A Comparative Study of Tuk-Tuks Across South East Asia

Although Tuk-tuks are a popular form of transportation across Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (Singapore not so much, they prefer taxis – booooring), riding one in each location is very much a “same same but different” experience:

 Indonesia:

Travvel Sized giant

Travvel Sized giant

(Before I start talking about Tuk-tuks in Indonesia, I would first like to point out that all of my experiences with them are from Sumatra, not Bali or any other major tourist location.)

The first thing I did when I landed in the airport in Medan was bolt straight for a Tuk-tuk. Fortunately, I had done my research in advance and discovered that the taxis and Tuk-tuks waiting immediately outside the arrivals gate will charge you a significantly higher fare than those about 50m down the road (vehicles have to pay a fee to enter the airport pickup area). Even with the “cheaper” fare, my 15minute ride from the airport to the bus terminal was still more expensive than my 2.5hour bus ride to Berastagi.

At the time, I was travelling with 2 other girls and in all of our combined past experiences, three girls (with carry-on sized baggage) had been an easy fit. The Tuk-tuk we hired in Indonesia came nowhere near this. Since my girls had squished into the front-facing seats while I was in the washroom, I was stuck with the mini back-facing seat. Now, I’m not a very big person (if you couldn’t tell from the name of the blog), but I felt like a giant in that seat, it was so puny! I’m guessing Tuk-tuk was designed to fit only one person with some baggage and our driver just didn’t want to pass up our business and tried to squish us in regardless.

Thailand:

Who doesn't love hot pink seats?

Who doesn’t love hot pink seats?

My friends and I hired 2 Tuk-tuks to give us a tour around Bangkok. Apparently, it was “Buddha day”, so gas was free to all government-run Tuk-tuks (which are cheaper on a regular day and marked with a Thai flag, but are much less in number). This meant our half-day ride was only about 25baht (about 1SGD)!

For some reason though, one of our drivers took off before taking us back to our hostel without any explanation. We returned to the location we specified we would meet him in at the time we agreed on, but he just didn’t turn up. We hadn’t paid him yet, but after waiting around, we just called on another Tuk-tuk to take us back.

 Vietnam:

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

So.Many.Motorcycles. So.Many.Electrical wires.

Vietnam was the one place I visited in South East Asia where Tuk-tuks were outnumbered by motorcycles. For this reason, the Tuk-tuk felt much larger than it usually would because you tower over all of the motorcylists! This is important if you’re even a little bit afraid of getting hit by a speeding vehicle on a road that seems to have no rules or directional system.

Cambodia:

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

So.Much.Space!! (also collapsable seats!!)

As far as Tuk-tuks go, the ones you find in Cambodia couldn’t be more luxurious if you had painted them gold. The seats are spacious and wide and the roofs provide refreshing shade between temples when you’re touring the Angkor temples.

A friend and I got a Tuk-tuk to pick us up from the bus depot and bring us to our hostel. Before leaving, our driver asked if we needed a ride anywhere else during our time in Siem Reap. We told him about our plans to tour the Angkor temples, and he agreed to pick us up at 5am the next morning and give us a full tour. Knowing better than we did how hot it was going to be, he even gave us some complimentary water bottles throughout the day in a cooler in the Tuk-tuks trunk (I didn’t even know Tuk-tuks had trunks at that point)!

The only issue I had with the experience was the lack of speed. Even when I told the drive I had left my wallet at the last temple we had visited and urged him to take me back as fast as possible, he drove at the same leisurely pace. Apparently the only pace in the country.

 All Together Now:

To give you a little comparison of what to expect in terms of Tuk-tuk size, speed, service, availability and price, here’s a handy little chart:

  Size Speed Service Availability Cheapness Overall
Indonesia 1 6 4 5 7 4.6
Thailand 6 7 2 3 10 5.6
Vietnam 7 6 5 4 5 5.4
Cambodia 10 1 9 10 5 7.0

My Brief Life in Sumatra

Although my time in Sumatra was short, I had the pleasure of spending it at the fantastic Nachelle Homestay. Named after the manager, Abdi’s, year old daughter, the house was as warm and inviting as our hosts and offered stunning views of the city from the rooftop.

