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Behind The Saffron Smile And Other Taxi-ing Problems



Behind The Saffron Smile + Other Taxi-ing Problems


I read with horror yesterday how two innocent young British backpackers were mercilessly gunned down in the town of Kanchanaburi, Central Thailand on the site of the Bridge on the River Kwai. A friend had forwarded an initial article to me earlier on, but I didn't take much notice until it appeared on the BBC World News.

Backpackers Adam Lloyd (25) and his female companion Vanessa Ascot (24) couldn't have imagined in their worst nightmare the horrific end they would suffer at the hands of this 'uniformed thug' from the provinces. Gunned down in a car evidently, and as poor Vanessa tried to run, she was brutally gunned down and shot at point blank range as she tried to flee or stop him, in the road. [it is unclear] Police Sergeant Somchai Visetsing aged 39, [prime suspect] fled the scene. Apparently reports are that he's already been in contact with his family saying he "wants to give himself up". There are unconfirmed reports too he's been in contact with the authorities, maybe even colleagues.

Further evidence suggests there was some form of interaction or altercation between the backpackers and the Police Sergeant in question, evidently following a fit of temper by her male colleague when stared at in a nearby restaurant. [By the off-duty Cop?] He simply didn't like the way she, or they were apparently being stared at supposedly by the off-duty Police Sergeant. Much of this is conjecture and we must all wait for the true evidence to be heard, and no doubt it will be played down as much as possible to avoid damaging the tourism industry.

Frankly stories of what happened are 'sketchy' at best, and one wonders if a cover-up's afoot here in the way it's been handled…. I often wonder when I've read other stories in the past, and it's evident to me, the Thai authorities will go to almost any length to play down a murder or even suicide. <I don't know if the government covers murders up but rather think it is more a case of incidents involving farangs not being reported in the local press. Just because there are a couple of English language newspapers doesn't necessarily mean that native English speakers are their target marketStick>

Worryingly, this utter disgrace to the Thai Police uniform may 'spirit himself away' across the Thai-Burma border if he hasn't already done so, evading capture for some time. Looking for him will be like looking for a needle in a haystack amid the jungles and small villages that pepper the Kanchanaburi province. Thaksin's decreed to leave no stone unturned to find him, appropriate terminology really as he's looking for a cockroach in effect….

Kanchanburi's sleepy and wartime legacy were rocked once before with another brutal killing of young British solo backpacker Jo Macheder in 1999. Bizarrely, she was approached by a monk who made improper advances, ending in him pushing her into a deep outside waste dump pit when caught off her guard. She died several hours later from her injuries evidently according to the Thai pathologist's report, owing to her lying unconscious for some considerable time, left for dead by the monk….

There's little or no doubt Thailand has its dangerous side as well as only what the tourist sees and hears about. Make no mistake, Thailand has its hidden dangers as does any country with a high proportion of poverty, LOS being no exception. To keep things in proportion, you infinitely at greater risk walking around cities like Rio De Janeiro, Mexico City, Nairobi or Johannesburg.

The most recent incident the other week in Thailand was definitely an isolated case, and an opportunistic rage-motivated killing by someone already over the edge in terms of job related stress or family problems. The incident with the backpackers was obviously enough to tip the balance, it probably would have happened sooner or later judging by his brutality, with another passing tourist.

Backpackers however, are at such greater risk than normal package-holiday tourists', – often going far off the beaten track to remote locations in search adventure or life-forging experiences and encounters. Unwittingly they make themselves easy or soft targets, often traveling in small groups or almost alone. Thailand has its fair share of criminals, but attacks seem more opportunistic than organised, or alcohol and rage induced when disputes arise with foreigners.

Undoubtedly, some tourists' and expats' behavior has incited violence and it must be stated that Thais by their turbulent historical virtues have a penchant for being violent only if and when confronted, or humiliated in some way. 'Loss of face' is a serious consequence to any Thai, even a bar girl….

Just watch some of their movies, (?) 'cruelty' in some form prevails in most of them, and even pervades into the more innocuous Thai soap opera. I'm not sure, but 'cruelty' might indirectly inflicted on those of us forced to watch them too at some bar, (!!) – they really are excruciatingly and unremittingly bad!! :) They make the U.S.'s stilted "Bold and the Beautiful" look like Oscar material…. Yet the Thais will sit religiously riveted to the spot, hanging onto to every melodramatic word and syllable. Designed to shock, that's for sure. Similarly to Indonesian soaps, there's the usual necessary ingredient of overly theatrical lady-boys and Kai Toy's for the comedic element…

The dangers in Thailand can be insidious and aren't always 'obvious' as they are in other cities I have mentioned, whereby organised and opportunistic crime is so prevalent, – I still feel so much safer walking around the streets of Bangkok than even some English cities I could mention. I'm sure many a Glaswegian or Londoner would agree with me too on that!

