#RealTravel: Tuk-Tuk Love - The Offbeat Way One Couple Explored Sri Lanka

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Steph, Tony, and their Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Steph Harrison)

Who: Stephenie Harrison (31) & Tony Kuehn (31)

How did you meet? Our meeting sounds a bit like the plot of a romantic comedy: We met through an online dating service that matched us up as 100% perfect matches! We went out for a coffee date, which became a dinner date, and were pretty much inseparable ever since. Two years after meeting, we got married, and three years after that, we left everything behind to travel the world!

Why did you plan this trip? During the course of our relationship, we took a lot of domestic trips around the United States. But due to limited vacation days, we could never find the time to take a real trip. We eventually decided to just save as much money as we could over the course of three years and just travel for as long as we could afford to.

Where did you start? We figured that Asia was a place that we would have the most difficulty squeezing into a regular vacation schedule in the future, and it was also a part of the world that we felt our travel fund would stretch much further. We wound up booking one-way tickets to Tokyo, Japan. We left in August 2012 and eventually made our way to Lisbon, Portugal, before returning home (to Toronto, Canada) in June 2014.

How many countries have you visited so far and how long do you plan to stay on the road? During our travels, we managed to visit 21 countries over the course of 22.5 months.


A typical Sri Lanka coastline (Photo: Steph Harrison)

Why did you decide to visit Sri Lanka? We spent the bulk of our travels in Asia. All told, we spent about 21 months out of our 22.5-month trip there. When we realized our travel time was winding down, we began looking at flights that would get us over to Europe for a few weeks before we truly went home. As I was investigating flights out of Bangkok, I found a pretty good deal on tickets to Sri Lanka and knew I would regret it if we didn’t pop in on our way westward. Based on photos I had seen, it looked like an absolute paradise.

How long did you stay there? We spent 24 days — just over three weeks — exploring Sri Lanka. Visitors must apply for an e-visa in advance (for Canadian & U.S. citizens, it costs $30), which allows you to stay for 30 days.

How did you plan to move around before you decided to rent a tuk-tuk? Sri Lanka has a fairly extensive train network that boasts some wonderfully scenic trips and is known for having very affordable public buses. So before we discovered we could rent our own tuk-tuk, we expected we would be relying on both of those modes of transport quite heavily. We had also explored the idea of traveling around Sri Lanka on motorbike, like we did in Vietnam.

Related: Buckle Up! 10 Cities with the Scariest Transportation


A tuk tuk in front of a Hindu shrine near Ambalangoda. (Photo: Steph Harrison)

How did you learn you could rent one? Tony found one agency, Pick & Go Travels, that had good reviews and quite a few motorbikes he was interested in. Once I realized that we had the option to drive our own tuk-tuk around the country, I become obsessed with the idea. It was, quite honestly, the coolest thing either of us could possibly imagine doing. We knew that a tuk-tuk would also make transporting our bags a whole lot easier and it would offer us shelter should the weather turn on us. … We wound up being grateful for King Tuk’s (the name we gave our tuk-tuk) roof many times during our time in Sri Lanka.

Tell us about going to pick it up — did you have to get a driver’s license? We arranged the rental in advance over e-mail, and picking the tuk-tuk up was as simple as signing some papers and leaving a deposit. Sri Lanka requires an international driver’s license with the correct endorsement to operate any vehicle in the country, which we knew in advance. Luckily, Tony had his license already, with a motorcycle/three-wheeler endorsement, so in terms of legal driving status we were set. It’s a good thing that Tony did have the permit (and the little book it comes with), because every policeman that pulled us over checked for it.

The rental agency provided us with about a half-hour of training in an empty field near the beach before we left to get us familiar with the finer points of three-wheeled travel (learning how to use reverse was a big one). Once the owner was confident in Tony’s skills, he turned him loose on the streets of Negombo so we could get used to navigating the tuk-tuk in Sri Lankan traffic.


King Tuk in the jungle north of Mirissa. (Photo: Steph Harrison)

Tell us about maintenance — did it break down? We never had to do anything to the tuk-tuk other than put gas in it. That said, it did suffer a pretty serious gas leak before we left the rental agency (pointed out by a nearby, well-wishing tuk-tuk driver), but the leak was just due to the failure of an in-line gas filter and was quickly fixed.

In terms of advice, the owner accepted full responsibility for the tuk-tuk in terms of the engine and drivetrain, or anything else that might fail through no fault of our own (brakes, electrical, things that wear out, etc.).

What’s the experience like in riding along in a tuk-tuk? Not only do you get protection from the elements (not just the rain, but also the sun — it gets really hot in Sri Lanka), but tuk-tuk seats are actually comfortable (which is saying a lot, because some of the roads we drove down were more pothole than anything else).

Related: #Daydream: Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka


Kin Tuk on a back road near Arugam Bay (Photo: Steph Harrison)

We ended up visiting 11 different cities and traveling about 1,600km in King Tuk. There is something about a tuk-tuk that makes you feel more connected to your surroundings than traveling by car or bus would allow; maybe it’s because — apart from the windshield — the tuk-tuk is open to the sounds and smells of the world around you. We constantly found that it took us about twice as long to get places than we thought, simply because we were always stopping to explore something we spotted, take some photos, or just enjoy the beauty of what was around us.

Also, it must be said that riding around Sri Lanka in your own tuk-tuk is probably the closest to feeling like rock stars as we will ever get! People would do double and triple takes when they saw two foreigners putting down the road, and these would inevitably transform into smiles, waves, and plenty of thumbs-up as well. Locals were genuinely excited that we were visiting their country, but even more than that, they loved that we were traveling by what they clearly consider the “Sri Lankan way.”


King Tuk on the nighttime streets of Galle (Photo: Steph Harrison)

What’s it like driving in Sri Lanka? Driving in Southeast Asia is really best left to someone who is very experienced or has no fear of danger. The rules, methods, and traffic patterns are completely different from what we’re used to, and no amount of Western driving can prepare someone for that.

What was the scariest moment? It is practically unheard of for foreigners to drive their own tuk-tuks, so we got pulled over by the police a few times so they could check our paperwork.

What have you learned from being a couple on the road? A few months back, there was this great quote by Bill Murray that went viral. “If you have someone that you think is the one,” he said, “take that person and travel around the world. Buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all around the world and go to places that are hard to go to and hard to get out of. And if when you come back to JFK, when you land in JFK, and you’re still in love with that person, get married at the airport.”


Steph and Tony drove 1,600km across Sri Lanka in their tuk tuk. (Photo: Steph Harrison)

That’s dramatic relationship advice, to be sure, but it’s definitely true that traveling both stresses and strengthens your relationship with a person in a way that everyday living just doesn’t. I think we learned things about each other and about how we communicate as a couple that might have taken a decade or two to otherwise reveal.

If you can spend every single second of every single day together for nearly two years and come out the other side still in love with the other person and still excited to keep spending time with them, I think you know you’ve found “the one.” We celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary a week after arriving back from our trip, but in some ways, it feels like we’ve now been married for so much longer!

(As told to Jenny Adams)

You can read more about Steph & Tony’s travel adventures—including their whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka—at their blog Twenty Years Hence.

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