Interesting things happen to me every day in Bangkok, and remarkable things happen on a regular basis. I don’t write-up every separate occurrence. This story, however, is awesome for several reasons. In two completely different ways it illustrates the deep, wide river of goodness that runs through Thai culture.
A friend and I took a cab ride yesterday from my campus to the Mall Bangkapi. This is a ride that I have taken hundreds of times by now. It takes about twelve minutes. Generally I love to talk to the drivers, and I learn a lot from those conversations. This fellow yesterday seemed like the quiet type, though, and I usually leave them to their meditations if that appears to be their style. I spoke a bit with my friend, the usual combination of mostly English with a little Thai, and we let the fellow just drive.
Within a couple of minutes I noticed that in the door panels in the back there were bottles of drinking water, two on the right and two on the left. They were new, not refills. They still had the plastic around the tops. This was very unusual. I casually looked up front and the driver had a couple of refill bottles up there for himself. It was obvious that the new bottles were there for customers’ use and convenience, if needed. I didn’t think that I had ever seen this before, and it made an impression on me. It also reminded me of a similar custom that I had observed in the north of Thailand.
I spent three years living in the province of Phrae, way up in the mountains. It was two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and one year on my own teaching high school English. I noticed early on that many of the houses had water bottles outside of the gates, which seemed a curious thing. When I asked a Thai friend about it, she explained that it was a northern custom to leave water outside for travelers. Many people walk long distances, and Thailand is a hot country. If one of the walkers gets thirsty, the water is there for them, and they can just help themselves. It seemed to me that the water bottles in the taxi mirrored this brotherly consideration for the needs of others. So I asked the driver about it.
“Excuse me,” I asked the driver (in Thai), “may I ask you? Are you from a northern province?” “Ah, yes, I’m from Sukhothai.” He seemed surprised at this question coming from a Farang, especially since I had guessed correctly that he was from the north. I told him about my Phrae experience and the custom with the water, and he told me that they do that in Sukhothai as well. "You putting this water in your cab made me think of that." I don’t think he had ever really made the connection to why he left water in the cab, and he had a good laugh when he realized that they seemed to be related events. We then had a nice conversation about brotherhood and community, and the wisdom of people helping one another. We got to the mall, and I gave him what in Thailand is a very good tip (35%). “You’re a good man,” I said, “very nice to talk to you!” He laughed out loud again, and that was that.
Or so it would seem, anyway.
At the mall, I went to the Dunkin Donuts to have a coffee with a Farang friend of mine, and my Thai friend went to do a little shopping on her own. After an hour or so she came to the Dunkin and said, “I have a problem!”
She had left her phone in the cab. She told a confused story about going to the “PR” at the mall, somebody called somebody, and the driver was on his way back to the mall with the phone. It seemed to be a dubious proposition, because considerable time had elapsed and we had no taxi number, no drivers’ license number, or any other information about the cab, but who knows? Maybe it’ll work. I talked it over with my Farang friend and I decided that 300 Baht ($10) would be a fair reward for such a thing. Thai people usually don’t think about tips or rewards. My friend went outside to wait at the taxi line, which we could see from the Dunkin.
Sure enough, the taxi returned, and after a brief exchange my friend came back in waving the phone and smiling from ear to ear. It was just a mid-line WuaWai, but still worth about $175 new (replacement value). The driver had seen the phone and thrown it onto the seat next to him while he took a couple of other rides.
The “PR” turned out to be "public relations," the customer service office of the mall. They had the phone number for “lost and found” in Bangkok taxis, but that service couldn’t help without any information. Then they tried calling the phone itself, and the taxi driver answered it! He remembered us, of course. After that conversation that we’d had he would remember us for at least six months, and tell his friends the story over drinks. He said, sure, I’ll come back now. My friend said, “turn the meter on,” and the guy had another good laugh about that. Meter, schmeeter, I’ll be right there. It had taken him almost half an hour to return to the mall, with the meter off, not expecting a nickel. Having 300 Baht forced on him was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
Bear in mind that the driver could easily have sold the phone for about sixty bucks. Bangkok is full of places of all sizes selling used phones, and they will buy a working phone for about half of what they can sell it for. This phone, in its present condition, would sell for about 4,000 Baht (that’s $120). Over here, you can buy a used phone, buy a new SIM card and phone number for two dollars, and take it to a service provider to set up an account right away. Very easy.
I don’t know about you, but to me that qualifies as an altogether remarkable story, in all of its particulars. I love it when people ask me, “Fred, do you feel safe in Thailand?” Why yes, I tell them, I do feel safe. No place on earth is perfect, but Thais can be so cooperative and hospitable that it’s almost enough to restore your confidence in human nature. These days, I can use a bit of reminding from time to time that some things, somewhere, are still going very well.