There are few topics that get Bangkok locals more riled up than Bangkok taxi drivers. I have had many furious arguments about this topic, and have rarely had anyone agree with me. I fall back on the Oscar Wilde quote “Whenever people agree with me I realise I must be wrong”.
Bangkok cabbies are awesome! The glue that holds the city together, or any such other cliché that might fit. Why do people do nothing but moan about them? I hear it all the time; the driving, the scamming, the refusal of fares, the overcharging, the bad music, the loud music etc.
Let me first admit, I have had some bad experiences in Bangkok taxis, and at least twice they were almost terrifying. However, these are the exceptions that prove my rule.
One time when I was getting a taxi back to Thong Lo from Phetburi rent-a-car, particularly lives in the memory. The alarm bells rang as soon as I sat down, a pimped up little red steering wheel, with lots of wires, and jangling of amulets. The second he revved off at ludicrous speed with a red light approaching, I contemplated asking him to stop. He was watching a movie, but was also playing loud luk thung music - I assume for me as he had headphones attached to his cheap movie player. He insisted on showing off his driving skills by driving at stupid speeds, and slowing down at the last possible moment. Fortunately the journey was short and I spent it wondering how I would be taken to hospital IF I survived the inevitable crash.
I am prepared to also admit the story is not so positive if you are trying to catch a taxi from popular night-life areas late at night, where one will frequently experience the slowdown and refusal when they hear your destination. Is this really something to get wound up about though? Yes, I realise it's against the Taxi code, as they are not meant to refuse a fare. But come on, just walk on a bit or be patient.
As for the scammer, honestly I can count on one hand the number of times a taxi driver has tried to refuse the meter. This surely can't all be down to my Thai speaking skills which have certainly never been better than mediocre. Yet others insist it always happens. Perhaps I don't take enough taxis drunk at 2am at the top of Soi Nana! I do remember one marvellous attempted scammer, way back in the day, around 2005. I hailed a taxi at the top of Sukhumvit Soi 103/1 just beyond Udom Suk. I was taking a rare excursion to Khao San Road. I told him, he turned the meter on and began to drive. After a hundred metres he looked at me in the mirror and said '500 baht', I laughed and said 'meter khrap!' He shrugged and drove on. I imagine that Khao San was a sort of sign that this guy should be given an inflated fare, but it seems he had forgotten this rule of the road.
Those negative experiences are few. I have had some wonderful experiences in a taxi, one time when a driver (with my agreement) went on a detour off Theperak Road in Samut Prakan. I admit I started to get a little bit peeved as it was longer than I thought, but he then pulled over and bought me a whole box of piping fresh Kanom Kok - the first time I had tasted this delight! A life changing afternoon.
When I was studying Thai, I went through that self-conscious nervous phase. My accent was bad, I felt a bit embarrassed trying to speak much in public. The one place I was confident? In the back of a Bangkok taxi! For the year that I was studying, the army of taxi drivers were my real-life teachers. Sure most conversations where pretty formulaic, did I like Thai food? What Thai food did I like? Was I married? Do I like Thai women etc. etc. But every so often I was able to really improve my skills and some drivers taught me new words and expressions that Thai people use, rather than my formal Thai from school.
One time, (this was the short period when my Thai was almost acceptable) I got into a conversation with a young taxi driver about sexuality, kicked off by some comment made about a kathoey on the side of the road. I asked him during the conversation if he'd ever slept with a man or a lady boy. He casually answered that no he wasn't interested in that, and the conversation continued. Now, whether you hail from the US, the UK, Australia, or Timbuktu, I ask you, would you feel confident asking a driver that at home?!
So give these guys a break, they are the heart that makes the city tick. They work long hours, they are remarkably cheap (in a city where prices have escalated over the last 15 years), and they are easy to grab, with one exception.... The Dreaded Trifecta. Imagine the scene, it's pay day, it's a Friday, and it's raining. You're stood opposite Central Bangna trying to get a taxi to On Nut. On those occasions, yes folks even I cursed the Bangkok Taxis!
"As someone who has always enjoyed the sport of 'People Watching', I quickly found Bangkok and specifically Nana one of the finest places in the world to partake. Nothing over the last 15 years has diminished the fascination this hobby exudes. Soi Cowboy is just too loud and bright and busy for me to get any good quality 'research' done. I have a favourite side soi of Sukhumvit Soi 4, usually relatively quiet and with a good watch on a number of short-time hotels. Occasionally you get the added joy of an innocent holiday maker checking into a hotel on the soi. I have identified many different personality types, but I'll outline some of the most common:
The Old Timer
The Old Timer, may or may not actually be old but he is relaxed and at ease with what is going on. He doesn't care what anyone thinks. He is under no illusions, if you chat with him he will happily tell you that he has just purchased a bar-girl for a quickie. He'll walk in with his girl laid back and they will usually leave together. You may even see them look quite friendly, on occasion they may even have a night-cap together, so to speak.
One of the most enjoyable punters to observe. This chap doesn't want anyone to know what he is doing, he feels utterly ashamed at his actions. He's wondering what his dear old mum would think if she saw him. So he will walk slowly either 3 feet in front of or behind his lady. He will try to look like he is innocently wandering down this sub soi (perhaps just looking for a 7-11?) and then he will make a sudden dash into a short-time hotel. He will awkwardly stand and let his 'friend' sort out the details. He will always leave either before of after. You'll never see him leave with his friend. Try to catch his eye and grin as he walks out, and this will add to his shame.
The Delusional youngster
The delusional youngster tends to be aged below 35, and will want you to think he is out with his girlfriend or an old friend, perhaps work colleagues on a drink out? He'll be laughing loudly at something, he might have his arm around her at times. He'll be trying to make it really clear to anyone watching that there is nothing unusual going on. Some of them do actually believe they are different from the other punters. "You see there's a difference between fat falang and someone like me. With me, the girls are actually attracted and may want to date me." Words I've made up? Nope that's a direct quote from a delusional chap I spoke with once!
The morally outraged
The morally outraged may be the best of them all. He will be utterly appalled at what goes on in Nana. He will speak quite vocally about the exploitation and how wrong it is. He will proudly lecture you about his fine feminist credentials. If he works in Bangkok he will have a number of female farang friends who think he gets it, he understands why it's all so wrong. After about a year in Bangkok he will crack, and just once he will pay for sex. Not from a bar, no no he doesn't believe in that sort of behaviour. He will use a smartphone app, the first time. Then a massage parlour in a quiet part of town where he will never be seen by people he knows. He will continue to voice his outrage as he becomes a regular user of commercial sex. A wonderfully confused individual!
There are many more, Bangkok and Nana are nuanced subtle places, nothing is simple! Many of these characters and their bizarre stories are featured in my novel 'Bangkok Delusions', available here.
Blog coming soon!
Great news folks! You'll soon be able to read regular ramblings and rants of the random, bizarre, and general nonsense that gets into my head!
Zach J Brodsky is a writer, traveler, and avid people watcher. His first novel Bangkok Delusions follows some classic Bangkok characters and their bizarre antics.