From my rear-view mirror, I see a group of young men gawping from the back of a jeep; a farmer straightens his back and stares; there are smiles and looks of wonder everywhere I go – even a passing monk gives me a wave. It’s been a while since I’ve attracted this many admiring looks. But it’s not me they’re checking out; it’s me driving a tuk-tuk.
It’s one of Thailand’s most instantly recognisable symbols; a half-motorbike, half-car mash-up, with three wheels, flashing lights and an acid-bright paint job, generally seen zigzagging tourists around the fume-filled streets of Bangkok, piloted by complete and utter lunatic cabbies.
But now I’m the one in the driving seat, whizzing through neon-green paddy fields in a tango-orange trike named Liz, one of the first travellers to try out the newly established Tuk Tuk Club’s one-day driving tour.
The Club’s fleet of six specially commissioned vehicles are based in the Mae Wang valley, about an hour outside Chiang Mai, and it’s from here that daytrippers set off on a convoy through the sleepy northern Thai countryside. Before hitting the road proper, there’s a full safety briefing, a driving lesson and a practice session turning and reversing between cones.
The cab feels surprisingly sturdy and the controls are fairly straightforward – the throttle on the right-side handlebar, the brake at the right-foot pedal, the clutch on the left, with a clunky gearbox positioned between the driver’s legs.
In first gear, the engines, though a paltry 160cc, roar as though they belong on a jumbo jet – terrific fun. And while the top speed is restricted to 50kph (31mph), when your vehicle has three wheels and no doors, the pace feels enjoyably fast. The only real challenge is not using the foot brake when I mean to accelerate, but much like switching from a manual car to an automatic, my brain quickly adapts and within half an hour I’m up and down the gears like a pro. Danger-wise, my only concern is the comically soft suspension, with the bounce of my 36Cs leaving me at risk of two black eyes.
Out on the road, the ride is pure unadulterated joy – noisy revving, sun on my face, wind in my hair, much waving and cheerful whooping from amused villagers who clearly can’t believe what they’re seeing. There’s little in the way of traffic and Liz is nippy enough to manoeuvre out of the way when a car or bike does come along. And the scenery is show-stopping, particularly when we slip off the main drag on to a single-track lane leading past stilted teak houses and mango, loganberry and roseapple farms to the jungle temple of Wat Tham Nam Ho. As Thai temples go, it’s a modest affair, barely more than a tin shed, with a shining blue-tiled floor, a snowy-white statue of Buddha, and a solitary monk.