I don't take Bangkok taxis as regularly as I used to but I've developed a habit of peering into the windscreen as the vehicle approaches and only flagging it down if its being driven by the kind of taxi driver I like. Well, they say that first appearances are everything and I'm getting pretty adept at recognizing the eight types of Bangkok cabbie. Here they are;
The tear-arse is usually in his early 20's and instantly recognizable by his floppy hair, cheap pilot shades and at least one item of ear adornment. If you’re lucky he’ll be wearing flip-flops, but often prefers to drive barefoot. Driving a taxi is not the tear-arse’s regular job and you always get the distinct impression that he’s ‘filling in for a mate’. I'm sometimes inclined to ask for some driving credentials, but think better of it and just sit back and enjoy the ride. Get those rosary beads out mind because if there's one big advantage to being picked up by the tear-arse it's that he’ll get you to that meeting on Sathorn Road in lightning quick time. It may involve running a red light or two and knocking over an old man at the Asoke intersection, but you’ll not miss a minute of that meeting. One way systems? Bus lanes? Let other motorists worry about them. I mean, it's not as if the tear-arse's personal details are actually held by anyone.
He’s the complete opposite of the tear-arse above. Usually in his late 50’s or 60’s, he’s been in the taxi game for donkey’s years. He remembers the glory days before expressways and the sky-train, when he didn't have to bother with that bloody meter thing You charged 60 baht if the weather was dry and 160 if it was raining. He knows every far-flung industrial estate, every obscure sub-soi, and every twist and turn of the expressway system. You don’t have to wave badly drawn maps at this fellah.
The disadvantage to using Uncle Somchai’s services is that he loves to listen to that dreadful radio station that offers up-to-the-minute updates on how bad the traffic is in various parts of the city. Motorists will phone up the radio station from their particular stretch of metropolitan gridlock, witter on about how it's so far taken them 37 hours to get home, only to have the next caller ring up and say, “You think you’re in a traffic jam. You should see the one I’m in” It’s all riveting stuff. And if it's not some dickhead moaning about traffic jams, it's some poor hapless soul regaling the story of how they've left four million baht in a tan briefcase on the back seat of a cab and all they can remember is that the taxi was green and yellow. Or hang on...... it could've been pink and blue.
I like Mr Homesick I really do. This is the man from the North East of Thailand. Five years ago he gave up on a dry patch of land that would never see another grain of rice and he headed to the big, bad city to seek his fortune. Although he's by and large adapted to life in Bangkok (a place he hates with a passion) his heart and thoughts are always somewhere in Issan. He drives around on double shifts, listening to Luk Thung (the much loved music of North-East Thailand) blaring out of tinny speakers. If you're really lucky, your listening pleasure will be enhanced by a cheap sound to light system. There will also be a faded photograph on the dashboard, the subject of which is usually a slightly bruised-looking woman posing stiffly with two barefooted urchins. Once Mr Homesick feels comfortable with you, he'll tap the photo and say "wife and kids" and smile at you through a mouthful of either black or missing teeth. You're left with no alternative but to nod approvingly and tell him how beautiful they are. Lie through your teeth in other words.
But one word of warning. Beware of the question “have you ever been to Nakhon Nowhere?”
If you reply with “yes, and it was wonderful”, then you might find the pair of you parked up on the hard shoulder as the driver sobs uncontrollably, bemoaning the fact that Bangkok is hell on earth, and the northeast, with its unbearably hot summer days, its sub-zero winter nights, and hardly enough food to go around, really is the closest thing to Heaven.
You don’t automatically jump into the planner’s taxi cab. You adopt that 'door open, half-in, half out' stance because you instinctively know that the planner doesn't want to go where you want to go. Something about his stern expression tells you that this is a man looking for passengers whose journey involves two left-turns and costs 43 baht (which you'll round up to 50 baht anyway because the planner never carries change) So you open the rear passenger door, stick your head inside, and tell him your destination, trying to hide the fact that it’s almost in another time zone.
