Taxis, A Traveler’s Best Resource, or Worst Nightmare
Imagine your taxi stopping along a dark soi you didn’t want to go down and as it pulls up you notice there is 4-5 other taxi’s stopped with the drivers all out of their cars. You start to sweat a bit, looking to the sides and behind you it’s all dark, no farang friendly place in sight. Not even a streetlight. The driver hasn’t said a word since you decided to “own his taxi” and negotiated a price. You thought that was that, right? Suddenly the door opens and hands reach in and even though you try and resist they get a handful of your hair, a fist slams into your eye, and you’re being dragged out onto the ground. The ground is wet and you can smell it, but you can’t see anymore because your eyes are swollen closed. All you can do now is curl into a fetal position and pray the kicks stop coming while you still have most of your teeth. You remember what the area looked like, thinking it might be morning at least before they find your unconscious body. If the rats don’t snack on your nuts while you’re out.. “Owning a taxi” suddenly doesn’t seem like that great an idea.. it never should have been.
After close to 12 years in the Kingdom, full time, I am hard pressed to remember a bad experience with a taxi driver. Sure, I had my own vehicle but I used taxis all the time, skytrains, buses, and trains not so much. Often I’d enjoy chatting with the drivers, no other group had their ear to the ground as closely as the taxi drivers. Whatever I needed, whatever I needed to know, whoever I needed to see.. they were great.
First, you have to remember taxi drivers almost always rent their taxi. After the rental fee, fuel, and any repairs they’re on the hook for, they often make nothing. 200-300 baht for a day would be considered a great day driving a taxi. Many of the drivers are farmers who come down between planting season and harvest to make some extra money to keep their small farms afloat. They don’t rent a house or hotel during this time, they sleep on raised boards or maybe a shack if lucky tucked back from the view of the street and they bath from a hose or open pipe. I know, I’ve asked to see and taken pictures and interviewed them. I did a story for my Infocus column on the bus drivers who are very similar, but never ran the taxi driver story because it would have seemed like déjà vu for the readers.
How do you like that traffic? Ever drive in Bangkok? I have and after a long day driving clients around I was mentally beat up. It’s no fun as a passenger, it sucks as a driver. You must be super alert at all times, making thousands of small corrections to avoid accidents, your blood pressure is rising by the minute. All for a few baht. How would you react if after a day like that some foreigner jumps in your cab and tries to own it? Maybe you should ponder that for a bit before trying it.
Taxi drivers are a great resource. There is almost nothing they won’t do. Out of habit I take a quick pic of their hack license every time I step in a cab.. usually in the front seat. I don’t want to be caught in the back where I can’t reach the driver just in case some jerk had ruined his otherwise crappy day. I take the pic not to get them in trouble, but in the event I leave something behind I can tell the police WHICH TAXI I left the item in. That’s no guarantee you’ll get it back, but not all are dishonest, they might not even know your wallet slipped from your cargo shorts and is stuck down in the seat cushions.
But they notice the pic and I think overall it serves me well. I never mentioned it again or do it to be sure they’ll see me take it. I just do it. I had a taxi help me move once. I told him we’d be going between points A and B for most of the day and offered to pay him 1000 baht for the day. He turned the meter off and even helped lift and move stuff. None of my “friends” had time to help (who could blame them), but this man helped all day. I bought us lunch so we ate together and learned about each other’s families, and at the end of the day I felt like I’d made a friend (of course I hadn’t) and the driver made 2-3x what he normally would have made. 1000 baht? Cheap.
At times I didn’t have the time or feel like going to Panthip Plaza or a camera store for something, so I’d go down to my building taxi queue, and say “who wants to make some extra money?” I’d send them on their way with directions, a phone number for the contact, and if they were carrying money for me a wax sealed linen envelope. If they insisted on payment up front I’d offer to tear a bill I half and give them a non-torn one when they returned. That way they knew I wasn’t trying to con them. After a while they’d know me and we wouldn’t worry about small things like that.