(Maybe we're loving it a bit TOO much..!)

(Maybe we’re loving it a bit TOO much..!)

As I’ve mentioned before, Berastagi is cooler than Singapore (which really isn’t saying a whole lot, but… STILL!) and I had forgotten how homey it feels even just to curl up under a toasty blanket on a chilly evening (one of those soul warming feelings).

The genuine warmth and welcoming of our hosts went above and beyond our expectations, as they organized our itineraries and transportation and were incredibly open and friendly.

Me and Abdi, hanging out, volcano-summit style!

Me and Abdi, hanging out, volcano-summit style!

Our interactions with the rest of the community, however, often didn’t get past the clicking of a camera. While my friends and I shutter-bugged away at attractions like mountain ranges and cityscapes (and in my case, every piece of fruit in the city), the locals turned us into attractions ourselves. From the moment we got off our bus, groups of giggling school kids would approach us, asking for photos and practice with their English. At first, we assumed this meant a quick pic and brief Q&A, but by now, I’m pretty sure the people of Indonesia have more pictures of me on my trip than I do (which actually says a lot, since I filled up my whole memory card) and all know that I’m from Canada and have enjoyed my time in Indonesia.

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Being a bale (bah-lay), or white-skinned foreigner, basically gives you celebrity status in Indonesia and while the first paparazzi encounter was fun (the kids were really enjoying themselves, bringing out their school notebooks to practice various English phrases), things start to get a little weird when groups of people start walking up to you, declaring “photo” and proceed to start snapping away.

As a tourist, I occasionally seek out photos of shopkeepers in front of their stalls and other “normal” things, but being on the other side of a wayward person’s camera still puts me off. I know the pictures aren’t of me, personally, they’re just of my skin. Especially after having lived in a multi-cultural city like Toronto, it’s strange to think that something like skin tone is reason enough for a photo-op.

However, Indonesia – and most of South East Asia is a whole other world in that respect. While I came to Singapore hoping to work on darkening my skin tone with a tan, the skin-whitening industry here is valued at over $13 billion, with ads like this one, here: 

Out and About Sumatra and Berastagi

Brief pre-note about the title: I never used to think that I had a Canadian accent, but since coming to Singapore, Singaporeans and Americans have loved pointing out how I pronounce words like “out and about” as “oot and aboot”. I’ve only caught myself doing it a handful of times, but apparently it’s a pretty regular occurrence.

Anyways, after all the waterfall free climbing and sunrise volcano trekking, I was ready for a little bit of R&R. Luckily for me, the Sibayak volcano is also home to a natural hot spring. Located partway down the volcano’s slope, this free pit stop is the perfect way to unwind and take in the scenery.

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The cool mountain breezes make the springs ideally tranquilizing (even the family of kids that was visiting was peculiarly calm) and different pools offer varying degrees of heat to suit everyone.

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Even though I had hiked up and down a volcano and soaked in the springs, it was still only 9am (timing gets thrown off so much when you start your day at 3am) and we had plenty of time to explore the surrounding area. The next stop was the Lumbini Buddhist Temple, just outside Berastagi. Another free attraction, the Temple itself was meant to be the main draw of the site, I ended up spending most of my time prancing around the gardens, perusing around the cheerful flowers and taking silly pictures with Buddha.

I thought it looked kind of like a bumblebee. Guess this is what happens when bees get carried away while pollinating ;)

I thought it looked kind of like a bumblebee. Guess this is what happens when bees get carried away while pollinating ;)

Pretty stars!!

Pretty stars!!

me.beat.drum!

me.beat.drum!

All that posing is tiring, okay?

All that posing is tiring, okay?

