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!