Tourists in Phuket are being taken for a ride, writes Alan Morison.
Most of Phuket's tuk-tuks are red, which is the colour tourists are seeing when they encounter extortionate fares and sometimes gruff and thuggish behaviour by the drivers of these strange local taxis.
The quaint open-sided vehicles provide a ride that's about as comfortable as the back of a ute but visitors are charged a five-star luxury price for the privilege of being bounced all over the holiday island.
One Canadian tourist complained about the 150 baht ($5) fare for a one-minute journey and was punched in the face five times by a driver last month. A French tourist argued about a parking space on December 26 and had his arm broken.
The cost of a tuk-tuk from Phuket's airport to Patong, a journey of 40 kilometres, is 800 baht, about the same price as the bus fare to Bangkok, 852 kilometres away.
Phuket's tuk-tuk drivers snaffle the best parking spots along the island's popular beaches, charge more than 10 times what their Bangkok colleagues ask and the number of drivers is growing quickly.
While Phuket tuk-tuks have four wheels compared to the three-wheelers in Bangkok, that extra wheel hardly seems to justify prices that are on par with those charged for air-conditioned taxi services in the world's most popular cities.
Natdanai Chaowana, a prominent tuk-tuk owner in Patong, says: "In Patong, everybody knows that it's 200 baht just to start the engine of a tuk-tuk." When asked why the cost is so high, he adds: "'Look at the economy of Phuket. Everything is expensive here."
Patong's police chief, Colonel Grissak Songmoonnark, says there are too many tuk-tuks on Phuket. There are about 500 in Patong alone, he says, not including unregistered vehicles. "Two hundred tuk-tuks would be enough for the whole island," he says.
"Problems arise because of the rivalry between the tuk-tuk groups, which means they often cannot make pick-ups so return trips are usually made empty. It should be 150 baht to travel from Karon to Patong but because the driver has to return empty, he charges 300 baht."
Tourists and expat residents have used internet chat sites to call for a boycott, petitions and the introduction of a proper public transport system on Phuket.
Visitors to Phuket can hire cars or motorcycles or catch slow buses from Patong on the west coast to Phuket City on the east coast. Taxis from the airport, for example, can drop passengers in Patong, Karon and Kata but they cannot pick up passengers.
There are no buses linking the popular west-coast beaches, so tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis have a monopoly along the west coast.
It is widely acknowledged that tuk-tuk drivers have supporters in local government, resulting in growing pressure for intervention by the Thai government. Even Phuket's powerful provincial governor, Wichai Praisa-ngob, who recently forced unscrupulous jet-ski operators to pay for compulsory insurance, seems unable to rein in the "the tuk-tuk mafia".