something from a cartoon, a lollipop-red tuk-tuk zoomed up beside me.

“You need a ride, ma’am?”

Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka. These jaunty little vehicles can be seen weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoiding trucks, buses and livestock.

They are often decorated by their owners, embellished with “bling” such as chrome-plated shovels, ladders, and skull and crossbones. They usually have some kind of inspirational slogan or quote on them. My favourite said: “Get in. Sit down. Shut up. Hold on.”

I peered at the driver suspiciously, thinking back to hard lessons learned in China and Indonesia. I realised I had no idea what the standard rate for a tuk-tuk was. I also considered the fact I was a woman, alone, in an unfamiliar country.

As I stood indecisively in the middle of the road, dripping from head to toe, he seemed to read my mind. “You can trust me.”

So I did. I squeezed into the back of his three-wheeler, and he asked where I wanted to go. Anywhere, I replied. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll give you a tour.”

Lucky’s tour consisted of several points of interest, including his church, his old school, and a lighting store that was having a sale. I observed all of these landmarks from behind a rain cover, as we whizzed around town.

“You know, we call tuk-tuks the Sri Lankan Ferrari,” he said, laughing as I gripped onto the handrail for dear life.

He asked where I came from, and I told him about New Zealand. He told me about the tsunami of 2004, how the churning waters battered the area, destroying his home. Thankfully, he and his family escaped unharmed. “I was lucky,” he said.

Our next stop was Kalutara Chaithya – said to be the world’s only hollow Buddhist shrine. Lucky parked his tuk-tuk and accompanied me inside, showing me where to stow my shoes. He waited patiently as I tiptoed awkwardly around the shrine, examining its murals and staring into the peaceful faces of its golden Buddhas.

By now the rain had stopped, but it was time for me to go back. We had agreed on a price for the hour. But as Lucky pulled up outside my resort, I braced myself, preparing for the scam. All right then, I said. How much are you really going to charge me?

“You can pay me whatever you want, ma’am. Any price is good.”

I gave him a big tip – for the ride, the tour, and for giving a jaded traveller a much-needed reminder that not everybody in this world is out to rip you off. He was Lucky, and so was I.

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