I gasp as another taxi swerves across our lane and makes the highway exit just in time. “Thailand!” my driver chuckles as he thrusts the lowered Toyota Corolla Altis – performance exhaust included – into third gear. Remember Wacky Races, Dick Dastardly and Muttley? Well, welcome to the roads of Bangkok and its notoriously erratic taxi drivers.
I remember the first time I was shaken by a taxi journey. I was on the way to the airport to catch an internal flight. I hadn’t asked the driver to get there quickly, in fact, I had allowed ample time for my journey, yet he insisted on driving at approximately 90mph literally a foot from any car in front of him. Back then I was too polite to ask him to slow down because I'd heard how easily it was to offend a Thai person who was providing a service. I honestly believe that in his mind the faster we were going and the more like Lewis Hamilton he appeared, the happier he thought I would be with his performance.
The most disturbing aspect of the Thai taxi experience is the non mandatory seatbelt in the back (I am hoping my Mum doesn’t read this). I have sat in taxis with belts, but often there are no clips with which to fasten the belt tight.
Deaths as a result of traffic accidents are very high in Thailand. In 2006, there were 12,069 fatalities in a population of approximately 66 million people. In comparison, the UK had 2,946 fatalities in 2007, within a population of approximately 61 million.
I have become fascinated with the misdemeanours of taxi drivers, anticipating what silliness might materialise next. One example of taxi nonsense occurred when I planned a day trip to the Royal Barge Museum. I got into the taxi near my apartment and the driver assured me he knew where the museum was. I knew it was near the Chaopraya River, so when we pulled up with the river in view I didn’t question the location, I just paid the meter fee and got out. After a long hard look around I asked another taxi driver where the museum was. He told me he could take me there for 200 Baht.
I had been duped. It turned out my taxi driver couldn’t be bothered to go all the way there, so he had just dropped me off 20 minutes away safe in the knowledge that the likelihood of me seeing him again was pretty much zero. I was fuming and my day was ruined. I took a taxi home and put it down to experience. Now I always ensure I am at my destination before I pay, and I suggest you do the same if you visit Bangkok.
A similar event took place when I flagged down a Tuk Tuk (a kind of open air motor cycle carriage) and asked to be taken to the nearest Italian restaurant. He assured me he knew one. We drove around the block for ten minutes before ending up back not far from my hotel and outside his friend’s seafood restaurant. Another lesson learnt: have the exact address and place you want to go written in Thai and English on a piece of paper. The Tuk Tuk drivers work on commissions with local restaurants and suit shops, etc. They will tell you 20 Baht for one hour, and you may think “Bargain!” and jump in. But that 20 Baht may well include you having to browse a suit shop and being pestered to buy something for half an hour, or eating at a restaurant of your driver’s choice.
A classic taxi con is not turning on the meter and attempting to charge a farang (foreigner) an extortionate price for a journey. This practice is against the law, but any mention of the police will at most warrant a chuckle and smug smile, suggesting that the driver simply isn’t bothered. In one particular instance I ran for a taxi in the rain and jumped straight in. Five minutes into the journey I noticed the meter wasn't running. “150 Baht” he explained, “Yuut tee nee” (stop here) I hollered, raining or not and as late as I was going to be, I was not going to be taken advantage of.
Another useful tip if you visit Bangkok is to be careful taking a taxi from the airport. Touts try to grab you as soon as you come through Customs, offering a fixed price which is at least double what you will pay with a public taxi. Public taxis are governed by airport regulations, you get a receipt and the meter is always turned on, so just look for the public taxi sign and join the queue.
On another occasion I firmly asked the driver to turn on the meter, he grumbled but knew from my limited Thai that I was a tough cookie and wasn’t some tourist who had just stepped off the plane. He proceeded about 2km and then bizarrely flashed down another taxi, ordered me out and demanded the fare up until that point.
Until you have lived in a city for a few months, you seldom know whether a taxi is taking you the long route, and some taxis still try it on with me even after a year. When you question the driver about the route he will usually adopt the classic strategy of pretending not to understand your broken Thai. One should persist in a firm but calm voice.
For every bad taxi experience, I have had at least five good ones, which is not the greatest of ratios I know, but the banter, broken conversations about Liverpool and ladies, and a chance to practice my Thai are quite fun. The pride some taxi drivers take in their cars is admirable; spoilers, sound systems, chrome trimmings, Burberry style fabric seats and petit racing steering wheels are commonplace. And why not, if you spend every minute of the day in your car, you might as well modify it to your liking. I must admit though, a raised aerodynamic racing spoiler on a standard yellow and green Toyota Corolla does look a little odd.
The drivers of Taxis and Tuk Tuks are not always safe, neither are they always reliable nor honest. However, the unpredictability of this Wacky Races experience is another contributor to the indiscriminately nonsensical lifestyle that makes Thailand rather appealing.