Last up on the tour was Gundaling hill. Definitely just a hill, not a mountain (especially when compared to Mount Sibayak), Gundaling nonetheless offered some distinguished views of the town.

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Along with some more statues to pose with (I was on a roll, okay!?)

Along with some more statues to pose with (I was on a roll, okay!?)

Sunrise Volcano Trekking Mount Sibayak

Although there have been times where I’d regularly be at work before the sun starts to show its face, waking up in the dark still just feels wrong every time – even if its to see a volcano-top sunrise. Despite the feeling that I was going against nature, I dragged myself out of ben at 3am and was soon off to Mount Sibayak. The hike was set up so that we would be able to see the entire sunrise from the volcano’s summit (after tobogganing down the last volcano I summited, a normal climb wasn’t going to cut it). What hadn’t fully sunk into my mind was that, to accomplish this, I would need to hike UP the volcano in the pitch dark. This meant that stairs and puddles jutted out from nowhere and I spent a good amount of time trying to strategically position myself to be close enough to the guide’s light, but far enough back that I wouldn’t trample my friends when they stopped suddenly to avoid the large rocks on the path.

Whenever some type of unidentifiably dark covering didn’t block out the sky however, the almost-blind hike got illuminated by the most mesmerising display of starlight I had ever seen. I’m talking the sky was more white than black and I strained my neck looking up because there were so many stars.

After about an hour and a half, we had reached the summit in time to strategically position ourselves in a spot that would provide us with the fullest sunrise views before a large group of locals arrived. Now it was time to hurry up and wait. Fortunately, the sky seemed to be exploding with meteors and shooting stars covered the sky. Huddled up under the guide’s safety blanket and looking like a group of human baked potatoes, the sunlight soon revealed itself.

First glimpse of the sun!

First glimpse of the sun!

Watching the rays slowly illuminate the beckoning panorama that surrounded us was amazing. Every time I looked back at the nearby mountain range, more details would reveal themselves.

Sunrise Collage

Once it warmed up a bit, I was even finally able to get my traditional summit-handstand in.

The ground wasn't actually level at all, handstanding on a slope is easier said than done!

The ground wasn’t actually level at all, handstanding on a slope is easier said than done!

Soon enough, the sun had fully risen and it was time to begin our descent. The landscapes along the way were so distinct and diverse; it was strange to think it all just looked like plain darkness a few hours ago.

Completely inexistent 2 hours ago!

Completely inexistent 2 hours ago!

Swear it must have sprung up a few minutes ago!

Swear it must have sprung up a few minutes ago!

Must have started erupting steam while I was at the summit (!?)

Must have started erupting steam while I was at the summit (!?)

One thing that I couldn’t understand was the fact that I had been oblivious to the large steam geysers. I can understand not seeing them, but at the same time, they were incredibly boisterous and I think I would have noticed the loud roaring..! Either way, they were fun to play around with now that we could see them!

Okay, I'll admit I might have eaten a couple beans last night..!

Okay, I’ll admit I might have eaten a couple beans last night..!

Indonesian Kopi Luwak

Being the coffee-aholic I am (I’m drinking some right now, even), I have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed I haven’t had anything to say on the topic of kopi luwak before now. “Kopi” is basically the Malay term for coffee, but it’s used in Singlish as well. If you’re at a kopitiam (coffee shop), you can also add suffixes like –C, –xiu–dai, or –O–kosong–gau to order coffee with evaporated milk, coffee with less sugar or a strong coffee without milk or sugar respectively (Take THAT fancy Starbucks names).

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Anyways, kopitiams usually find their homes at Hawker centres and aren’t exactly known for brewing the best quality coffee in the world, but kopi luwak is a whole different story (I promise I’m done building this up now). It’s basically the same as any other type of coffee, except for the small fact that the coffee cherries *ahem* pass through the digestive system of a Paradoxurus (read: a little ferret-creature shits out the cherries before they’re collected). This process takes out most of the bitterness from the beans, producing a sweeter flavour, but also drives the price up to about $300 per pound (MAJOR novelty factor coming into play here).

