Friday, March 11, 2016

Bangkok Taxi Drivers

Disclaimer: There are no complaints here. I love our taxi drivers here in my adopted city, Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post yesterday reported that the government is planning a crackdown on taxi drivers in our fair city. While the Thai government allowed that most taxi drivers are fine, they say that they are responding to a lot of complaints, mostly from foreigners but also from Thai people. The complaints center around being ignored while hailing a cab; the driver refusing to go to the desired destination; and the driver asking for a flat rate in lieu of using the meter. When you put it like that, it sounds like a big problem.

But if there is a problem, it’s rather a small one.

I have a special window on this issue, because I’ve actually driven cabs for a living. I did it for two years in New York City and a couple of months in Los Angeles, all at night. So I’m sympathetic to taxi drivers. Let the record show that I remain a very good tipper to this day.

I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost nine years now, and I take cabs all the time. I take multiple short rides almost daily, and I take long rides pretty frequently, too. Sure, I get ignored sometimes, maybe even with a wave off, but it’s rare.

Maybe the guy's on a radio call, but maybe it’s because I am Farang. Many cabs have radios; many drivers use their phones to get rides; and there are a few Internet services now where you can order a cab. So there’s that. And the Farang thing, Farang often want to go to high traffic areas like Sukumwit Road, or Silom. That just eats up time, and for a taxi driver, time is money. Also, most Farang don’t speak Thai. None of the tourists, anyway. That makes it hard on the driver. Maybe the driver has had bad experiences with Farang, I know that it happens often. So I understand.

There are also times when a driver tells me no, he ain’t going there. Several times a year I must go to the immigration office. That’s really far away, and it’s off the beaten track. When I go, I leave in the early morning, during peak traffic hours. It’s a tough ride. Sorry, but I’ve got to go. If I do get a refusal, again rarely, the next cab almost every time says, “sure, get in.”  I encourage them to take the motorway, where I will pay the tolls, and I tip them generously when we get there, but they don’t know that at the outset. Most of them, by far, say yes because it’s their job. Thais are very proud people. Whether they are selling you food or driving your cab, they really want you to be happy with the job that they do for you. (That’s why you can safely eat the street food in Thailand, not like some places.)

I also get the “no meter” thing sometimes. Again, rarely. If I’m alone, they just say, “200 Baht” or something, for a ride that I know will only make 80 Baht on the meter. If I’m with a Thai person, they might say, “meter . . . broken.” Speaking Thai comes in very handy when this happens. I’ve taken so many cab rides that I know what the fare will be within a few percent. “Up to you,” I tell them in Thai, “but I take this ride all the time and it’s 60 Baht, and that’s all you’re getting.” At that point they usually laugh and turn on the meter. At the end I give them a 15 Baht tip anyway. No harm in trying to gouge a foreigner. That happens in every big city in the world. I never did it myself, but I knew a lot of guys that did.

Actually, I’m very fond of the taxi drivers in Bangkok, and very well satisfied with the service that they provide. It’s cheap, for one thing, the rates have hardly changed at all for over ten years. And most of these guys are very likeable. Very often I have a riotous good time talking with them. It’s very interesting. Thai people in general love to talk together, and the taxi drivers are no exception. Many times, when the driver discovers that my Thai is okay, he is delighted at the opportunity to talk to a Farang. (Very few drivers can speak English at all, but that happens once in a while, too.) Speaking with a person who has a marginal grip on your own language is an art, and I can tell you that most people can’t do it. You must speak slowly and use simple words and constructions. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Of all the people that I talk to, taxi drivers are about the best at keeping it simple and saying it slowly. They’re very sympathetic listeners as well. They fill in the tones that I miss and they can read the meaning in my often oddly phrased Thai. They’ve spoken to Farang before, and they know what works. This makes the experience a good lesson for me, and a real confidence builder, too.

So I hope that the government isn’t too hard on the taxi drivers. They’re talking about some pretty severe penalties, big fines and even jail for some things. These guys have been a big help to me for a long time now. They have helped me to get as far with the language as I have. I like them, and I wish them the best of luck in this uncertain world. In the spirit of St. Joseph, Jesus’s dad, who speaks for the working man in heaven, I bless them and call them friends. 

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