Let's put Grabtaxi, Ubertaxi and all the other taxi companies that offer passengers a five-star service to one side for the time being. For those of us still chancing our arm with the regular Bangkok taxis, here is my guide to the different types of taxi driver who you are sure to encounter at some stage. I'm sure you can come up with a category or two of your own that I've forgotten.
The Teenage Boy Racer
Your initial reaction to clambering into the back of a taxi driven by the teenage boy racer is ‘am I stupid enough to put my life in this guy's hands?' If it's rush hour on a Friday night, the answer is probably and regrettably yes. Apart from being barely old enough to shave, the teenage boy racer is recognizable by his work attire - flip-flops, torn jeans and an alice band keeping yards of floppy hair out of his eyes.
You always get the impression that the teenage boy racer is filling in for a mate - or the bloke who usually drives the taxi - but the regular taxi driver woke up this morning with a bit of a hangover and so asked his cousin's sister's nephew to get behind the wheel for a day. The only advantage to being unlucky enough to get this kind of driver is that he's sure to get you to your destination in double quick time.
The teenage boy racer fears no one else on the road. And if the police do happen to stop him, it's not like his details are going to be held anywhere. For all his need for speed, he doesn't mind the odd red traffic light though. It gives him the opportunity to reach for his mobile phone and whisper sweet nothings to a sleepy-sounding girlfriend on the other end.
The Kindly Uncle
He's the complete opposite to the teenage boy racer. The kindly uncle can't remember when he first started driving a taxi in Bangkok but it was a long, long time ago - in the days before meters and expressways - and when the idea of having skytrains and subway systems was just a city planner's idiotic fantasy.
We all love flagging down a taxi, peering in the window and seeing the face of the kindly uncle. OK, it helps if you're in no great hurry but you instinctively know that the journey will be ‘pleasant'. The air-conditioning is cold, the taxi is clean and well-kept and the radio is playing at a sensible volume. Sometimes you can even travel half a mile down the road before the kindly uncle remembers he's supposed to turn on the meter.
Everything is done at a gentle pace and not once does he complain about the traffic. He's just enjoying the thrill of being his own boss in his ‘twilight years'. What's the point of getting worked up about anything?
The Man From Isaan
The story is all too familiar. Another failed rice crop. A wife and parents to feed. A couple of children to put through school. Somewhere along the line, the only choice left for the man from Isaan was to seek his fortune in the big, bad city - as a cab driver.
Your heart goes out to this kind of man, if only for the way he counts his pile of twenty baht notes every time you're stuck in a jam. Each note is flattened and arranged in order with precise care. You're left under no illusion that every baht counts.
Naturally friendly, you engage in conversation, starting with which province he comes from. Once you tell the man from Isaan that you've been there yourself, that's it - you are bonded for life! Well-thumbed family photos are proudly extracted from a wallet. That's my son. That's my wife. That's the house where they live. It may only be a straw-roofed affair precariously balanced on four bamboo poles but it's a proud man's home.
Once he's finished telling you his heart-breaking life story, the only course of action is to pull into the nearest parking place, hug each other, and both have a really good cry.
Mr One More Job
He was going to drive straight past as you waved frantically at the roadside, but at the last second decided to swerve into the kerb on the off chance your destination might be in the same direction he's headed. It's coming to the end of his shift and he's running late getting the taxi back to base - but does he have time for just one more fare? You want to go where? Nonthaburi? No chance! And with a screech and a spin of the wheels, he's gone.
This guy walks into the taxi rental depot at the beginning of a shift and begs for something cheap. "How much can I rent that one for?" he says, pointing at a shell with four bald tyres and steam coming from underneath the bonnet. He then spends the next 12 hours navigating Bangkok's chaotic roads, sometimes driving, sometimes pushing and sometimes stood by the side of the road waiting for a pal to arrive with a set of jump leads.
Count yourself extremely unfortunate if for a period of time during this gentleman's shift, you happen to be sitting in the back - because this taxi really is the pits. Door handles, seat belts, ID stickers and plastic upholstery; everything is either torn, missing or hanging off. And the whole interior wreaks of old, sweaty socks. But I've noticed one thing about any taxi driven by the cheapskate - the damn meter always works!
The Quiz Master
The journey starts off uneventfully enough. "I want to go to Bangkok Hospital" Yes certainly, no problem - and off you go. To break the silence (possibly because the radio no longer works) there's a question, totally out of the blue. A firm favorite is "what country do you come from?" "How long you stay Thailand?" is another.
I've learned to say ‘England' and leave it at that. Speak when spoken to. But show more than a passing interest in the quiz master's questions and oh boy, are you in for a long one. Before long he'll be interrogating you on Brazil's chances in the world cup, which year did Princess Diana die and how many of the Beatles are still alive? Trying to come up with all the answers is like being back at school. You can't remember having to work your brain so hard.
I've never had a problem with the seller but I appreciate that this is the kind of Bangkok cabbie that tourists and non-Thai speakers dread most of all. Your arse has barely got comfy on the plastic seat cover and the seller is going through his full repertoire.
How about a day in Pattaya? We could be firing off machine-gun rounds at The Pattaya Gun Club in less than two hours if I put my foot down. Look at these two lovely ladies romping around in the soap suds. They'd just love you to join them. Ok you don't fancy those options. How about a nice crocodile farm?
A couple of well-pronounced, choice sentences of Thai language is usually enough to get the seller off your back and get you to your destination unscathed but don't let that "phud Thai keng" (you speak Thai well) fool you. He'd love nothing more than to kick you out of the cab there and then and go looking for a proper punter.
The Silent Guy
I have the silent guy to thank for the inspiration for this blog. I got in the silent guy's cab today. The silent guy always worries me. Tell him where you want to go and he doesn't actually say yes or no. There might be an economical tilt or nod of the head but that's as much as you're going to get. Your initial reaction is "has he understood me?" "Do I need to repeat myself?" "Oh my God, where am I going to end up?"
And that's how the journey continues - with not a word spoken or exchanged. Eventually the cab pulls up in front of your destination and the silent guy thanks you for the tip and wishes you good luck. And you're left scratching your head and wondering why you worry about things so much.
The Surprise Package
Ah, probably my favorite Bangkok cabbie of all - the surprise package. They are a rarity but they do exist. This is the guy who will engage you in small talk but after listening to your appalling Thai for several minutes, will subtly switch to asking questions and holding a very decent conversation in impeccable English. Your mouth falls open and all you want in life is to know this guy's full story.
I've chatted with surprise packages who have worked in London banks for twenty years, been the head of a multi-national pharmaceutical company and overseen projects for Middle Eastern oil companies. And now they're driving a Bangkok taxi and making a thousand baht a day if they're lucky. There must be one hell of a story here. Count me in!
I've found that very often the surprise package has already made his coin in life and is now driving a cab purely to give him ‘something to do' in his fifties and sixties. Even in a half-hour taxi ride, you become great friends with the surprise package. You pat him on the back, shake hands and feel like you've made a true friend. There's always a sense of sadness when the surprise package drives away and you realize that in all likelihood, you'll probably never ever see them again.
The Lady Driver
I can't possibly hope to categorize Bangkok cabbies without giving the final word to the pot of gold at the end of the taxi rainbow - the female driver. Oh the thrill of being transported from A to B by one of the fairer sex. Words just can't describe it. The waft of cheap perfume as she changes gears, the soft, polite conversation, the cute, furry thing that dangles from the dashboard and the warmth of a mother's love. In a perfect world, I'm convinced all taxi drivers would be women.