Yes, Boss! : On Learning to Drive a Tuk Tuk in India

“Ok Boss, you take over now.” Mukul grinned widely as he took his hands off of the glorified bike handlebars that constitute the steering wheel, ignition and gas pedal of a tuk tuk, and motioned for me to take over. We were in the middle of rush hour traffic in Agra, India (which is, for the record, every waking hour of the day in my observation). My eyes most have grown wide in the rearview mirror because he took over again just as soon as I’d shaken my head no.

A tuk tuk is a ubiquitous symbol in many Asian and African countries, used to transport passengers most commonly. It’s like a motorized tricycle with a rudimentary automobile body resting on top. We had been warned: keep your hands and feet inside, and don’t take any babies offered to you on street corners.

Tuk Tuks in India

From the first time we took one in Delhi – from our hostel in M Block to the Lotus temple – I was hooked. In fact, we’d skip bicycle-pulled rickshaws and even elephants to get around India, always amazed at how fast the little things zipped, and how easily they’d maneuver through traffic.

Tuk tuk drivers have to have their driver’s license, but you’d never know. On more than one occasion, I was nervous the thing would tip over (or I’d fall out) when a driver would take turns to fast, or that the whole “Oh, everyone honks their horn, even though it’s illegal” excuse was enough reason to garner a fine. It was thrilling but oftentimes scary. 

In Delhi, we preferred taking the women’s only train car on the underground, but gritty Agra merited a tuk tuk. Mukul was employed by the homestay we’d be staying at and offered to be at our service the whole day – for 6€. The ride from the station took ten minutes, as the road ere clogged with commuters in trucks, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks, along with the odd cow or goat. I was impressed with how the tuk tuk’s three wheels could navigate roundabouts with no clear traffic signs or lanes.

“You see, to drive is so fun!” Mukul said. I would take his word for it. 

After dropping our bags and adding our names to an ancient guest book that registered travelers from all over the world, Mukul took us to the Taj Mahal. Built along the Yamuna River as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, the whole reason we’d come north was to see the building said to make the sun and moon shed cheers. He dropped up near the bazaars to the south of the complex and told us he’d wait there for two hours.

Visiting the Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj was stunning, just as I imagined it would be.

And that made Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, facing the mausoleum, all the more meh.

Deciding to skip the Baby Taj that afternoon for a nap (old habits die-hard, even while traveling), Mukul was waiting for us outside the homestay, napping himself with his feet sticking out of the tuk tuk. “Hop in boss! You drive?” he asked, stepping out of the vehicle.

Tuk Tuk Drivers

We again declined and had him take us to the Mehtab Bagh, manicured lawns facing the northern facade of the Taj. We admired the temple from afar as the sun begin to wane. It was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I found myself nearly short of air – it’s that magical, and I felt at the same time 8 and 80 with wonder. I made an announcement:

“I’m going to ask if I can drive Mukul’s tuk tuk.” Hayley gave me the same bewildered look that I had given our driver that morning.

Mukul was having a chai tea at the stand across the street from where he’d left us, chatting with other drivers and holding the cup with just three fingers. He immediately sat up, gulp his tea down and unleashed the grin when I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer. 

How a tuk tuk works

There wasn’t much of a learning curve: you switched on the engine, then rolled the handbar throttle to get the thing going. We tuk-tukked down the road back towards the Red Fort, Mukul sitting at my side to steady the handlebars. The cylinders seemed to be in the steering mechanism – I could feel all of the energy pulsating through my hands.

I felt like I was speeding, risking an accident (or insurance claim), like I could maybe take on the traffic on the ring road. 

Tuk Tuk Driving

Then another vehicle passed and I told Mukul I was finished, just before we found the Muti Mahal neighborhood buzzing in the wake of the elections, which took place that very day. Marigold garlands had been strung in doorways, and people were drinking fizzy water while sitting on plastic chairs. We sped past them, honking.

“Ok, Boss! Next time you come to India, you drive to the city!” he offered, but Agra was sadly a disappointment overall.

Riding in tuk tuks in India

We took one more tuk tuk ride with Mukul, from the home stay to the train station, stopping for a milky chai tea at a roadside hut. Ali would be waiting for us on the other side of  a sleeper train with a decked out tuk tuk, stories from his guru and the same large grin it seemed every Indian we encountered had.

When I think about India, I can almost feel the two-stroke engine under my butt and the potholes, just the same as I taste a warm butter naan or smell the sandalwood. 

The Colors of India - Tuk Tuks

On our last day in India, trying to spend our rupees as we suffered through a humid day in Mumbai, a street vendor on Elefanta Island was peddling small, plastic tuk tuks. We bargained him from 100 rupees each to 100 for both – about 1.30€. The toy barely fit in my bag, already replete from clothing purchases, tea and spices. It’s now sitting near my desk as a reminder of road trips, of awakened senses and that lonely road near the Mehtab Bagh.

Would you ever drive a car in a country like India?

Want more of this eye-opening country? Check out Learning by Watching | The Colors of India | The Hawa Mahal

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. My inlaws would have been scandalized if I ever braved driving a tuk tuk. They wouldn’t even allow me to mount one alone let alone drive one. Keep up the adventures, you’re amazing.

  2. Wow, well done, Cat. Very cool story and a memory I’m sure you’ll have for a while.

    Watching your video reminded me of another reason why women probably wear those bright, beautiful saris – so they can be seen when crossing the busy street!
    Jed recently posted..Our $1,300 3-bedroom house in Granada, SpainMy Profile

  3. I love this story!!
    Wandering Educators recently posted..How to Befriend a Community of TravelersMy Profile

  4. driving such a thing looks like driving a bici or bike, no? i think that i would never drive in a country like India……in 2010 i drove an automatic car round Philadelphia in the USA and i did not like it at ALL….i was not comfortable and US car drivers looked to me like going bonkers on the road! jaja

  5. So funny. Yeah, I’d probably never drive anything in India. Learning how to drive growing up in New York was crazy enough.

  6. Ooooh my gosh… I was terrified to sit in tuk tuks in India, let alone try to DRIVE one! You are a brave gal. Part of the issue I had with the tuk tuks, though, was that all of the exhaust fumes go right into your nose, because there’s no protective bubble. With the traffic, we were sitting, exposed, in the road, slurping up fumes, for what seemed like hours. Yargh!
    Lillie recently posted..A Warning About Getting the First Passport for Your ChildMy Profile

    • I can’t even tell you how many things we smelled in India (I’m sure you did, too!). The exhaust was better than some other whiffs!

  7. Wow, how fantastic…I don’t think I would have braved something like that in Thailand or Sri Lanka – it was crazy busy everywhere on the road…but what a fun experience for you to try. I love tuk tuks!
    noel recently posted..Crabs in San FranciscoMy Profile

  8. What an experience! And I think it’s fantastic that you now have a fall-back career if you need it 😉
    Larissa recently posted..How to use TSA Precheck and Global EntryMy Profile

  9. What an adventure. We now want two things: 1.) A tuk-tuk ride. 2.) A toy tuk tuk. Best sort out that India trip sooner rather than later.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Barranco SecoMy Profile

  10. I don’t even know that we can learn how to drive it.. Usually people are taking it as city transportation. Indeed, an unique experience!
    Lex @ LeX Paradise recently posted..10 Places Must-Visit in Incheon, South KoreaMy Profile

  11. Good to read the insights of your visit to India :)

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