One day in 1947, Snr. Corradino D’Ascanio, the inventor of the Vespa scooter, consumed too much Italian wine (Chianti, I believe) and fell off the scooter of his own design in the Via Nazionale in Rome. Mrs D’Ascanio who happened to be riding pillion, immediately got up, kicked him viciously and called him an “imbecile”. [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The tuk-tuks of our roads!


Illustration by N. Senthilkumaran

One day in 1947, Snr. Corradino D’Ascanio, the inventor of the Vespa scooter, consumed too much Italian wine (Chianti, I believe) and fell off the scooter of his own design in the Via Nazionale in Rome. Mrs D’Ascanio who happened to be riding pillion, immediately got up, kicked him viciously and called him an “imbecile”. He cried out “Mamma Mia” as well as “porcamiseria” and other unprintable Italian swear words and then went on to invent a stable three-wheeled version.

This, the Piaggio Ape, was the start of the Three-Wheeled Plague which has caused so much pollution and environmental what’s-it from South America to the Far East and in particular in Sri Lanka.

I said it is a plague but even the stiff-upper-lipped Britain grudgingly licensed them on the Brighton beach front. In Varanasi, India I came across a cortege consisting of Bajajs with the coffin-less corpse laid out on the roof. In Hanoi, Vietnam, live pigs were being transported in them and in Burma they tried to persuade a baby elephant to do the same; it obliged and crushed the Tuk-Tuk in the process.

I do have a lot of experience of this mode of versatile transport in other countries but my personal and intensive research of three-wheelers in Sri Lanka, was confined to Kandy. However, there is no reason why foreigners, as well as locals, could not extrapolate my findings to other parts of the Old Republic.


My rules, based on my personal and painstaking observations, are as follows:

In selecting a safe “wheel eka” first look at the embellishments, slogans and logos that are totally function-less and purely decorative. These should give you an idea of the mentality of the idiot behind the wheel. Whilst spoilers and tail-fins can be useful on racing cars and jet fighters they do very little to alter the aerodynamics of a wheel-eka. These fixtures simply indicate that the driver is a testosterone-fuelled-utter-maniac desperately looking for female company.

Stickers such as “Ferrari”, “Speed King”, “King of the Road”, indicate a frustrated racing driver of reduced means and therefore minus a girlfriend and getting his thrills on three wheels.

The same applies to emblems such as skull and crossbones, fiery skulls, leering skulls, leering and fiery skulls and Cobras.

Emblems of Panthers and Cheetahs also fall in the same category, that of indicators of speed. It is highly unlikely that you will find a Tiger emblem following the recently ended Civil War, however the Lion (Sinha) emblems have proliferated in recent times. The latter are mostly pseudo-patriotic and are therefore deemed relatively harmless.

“Wheelers” that carry pictures of political leaders or their party emblems can be very dangerous just before and after an election. If you must use these do not forget to bring a flak jacket with you. Do look out for bullet holes before you get in but serious dents on “wheelers” are normal.

Love is impossible

Most have slogans. The ones which say “Love is Difficult”, “Beautiful Wife, Dangerous Life” or “My Loose (sic) sweet Heart” can mean that the driver is having a bad time in his love life and is therefore suicidal. I once got in one which said “I loose (sic) my Wiife (sic). I thought the guy had lost hisWifi device or lost his wife, as in death. Turned out that she had run off with his best friend’s elderly father. I paid him above the odds even after having to listen to his sob story.

Do go for the ones with slogans of a religious nature such as “Nammo Buddhaya”, “Masha Allah” or “God is Great”. However, I tend to avoid ones with “God Help Us!” or “God Please Save Us!” I am sure that you can work that one out!

Once you have selected a decent-looking and safe Tuk-Tuk, do have a good look at the driver. Avoid young drivers dressed in low-budget-Formula One gear and racing driver caps. The ones clad in traditional Sri Lankan sarongs are okay as long as they are not chewing Betel. The red Betel stains can be rather difficult to wash off your clothes.

Bottles of water

There are some signs which, at first sight, may seem worrying. To the left of the driver there is usually a bottle of Smirnoff Vodka or Johnny Walker Whiskey. These bottles contain water! Ha! Ha! Ha! And Ha! Do not worry. It is just part of their macho-image. The Sri Lankan Police are very vigilant when they see expensive, imported drinks and are diligent in confiscating them, so the chances of these bottles containing anything other than water are fairly slim. On the other hand the bottles on the right side of the driver, usually empty Arrack bottles, invariably contain petrol. Do not smoke!

Short skirts, No-No!

Grossly obese persons can have particular difficulty with these self-appointed “Kings of the Road” mostly because of their personal dimensions (see the baby elephant incident, above). Even normally-proportioned women can get into difficulties because of their attire. A long saree “fall” or “pota”,fluttering around can be lethal if it gets entangled with a passing bus as once nearly happened to my lovely sister Babs.

Short skirts are a general no-no as my lovely-but-in-your-face-niece Samanmalee (The Sam) found out. If you are tall, long-legged and attractive it is difficult to get into a tuk-tukwithout flashing your cleavage or underwear to the other hanger-around-leering drivers, in what is politely known as a “wardrobe malfunction”.

Bella! Bella!

I happened to be with The Sam in The Pettah, Colombo when this happened to her. She was in the skimpiest red skirt that I had ever seen. She did manage to slide into a tuk-tuk because of her octopus-like flexible legs. A pseudo-macho-just-standing-around-type-guy leered, sniggered and let out a wolf whistle. Sam slithered out slowly, menacingly, impressively and with a great amount of poise and then clocked him one.

I am not really sure if it was a slap or a punch. The guy staggered backwards with a look of total surprise on his features. The Sam followed on with her usual kick-in-the-groin and then slid back in to the tuk-tuk. I just kept on staring ahead.

I am sure that the inventor of the Three Wheeler, the late Snr Vespa-Piaggio-Corradino-Bajaj would have shouted “Bella! Bella!”

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