"What do you mean, you don't think my poop is worth that much!?"

“What do you mean, you don’t think my poop is worth that much!?”

I’m not usually picky for quality with my coffee, but my one requirement is that the coffee is, in fact, coffee (not foam, not caramel, not steam, COFFEE). This has actually cut down quite a bit on the types of beverages I order, but has saved me from being a Starbucks snob, allowing me to re-focus my hipsterness into other outlets like hanging out in public areas for the free wi-fi. Also, especially by my native Canadian standards, kopi is definitely less mainstream than Starbucks, so I would probably have to rank it higher on the hipster scale anyways.

Aw, yeah! That's the stuff!

Aw, yeah! That’s the stuff!

Back to the main point of this post, one of the (many) reasons I was excited to come to Sumatra was to try out this famous (and sometimes infamous) coffee. So on a subsequent trip to the Berastagi markets – the colours were much too pretty and the bunnies were much too cute, I couldn’t stay away – when I got separated from my girls, instead of looking around the corner for them like a normal person, I decided to go off and take a coffee break (they had already had kopi luwak, and weren’t really looking to try it again).

Jittering with excitement (something usually reserved for AFTER I drink my coffee), I ordered my beverage and started happily snapping photos since I was too excited to actually start consuming the drink.

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Eventually, I settled down and finally took a sip. The drink was definitely sweeter than a regular brew, but that might have had something to do with the fact that the barista had put quite a bit of milk and sugar in the brew. Either way, it was certainly significantly less bitter and quite palatable. Not something I would drink on a regular basis, but definitely worth trying out.

After my taste buds finished their little adventure, I reunited with the girls and went back to crooning over bunnies.

Lake Toba Lovin’

Since the Sipiso Piso Waterfalls run right into Lake Toba, and I’d heard nothing but good things about the place, I figured it would be completely unacceptable NOT to go. From the falls, it’s about a 3-hour hike to the lake, but we were getting close to lunchtime, and had just free-climbed the side of a waterfall, so taking the bus was deemed to be acceptable.

Within minutes, we had arrived at the beckoning lake and I was (once again) taken agape by the sheer charm of my surroundings. Mountains and lakes hold such a sense of adventure for me, and when they come together, I can just feel the excitement!

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Now, back to an equally important topic: lunch. The majority of the houses and restaurants along the lake were right on the water, so we were easily able to find a place with a captivating view. The restaurant was divided into a one section with tables, and one with traditional rolled our floor matts. Wanting to experience more of the Local Lake Toba culture, I opted for the floor matts (which were perfect for lying out on). On a roll, I also ordered the traditional fish. From there, I got to watch our mini-chef (she must have been about 12) scoop my soon-to-be meal out of a holding tank off the nearby dock and proceed to the kitchen.

Girl's got the whole hunter/gatherer thing DOWN!

Girl’s got the whole hunter/gatherer thing DOWN!

Although I know where meat comes from, its still a bit strange seeing it as a fully living creature. Our guide, on the other hand, found this exciting, as it meant the meal was guaranteed to be as fresh as possible.

Waiting for my food then gave me enough time for a quick photo op:

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Upon my return to our restaurant, I was greeted with a whole array of fish, rice, veggies and sauces. I was on one of my (often short-lived) “I should probably actually try to keep myself hydrated” kicks, and had ordered water instead of coffee (which, try as I might, is not something I can normally do!) In Sumatra, water is often served warm, as reassurance that its been properly cleansed.

omnomnomNOMnomnomnomnomnom!!

Om nom nom!!

The traditional fish was actually one of my favourite seafood dishes of the trip to date – a nice change for the usual deep fried options, the whole grain rice had a nice, subtle flavouring to it and combined well with the accompanying sauces and well, fresh veggies are basically always a “mmmMmm” in my books. In short, our mini-chef is basically a child protégé!

