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To Taxi, Or Not To Taxi



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

One of the major problems that we all face is how to get around town. There is a fair amount of public transportation available in Thailand, the most variety being in the capital. You do get to see some other innovative means of getting around in the countryside, but that is out of the context of this article.

When I first got here all those years ago, I was renting a place out near where the last skytrain station ends, at Onnut. These days, it takes a little over fifteen minutes to get from Siam Square to Onnut, a far cry from what it was in those days. That journey used to take at least three hours, on an un-air-conditioned bus literally shoulder-to-shoulder with the person next to you. It cost only two baht for that privilege. The air-conditioned buses were few and far between. But that two-baht bus was the only really viable option, other than just walking from one place to another. The main reason for that was that only the buses could duplicate the exact route both going and coming, with a special lane going the wrong – oops, I meant opposite way down a one-way street. In my first couple of weeks here, I learnt very quickly that it was (and still is) very necessary to look both up and down any one-way street several times before attempting to cross – just in case something would come down the ‘wrong’ way. My mind was still attuned to the ‘Farangland’ way of doing things, so I could not fathom the complete and utter breakdown of logic that seemed to affect almost every person behind the wheel. After all, the paint on the road and those flashing coloured lights at the junctions should indicate what rules should be followed… right?

There were no fines for jaywalking back then. But then again, there were almost no pedestrian overpasses either. Who needed them? Traffic was so gridlocked you could stroll between cars to cross the road at your leisure. The one thing that you had to be careful of when doing that would be meeting one of those swarms of motorcyclists that were also trying to do the same thing – dodging between cars – but they would be pointed in the same general direction as the cars and would be going as quick as they could under the circumstances. Heavens, you could have been clouted by the lovely legs of that mini-skirted female somehow quite firmly planted side-saddle on the seat…

Taking the bus was an experience in itself. Everything back then was written in Thai script, so if you didn’t read the language you’d have a problem. Not all buses with the same numbers went on the same route. The non-air-conditioned bus would go one way, a similar-numbered air-conditioned bus would take a completely different route, and if you came across the privately operated micro-buses (typically green, driven by the driver from the netherworld, or about to get there) their route would be different too. There was even a variation on the theme – if your favourite number had a ‘gor-gai’ (that’s the Thai equivalent of ‘A’) tacked on to the main number, it meant the bus would do a major detour through some large village along the route, eventually emerging quite far up on the standard route and continue the journey. Woe betide you if you had to get off halfway. The last variation was for the air-conditioned buses. If the plate that displayed the bus number had a yellow stripe across it, that meant it was going the quickest (in those days) route. This typically meant that you’d be sweating on the Wipawadee-Rangsit highway instead of the parallel Pahonyothin road, and without an option to get off, as this was considered the ‘express’ bus. What this really meant to the driver was that he could sail past more bus-stops than he usually would and you’d end up with a long walk back to where you originally planned to get off. Getting on and off the buses was another thing again. Total chaos would reign at the sight of the approaching bus, with everyone trying to second-guess each other and the bus driver and hope to be the nearest to the bus so you could fight your way on board. That is, if the bus driver decided that he wouldn’t sail past the bus stop. I’d see a packed bus approach, and slow down as if to stop. The crowd would surge in that direction, then you’d see the bus suddenly pick up speed and sail past in the outer lane. They didn’t have pneumatic doors back then, so a lot of people would be literally hanging on out the door by their fingernails. You should have seen the fun when they DID introduce them.

Taxis back then did not have meters, so you would bargain with the driver, depending on destination and time of day. If you didn’t know the average price for that time of day you’d get fleeced. The taxis themselves were rattletraps – the main reason for that was that taxi registration plates were limited and that the number plate was more valuable than the taxi itself. That, of course, has changed. I watched with apprehension when the first metered taxis were introduced. Traffic was still quite notorious then, and people were worried that the meter would ‘jump’ even if the taxi was stuck in traffic. The drivers were rubbing their hands with glee. Fortunately, with the introduction of more and more metered taxis, more people had to use them, and started to find out that it averaged out much better, to the point that if the taxi did not have a meter, the driver would have a problem getting a fare.

These days, taxis abound, and they are in pretty good condition. On one hand, this is good, as you know the air conditioner will actually blow a stream of cold air throughout the journey. On the other hand, the taxi drivers think they are on a racetrack and try to drive as though they are on one in rush-hour traffic. The drivers themselves range in demeanour from the old slow-as-a-tortoise old-timer to the fringe lunatic. You’re stuck with what you get for the duration of the ride. But on the bright side, if you do speak the language, it can make for some interesting conversations.

Taking a taxi is another matter. As a long time resident, I don’t usually run into problems, as I know the routes and am prepared to pay toll charges if I think it’s the way to go. But for the visitor, it’s another matter. My mother and sister were here recently and wanted to do some shopping around the Pratunam / Mahboonkrong area. The taxis in the queue would ask ‘What hotel?’ And when mum would say ‘No hotel’ they weren’t happy. When they finally got one, my sister called me (She had her phone on roaming, so it had to be her). ‘The driver wants three hundred baht.’ ‘Tell him to turn on his meter.’ ‘He doesn’t want to. You talk to him.’ And then hands the phone to the driver. I talk to him in Thai. ‘Three hundred baht is too much.’ ‘It is very far.’ ‘Why don’t you turn on the meter?’ ‘Traffic is very bad.’ ‘So you don’t want to go.’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay, mai pen rai (never mind) let me talk to my sister.’ When she gets back on the phone, I told her to get another cab, which she did. The next guy was much nicer, and he knew how to get to my place. Mum was happy with the ride, and he didn’t take any tolls, which was unnecessary anyway. The metered fare when he pulled up in front of my house was just over a hundred and forty baht. I gave him a hundred and eighty and thanked him, and he looked very happy to get it. There are some nice ones out there. So if you do have to take a taxi, have an idea where you’re going and make sure the meter is on.

Having been here this long, I do drive. In many cases it is a necessary evil. I don’t work in the city center itself, so parking on the company’s premises is not a problem. I’ll typically send my wife and son to a pick-up point where she has company transport waiting, and he gets the minibus going towards town, where the school is. I’ll pick him up after school at a designated meeting point, but if I can’t, I’ll call. Yes, a mobile phone is another necessary evil. He has enough ‘extra money’ to take a taxi home in a situation like this.

But if I’m going into town, or am going to have a night in town, I’ll leave the car at home and take a taxi… at least I’ll be able to enjoy the beers without the thought of having to worry about driving back later hanging on my conscience.

Stickman's thoughts:

Wow, it really must have been awful back in the old days, because frankly, if you're stuck in traffic now anywhere away form where the skytrain and underground go then it is pretty bad. And I could not agree more than having your own car and a mobile are necessary evils in the modern Thailand.