Monday, September 18, 2017

The Method And The Madcap Of Bangkok Taxis

I’ve spoken about Bangkok taxi drivers over the years, but here’s the short version for anybody who may not be in the loop: In most instances, it’s a terrific service at bargain prices. Most of the drivers by far are honest, helpful, and cheerful. Almost none of them speak English, but that’s not a problem for me. (If the no-English is a problem for you, if you are a tourist, that is, always have someone write down where you’re going to go, and the location that you wish to return to, in Thai. Also have them ballpark the meter price and write that down as well. If the driver wants to quote you a price, which he might do if you are at touristy places and it’s obviously your first time in the big city, keep insisting on the meter price and get out if he says that it’s broken.)

The prices really are bargain-basement these days. The fares have hardly changed at all in over ten years, during which time everything has gotten more expensive. They can do it because in the meantime almost all of the cabs have been modified to run on natural gas, which saves them a fortune. The government has decided to pass this savings along to the passengers, which is great for us. I’m sure that it pisses off the drivers, and I totally sympathize with them. They love it when I’m familiar with all of this and we discuss it.

The Rain

The drivers also love it when they find out that I drove taxis in New York for a few years, long, long ago. We can compare notes about traffic jams, and “going to Brooklyn,” etc. They are slightly horrified to find out about the taxi police in New York. Having to follow all of the rules, all of the time, is a shocking and terrible concept to them. Another giant difference between our experiences is the effect of a rainy day on driving the taxi.

Over my ten years of living here I have discovered that taxi drivers really, really hate the rain. Not only does it make for hellish experiences just trying to get around, but their daily income is dramatically reduced by rain. This is the tropics, don’t forget, so rain can come in volumes that can be quite shocking, causing flash floods ankle deep from sidewalk to sidewalk. In low spots, of which there are many, it can be up over the hubcaps with stalled cars out there in the middle. There’s never an easy way to go around any kind of obstruction, either. Bangkok is an old city, and any city in the world that is much older than the automobile itself will create a traffic nightmare. There are never enough roads, and the roads that exist are too small. So, a lot of rain really mucks up the works.

And it doesn’t even take a lot of rain! The other day, a Sunday, it was hardly raining at all. It was one of those days where the sky remains fairly bright, and the birds continue to sing, but it sprinkles for four minutes out of every ten. In Ireland, that’s not even rain. They would just call it a “soft day,” and send the kids out to play in a sweater. In Bangkok, it is sufficient to slow the traffic everywhere down to a crawl. Even in rain conditions like that, the driver’s income suffers a lot. Every trip takes twice as long as it would in dry conditions. The meters do keep track of “waiting time” as a way to bill for the extra time spent sitting in traffic, but it’s too little to make much of a difference. My ride home from the mall would usually be seventy baht, taking about fifteen minutes (a bit less, actually). With this tiny bit of a shower, off and on, the ride took over half an hour, with only 90 baht showing on the meter. This is a big hit over the course of an entire day, and it only gets worse as the volume of rain goes up, and forget it if there is any appreciable flooding.

I explain to the drivers that way back in the old days, in Noo Yawk City, we didn’t really mind the rain. Sure, it slowed the traffic down, and it made the job of driving a bit harder, but it also meant that everybody on the street wanted a cab all of a sudden. The door hardly shut when someone got out without someone else climbing in. We made more money if it rained. The Bangkok drivers find this fact amazing. That result is impossible as a matter of demographics in Bangkok. In New York, many people who usually walk to the avenue and get the subway or, God forbid, a bus, actually have the money in their pocket to take a cab. It wouldn’t kill them to take the cab. The subway is very close, however, and the cab would be an extravagance. They will save the money for something else, a trip to Zabar’s or something. When it rains, they figure “fuck it, I’m taking the cab.” In Bangkok, the people on the bus do not have the money to take the cab. They don’t even have the money to take the Bangkok subway, which is very nice but a bit expensive. These are people who wait at bus stops for the un-air-conditioned buses, because they cost eighteen cents instead of sixty cents. You may believe me, the air-conditioned buses are a much more comfortable ride in the tropics, but there you have it. The harsh reality of money is that you can’t spend it if you don’t have it, and once you spend it, you no longer have it to spend on anything else. Like dinner.

The Party

Taxi drivers in any country enjoy a good conversation to break up the monotony of driving around in circles all day. Thais in general love to talk together, so there’s almost always a conversation going on in a taxi carrying passengers. Here’s where the madcap comes in. It often turns into a laugh riot.

I don’t know what it is, but Thais who have just met each other can be laughing and chatting like old school chums within thirty seconds or so. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Thai is not a world language, meaning that if you speak Thai you probably are, indeed, Thai. So there’s a connection right away. Not like English, where if someone is speaking English, you still have no idea where they come from. Even if they have a strong African accent, they could easily be from Patterson, New Jersey.

On that semi-rainy Sunday, our driver was a woman. This is rare in Bangkok, but not exactly “alert the media” rare. This woman was about forty-five years old, and she was on the sturdy side. She wasn't fat; she looked strong. She was very friendly, and she was in equal measure friendly and butch. She was dressed all in black, the sides of her head were shaved down to almost nothing, and there were multiple piercings in her ears. To say that she was gregarious would be putting it mildly.

She immediately struck up a conversation with my friend, and within one minute they were laughing together and telling secrets. I don’t interfere when this happens, let the Thai people have fun, God bless them. I could kind of follow the gist of it, partly they were talking about me. After five minutes of intense listening I said something appropriate. The driver was overjoyed! We spoke for a couple of minutes so she could grade my efforts at Thai, and then she praised me in a way that was overgenerous. Now we were all friends, and the level of fun jumped up to almost illegal. If you saw three people having that much fun inside an air-conditioned car with the windows up, you would wonder what they were doing, but this is Thailand. Three people, gesturing with their hands and laughing uproariously in a moving car is not unusual.

These are just some of the reasons that I love living in Thailand. It’s a beautiful place, with lovely people, great weather, and terrific food. It’s a safe place where most of the customary services are available and up to world standards. Most prices are reasonable, and, importantly, it’s where my job is! I like it here. I think I’ll stay. 

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