Once when my Korean/American son was 15 and wanted to go to the “club” with friends from the building I asked a driver I knew from the queue downstairs to follow without him knowing and make sure nothing happened to him. He’d call me every 30 minutes with an update.. it was almost funny if I wasn’t worrying about my boy. He fit in just enough physically to get himself into places he shouldn’t be.
I’ve told the story before on how the apartment I shared with a lady was robbed. All her stuff taken, mine left behind, and how we had to pay the local police to find the thieves? Yep, she paid them.. actually negotiated with them.. baht 20,000.. and two days later all her stuff was there when she returned from work. In exactly the same spot from which it was taken. Obviously the thieves did the returning. What I didn’t tell you was I’d hired a taxi driver to keep a watch on the place and follow and find who it was, anyone leaving our apartment. By noon he’d called me with his report. Her Ex-husband, a fairly high ranking Army guy. I then understood why both times my Navy retirement certificate ended up on the floor. And no, I never told her who it was. I would have had it happened again. Knowledge is power.
Sometimes taxi drivers will stop right there on the street, flag down another taxi, and insist you transfer to that taxi. Know why? Some who live locally might be making dinner or some family event. But most of the time they want to be at a choice place at a choice time and they used you to get most of the way they would have driven anyway. No sweat, don’t take it personally, it’s fairly normal.
Here’s the deal. The more “different” you make yourself out to be from a taxi driver, the more chance you’ll have of something bad happening. You might not feel like it, but a smile and a bit of conversation, even if you don’t speak the language will go a long way. Point to one of his many pictures and ask about it. Point as his hack license picture taken ten years ago and joke about the differences. Ask about stuff you already knew, that you know is a source of Thai pride. I must have heard 100 different renditions of Victory Monument, or stories of Chuwit Park.
The worst experience I ever had: Songkran. Me and a few guests were out on the klongs taking pictures as we always did on Songkran night.. (making friends with Klong pilots is helpful to, especially if you must be somewhere in a hurry during bad traffic hours) We’d left our car safe and sound in the car park, so on the way back we flagged a taxi and we all crammed in only to learn he was high as a kite.. I think heroin from the tracks on his arms. We’d never been so glad to get out of a taxi..
Once when late for a flight a driver was pushing 150 to get me there on time. Smart on my part? Nope. Not at all. But I figure still safer than getting on the back of a motorsai taxi and whizzing through heavy traffic which guys (not me) do all the time.
I bought a new phone a few weeks back and when transferring data I noticed I had over 500 contacts.. which had long become a pain to sort through, especially since I’m not in the states and 300+ were Thai contacts. So I divided them up into user groups which worked out nicely. But I remember noticing about 100+ of these contacts were resources. Taxi drivers, Klong pilots, airport personnel, customs contacts, government officials. Resources I used (and held closely, so please don’t ask) when I needed to, knowing there would be a payback either upfront with money, or I’d owe a favor.. oh my.. Anyway, most of them were taxi drivers. Folks, this is how you make it successfully in Thailand. You right away start building contacts. I call them service contacts, unlike professional contacts I also have.
Look, I’m not condoning the scams many drivers try. But I do understand why they try them. I understand that after a long day making next to nothing that the chance to pick up a non-metered farang and maybe make more in one fare than they otherwise made all day is very attractive. Most of them though are part of a group, usually run by a friendly man in brown who works the area, and these are the worst. They’re also the last group of gentlemen you want to irritate or otherwise cross.
In 12 years I’ve had nary a trifling with the taxi drivers. In fact I’ve found them a useful and valuable resource. Speaking even just a bit of Thai and being mindful of your manners goes a long way towards a safe and happy trip. But the absolute worst advice you could ever receive is to otherwise try and force your way or will on the group of taxi drivers, (which are essentially part of a criminal enterprise), which surround the tourist areas. I mean really, I’d rather go sit with that giant tiger or stick my head in that giant crocks mouth, but neither is very smart.
Until next time..