The planner never gives you a straight yes or no answer. He pauses momentarily, sucks his teeth, scrutinizes the road ahead and scratches his head. Time becomes uncomfortably frozen. He then considers a few other factors – the route, an alternative route, the time, the weather, the need to relieve his bladder, his hunger pangs, the Thai boxing on TV – then says no and drives off. You're left standing at the side of the road wondering whether to break down and cry or give him the middle finger, which he'll hopefully catch in the rear-view mirror.
The masochist drives for a 12-hour shift with the air-conditioning set at its lowest possible temperature. The moment you get in the masochist’s cab, your bum sticks to the seat and pools of sweat start accumulating near the small of your back. It’s definitely hot enough to grow tomatoes and possibly less than five minutes before you pass out altogether. It's possibly the most unappealing environment you could put yourself in, with the exception of a Welsh seaside town on a bank holiday. There'll also be half a dozen mosquitoes buzzing around for good measure. Forget trying to swat them. Have you ever tried to swat mosquitoes in a moving vehicle? It's futile. Nothing to do except lie back, close your eyes and let the little bastards feast on your sweaty flesh. There's nothing a mosquito likes more apparently. Finally you pluck up the courage to request that the cooling system be turned up a notch…..and a notch is exactly what you get. At the end of a hard day’s taxi-driving, the masochist likes to go home and slip into something uncomfortable.
When you’re faced with a lengthy taxi journey and all you want to do is sit back and listen to that English-speaking radio station that plays Minnie Riperton's Loving You and Randy Vanwarmer's Just When I Needed You Most on the hour, every hour, you’ll be picked up by the interrogator – I guarantee it.
It starts off with the fairly innocuous “what country are you from?” and “how long have you been in Thailand?” but before you know it the guy thinks you’re the fucking encyclopedia Brittanica. He’s asking you about the population of Manchester and how long Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister. You can’t remember when you had to work your brain so hard. It’s almost like being back at school again.
The New Guy
This is the guy who hasn't yet acquired 'The Knowledge'. In fact it’s a small miracle that he manages to put his shoes on the right feet every morning.
“Silom Road? Yeah I think I know it. Could you tell me when we’re getting near?”
You know you’ve got the new guy when he stops after barely 500 metres to ask a passer-by for directions. And new guys will never ask someone who looks as though they might know the destination (a businessman wearing a crisp white shirt for example) The new guy will invariably go for the most inappropriate-looking person for miles around, like some fried chicken seller who looks like he’s never ventured further than the end of that particular soi. And woe betide you if the new guy and the chicken seller share a common bond (both from the same village) because they'll be off down memory lane while you sit there watching the meter spin round like a bloody catherine wheel.
Perhaps it’s just me becoming more streetwise and radiating the look of someone who's been here a while, but there seems to be a dramatic decline in the number of opportunists – those drivers who whip out their massage parlor leaflets before you’ve even had time to locate the seatbelt. Yes, there are times when the thought of spending an hour or two in a soapy tub in the company of a pair of insatiable vixens might seem quite appealing but good heavens man! I’ve got a train to catch. Maybe another time eh?
Now here’s an interesting one The mutterer. Let's say that you want the taxi to take you to Sukhumwit soi 5, the driver will spend the next five minutes repeating it at various tones and pitches for no other reason than to reduce you to a quivering backseat wreck.
“Sukhumwit soi 5”
“Suk................hum..........wit (deathly pause) soi...................five”
It’s like a form of Chinese water torture. Is he doing this because he doesn’t know the location or is it a prelude to something more sinister? “Put your seatbelt on, I want to try something. I saw it in a cartoon but I’m pretty sure I can pull it off”
You can never fully relax with the mutterer at the wheel. Is he just amusing himself with this series of ‘staccato non sequetas’ or am I about to be driven to a piece of wasteland to re-enact a certain scene from Deliverance? You feel at any moment you're going to cave in and scream "OK I'll do whatever you want. Just let me live"
The worst part about being in a confined space with the mutterer? You never know when he's going to fire a question at you. And failure to give the correct answer could have dire consequences.