After our meal (and a small amount of whimpering), we packed ourselves back up in the bus and continued on our way.

Goodbye mountains :(

Goodbye mountains :(

Side Note:

I’ve recently realized I need to start using adjectives other than “gorgeous” whenever I talk about my travel – it’s getting to the point where it feels like it was every other word out of my mouth. As a result, I came up with this list for myself of similar, overly flower-y words that can be used to describe anything that’s breathtakingly ravishing:

alluring // beauteous // beckoning // captivating // charming // dazzling // enticing   // exquisite // grandiose // imposing // luxuriant // mesmeric // opulent // ostentatious // prepossessing // resplendent // splendiferous // tantalizing

Owning the Sipiso Piso Mountains and Getting Owned by the Waterfalls

Next stop on the tour around Berastagi was Sipiso Piso. The area is most famously known for its 120m waterfall (the tallest in Indonesia). Even still, the surrounding area and mountainscape are also an attraction in their own right.

(Okay, I might be a bit biased in this statement, having spent a summer in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and being flooded with summit-conquering nostalgia the minute I laid eyes on my surroundings, but they WERE pretty stunning.)

Frontin' like I own the place, nbd!

Frontin’ like I own the place, nbd!

However, a view from the ground wasn’t going to cut it for me (no matter how nice), and I quickly took off for higher ground at a nearby building. Getting closer, I noticed the building had been abandoned and covered (quite heavily) in graffiti. Probably a victim of the post-tourism boom economy much of the area had fallen to around the end of the 1980s, the building, which appeared to have served as an event venue, was now fully open to exploration.

(if you dare!)

(if you dare!)

It was four floors of open windows and increasingly panoramic vistas. The cream of the crop, however, had to be the roof. Providing a direct view of (the slightly fogged over) Lake Toba, it was the perfect venue for (posing for a photo, where you pretend to be deep in thought and) taking in the full beauty of the area.

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Now that I had conquered the aerial view, it was time to get down to the base. Our guide, who had found a friend at our first vantage point, told us that the hike down to the base of the falls was about an hour down and just over an hour up. Our driver was planning on leaving before this time, but I figured I’d done enough treks to be able to shave some time off this quote (even with my less-hiking-experienced co-travellers) – challenge accepted!!

We began our descent half skipping down the slope, partly because it was too steep to “slowly saunter” down, and partly because, well, why wouldn’t you want to skip down? Skipping is fun! Closer to the end of the slope, I noticed that the trail occasionally split off its regular route down steeper (read: you basically need to rappel down) paths. Whenever I encounter shortcuts along hiking trails, I hate to wimp out and take the “easy mode” route and knowing I couldn’t lose this challenge (in my mind, I had put my whole hiking reputation on the line!), I informed the group that we would now be taking these shortcuts, no matter how steep! The can-do attitude went over well, and we soon reached the bottom in record time! This gave enough time to snap some extra photos at the base (before the camera got completely covered in the waterfall’s spray – I had learned a little something from my experiences in Tioman!) and dip my feet in the stream (I don’t feel like I can actually say I was AT a waterfall until I actually experience the water).

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Soon enough however, it was time to turn back and begin our re-ascent. As I scaled down some of the short-cut cliffs on the way down, I couldn’t help but realize the way back up was going tough. At that point though, I would just turn my head a couple degrees, and catch another glace at the falls, forgetting all future worries. On the way back up, the falls were out of view completely, so there was nothing to separate me from the steep climb. After what seemed like hours of twisting into contorted footholds and climbing seemingly endless amounts of stairs, we had made it back to the top!

Doing our best NOT to look like we were just sweating to pieces!

Doing our best NOT to look like we were just sweating to pieces!

Our guide gave us a bemused glace and informed us we had only been gone for an hour. I assumed he just thought we got halfway and turned around, his expression turned impressed when we told him we took the shortcuts to make it all the way and back.

We then greeted our driver (taken by surprise from his smoke break), and continued on our way.

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