Actually, it all started with me pressing the wrong button on the Grabtaxi app. However, I got the instant message that a driver had been found, he had accepted my booking and would pick me up in approximately ten minutes.
Great! But I was a little apprehensive about this particular journey because it was a taxi ride into the unknown – a pub-cum-restaurant that I had never heard of, in a district of Lard Phrao, in the middle of nowhere. A place where mass transit systems just don’t reach. Where they don’t go anywhere near in fact.
Then I got a notification to say that my Grabtaxi had arrived and was parked up outside the front gate. But what’s this? - a small shiny green car with what looks like a male college student sitting in the driver’s seat.
I opened the passenger door and stuck my head inside “Are you Grabtaxi?” I enquired.
“No, this is a Grabcar. We are private hire drivers like Uber” he replied in perfect English.
“Do you know where I want to go. This is a difficult place to get to?”
“No problem”, he said, somewhat surprised at my ridiculous question. “I have a sat nav. It will take us to exactly where you want to go”
The extremely polite and clearly well-educated driver then pointed at his state-of-the-art mobile phone mounted on the dashboard. He had already keyed in the destination and I could hear a voice saying that the journey time would be “37 minutes despite the usual traffic”. I could have hugged him. But then again I’ve wanted to hug every Grabcar driver I’ve been fortunate to use since. They are just such nice people.
I’m no stranger to Grabcar. My wife and I used the service several times a day during a recent trip to Penang, Malaysia and were both very impressed. One of the many advantages with Grabcar is that the fare is quoted at the same time as the booking is accepted. You know exactly how much you are going to pay whether the journey takes ten minutes or two hours.
But for some strange reason, I just never realised the Grabcar service existed in Bangkok.
I made the return journey home from the Bangkok wilderness very late that night but once again decided to put my faith in Grabcar. My booking was accepted in minutes and my driver was another polite, softly-spoken, tech-savvy young man. As we drove along, he told me that he loved doing the Grabcar thing because it gave him a chance to practice his English with any foreign passengers.
“Is this your full-time job?” I asked.
“No, this is a second job for some extra income. From Monday to Friday I work as a sales rep. I sell industrial-strength glue to large, multinational companies. Then I do the taxi-driving in the evening until maybe ten or eleven.
I was impressed by such a hard-working young man. “I bet you’re saving to get married aren’t you?” It was no more than a wild guess but I was spot on.
The young driver laughed. “Yes, I’m saving for the dowry so I can marry my childhood sweetheart” he confessed. “So I’m trying to make as much money as I can in the next year or so and I also want my future in-laws to be proud of me”
Then suddenly the jovial mood changed.
We were approaching the gigantic Seacon Square Shopping Mall (the largest shopping mall in Asia I believe) The place was in complete darkness (it was almost midnight) but the local boys in brown had deemed it a good spot to set up a road-block and hopefully haul in a few drunken drivers.
My driver became nervous and edgy. “If we get stopped, tell the police that you are my boss and I’m driving you home from the office”
I had no problem with fulfilling my part of the bargain but thankfully we never got pulled over and my acting skills were not required. But naturally I was curious about the situation. It was then that my driver told me that Grabcar is actually illegal in Thailand.
“That’s a shame because you guys are doing a great job”
“Thai customers love Grabcar” said the driver. “No one likes taking the regular taxis anymore. The drivers cheat you! They won’t turn on the meter or take passengers where they want to go! They do drugs to keep them awake during long shifts!
He became quite loud and animated. He clearly had an intense dislike for the regular taxi drivers.
A week later, my wife and I made a journey out to Rama 9 Road – a trip of about forty-five minutes. I was eager for her to sample the Bangkok Grabtaxi experience for herself.
When we got out at our destination, her reaction was just what I had hoped for. “That is almost the complete opposite to taking a regular taxi” she enthused. “A nice driver who knows how to use a sat nav and a lovely, clean car with proper working seatbelts. Not some numpty driving a smelly rustbucket and blasting out his Isaan folk music”
Grabcar had gained another fan it would seem.
So what now for Bangkok's regular taxi drivers?
Most Bangkok expats have a serious love-hate relationship with the regular taxi drivers. Expats regularly post on Twitter and other social media platforms about the impossibility of trying to hail taxis in the downtown areas. If it’s Friday night and it’s raining, the difficulty increases ten-fold.
I sympathize with my fellow expats but I’m pleased to say I experience no such issues. I live in Samut Prakarn. In these parts, you can stick a hand out at any time of day and bring three or four vehicles screeching to a halt.
But I realise it’s a geographical issue. Certain parts of Bangkok are far more notorious than others when it comes to hailing a cab. As for all the other things that foreigners hate about regular taxis – the lack of seat-beats, the broken meters, the driver’s refusal to go to your destination – yes, I appreciate all those problems exist as well. I just very rarely experience them.
Actually, I think the regular Bangkok taxi drivers are a decent bunch of guys but Grabcar has taken customer service to a different level (at least from my limited experience) Naturally the regular taxi drivers are up-in-arms over the Grabcar guys muscling in on their patch. But if most of the expat comments on social media are to be believed, then the regular taxi drivers have made their bed. Now they get to lie in it.