Potential problems lie everywhere though, and sadly the 2 British backpackers at the outset of this article tragically found out the hard way, but confrontations do sometimes occur, and can escalate to tragic conclusions.

Luckily for me personally, the most 'violent episode' I encountered was outside the U.S. Embassy when 'bailing out' of a taxi in a jam. In spite of me instructing him where to go to avoid traffic build-up, he went another way, thinking I was a first-time tourist maybe.
Anyway, I'd thrown the money into the front seat (60 baht) but it became lodged in the glove compartment in the door well. The driver didn't see it, and proceeded to assault me outside on the pavement… Whilst we were scuffling, I did try in vein to explain I'd paid him but he didn't understand until a woman happened by and stopped him. I was mad as hell and wanted to lay into him, but it was 'I' after all who was the foreigner here and out of my depth if things escalated. I was just grateful for the woman's intervention, and the taxi driver went on his way after uttering something obscene in Thai about foreigners. Somewhat livid about it, I just went on my way, flagging down another taxi but this was a stark reminder to me how we are in isolated cases seemingly 'hated' by our hosts looking for the slightest excuse to assail us. Thai taxi drivers are scurrilous and should in no way be used as any indication as to how Thais see foreigners. taxi drivers already have pretty severe financial problems and jaded views about tourists, – and anyway, you try driving around Bangkok all bloody day and night?

The incident shook me though quite frankly, I mean, I have a pretty low opinion of taxi drivers generally in these places, but this was a 'wake up call' and I negotiated taxis with infinitely greater caution after this incident in 2002.

1/ NEVER enter a taxi until he agrees to turn on the meter, preferably BEFORE you enter or sit down.

2/ if not, ALWAYS agree on the price an distance. [Especially with 'baht Buses' as in Pattaya for example] God, I hate baht Bus drivers and their fat stone-faced wives….*

3/ NEVER ARGUE with them, close the door and just walk on to the next cab.

4/ When inside, ALWAYS take note of the taxi cab number, usually stickers on the doors, this is essential if you have a complaint or lose something inside, as it's the only way you will ever trace a city cab.

5/ NEVER get into a fight with one, it's quite probable his mates will see and 'join in' and you DO NOT want to involve the Police if you possibly can, it might well backfire on you, and end up costing you more money…. Thai Police can be nefarious too.

6/ After midnight or the early hours, the same applies, meters are still applicable unless you don't care and are in a hurry. Just make sure it's a real cab with meter.

A recent trip to Pattaya in October of 2003 was 'tainted' with hassles getting around and having to rely on those bloody baht Buses. Known regulars or well heeled expats didn't seem to have toooo much of a problem, but they tried to rip me off every time. Trouble was I knew Pattaya like any expat, – and the distances. I always knew what it SHOULD cost, not the 50-60 baht bullshit fares they were asking for a 3 minute ride. Often their wives would sit stone faced quoting the fares in the cabs with them without even looking at you let alone smiling… I loathed them after a while and 'longed' to see a green & white taxi meter, 'his' protestations about using a meter would child's-play compared to this hard-faced and ruthless "baht Bus mafia." I hate 'em, hate 'em! Ahhhh!

Similarly a fun-trip on a Bangkok tuktuk turned equally 'sour' when the driver tried to ask for 200 baht from running us from Mahboonkrong shopping centre to Suriwong Road, near Patpong. (!!) After we'd agreed on 50 baht which was already TOO much, and his request for 200 baht was 'insulting' to say the least. During the ensuing row, I tried to wave and get the attention of a nearby traffic cop, but he just turned his head looked the other way… I thought things might just get ugly….

After some too-ing and fro-wing, I literally threw 50 baht at him, and made it clear if he came near or 'at' me he was gonna get it full on, after all we are physically bigger then they generally, which is sometimes advantageous and lucky for us. Ridiculous, bloody ridiculous so that was the last time I ever took a tuktuk!! ALWAYS make it abundantly clear how much you will pay, but their 'selective' hearing sometimes causes confusion….as on that day….

Like I said above, avoid arguments, [says he!!!] you'll invariably 'lose', or they might get violent and try to resolve the issue with a piece of lead pipe. If a foreigner gets too gung-ho over here and wades into an affray, he can get into a world of hurt with the Thais.. Farang tourists too, have their fare share of bully-boys and sometimes deliberately 'intimidate' the Thais.

Resolve any issues firmly but politely, never get abusive or force them to 'lose face' in front of their colleagues in a one-on-one argument or a 'head-to-head' confrontation. Just go to the Tourist Police and let them sort it out or 'mediate' the dispute at least. Don't got to just any cop, go to the Tourist Police, – at least they speak some English. Usually this will persuade the errant bar owner or taxi driver to relent, and surrender the ill-gotten cash. After all he doesn't want an encounter with the Police too.

A word about getting Taxis….

NEVER get into "just any cab" unless you are sure it is a bone-fide taxi meter, as Bangkok district does have its share of 'bogus' taxi drivers who may well be armed and dangerous. Don Muang Airport had problems with them in earlier days before tourism really took off. Some hapless lone foreigners went missing never to be found in the 60's and 70's, until the Police got a handle of the situation with bogus cabs. The Police did find a few shallow graves around Bangkok, but perpetrators were seldom found or brought to justice and often melted back into the hills or provinces from whence they came.

Taxis now are clearly marked in white and green, or red & white and unmistakable to even the novice tourist, clearly and brightly painted with phone numbers and logo's. Avoid old battered cabs with faded paintwork or dodgy looking drivers, they might not be 'real' or a "freelancer's" car, – driver unbound by the normal rules and regulations. This might be prevalent in the provinces more so than in Bangkok where legislation and control is tighter on them. Anyway, old cabs have usually knackered air conditioning!!

Even nowadays you should be on your guard and avoid taking those in-your-face Limousine services that touts bombard you with at the airport arrivals area, they're invariably over-priced and even unlicensed or 'improperly' insured.. Use the taxi / Limo desk reception counter if no transport is available for you on arrival. Getting a bona fide taxi meter into Bangkok's heart is always cheaper, about 200 baht as opposed to a Limo's 600 baht upward charge…. Or whatever the touts charge. Better still, pre-arrange a pick up with your hotel on arrival, it's so much easier.

As much as there are problems with Thais on isolated occasions, the ex-pat community too has its fare share of problems and violence. Attacks and murders between ex-pats is quite common when taught business practices have gone badly wrong. Suicides are common too among ex-pats who have nowhere else to go when things go wrong, of course all bad publicity for Thailand.

There's quite an ex-pat mafia forming now down in Pattaya for example, one to be reckoned with if you're thinking of owning or running a bar. Mainly innocuous, this 'soft' mafia stick together to help each other more than anything, and are usually up against the Thai authorities more often just trying to 'survive' some of the random laws thrown against them by an ever growing impatient Thai Government.

To wrap this up, I'd like to add that confrontations if happened upon, should at all costs be avoided, 'walk away' if you can and put it down to experience. Resolving the dispute with violence could start something else, or even prompt a later vengeance attack by the victims associates in a dark alley. Thais generally won't commit the act themselves, they'll get someone to do 'it' for them, and hiring 'hitmen' is quite easy, to either kill or maim. Amid the crowds of Bangkok at night are an element of men quite willing and able to do someone's bidding for a price, and you might want to consider this before going head to head or anyone considering beating up some mamasan or gogo girl, raping a bar girl and not paying her. [cos it's rape essentially] Thugs are quite often used to 'resolve' problems or issues that the police cannot. OR if someone 'cannot' involve the Police because of their own illegal practices or business. Trying to 'prove' this practice exists is difficult, and the perpetrators can melt away into the crowds as easily after their deed is done….and become untraceable.

Of course rich tourists on mega-budgets staying in the Oriental or Shangri La are hardly ever likely to come across these tribulations, let alone see Bangkok's seedier side and darkened underbelly. (!)

Remember, behind the Saffron smile, treat Thailand with respect and 'she' [Thailand] will respect you…As I said before…. (?)

Stickman's thoughts:

I have to say that 99% of the taxi drivers are very decent if you speak polite Thai. Most are chatty and interested in the lifestyles of Westerners. I cannot remember the last time one tried to rip me off but it was a long time ago.

What happened to those two British backpackers was terrible and shows what can happen when one chooses confrontation as opposed to just walking away.