Mr. Thanusuwannasak is a taxi driver in Bangkok. He’s an old fart, ancient and scrawny as only an elderly Asian can be. But he has a half-inch long pony tail. Dyed blonde. That kind of vanity looks stupid when you have wrinkles, but you have to give Mr. Thanusuwannasak credit for the effort. Besides, he’s a giggler. Braving Bangkok’s bloody traffic in a small taxi that almost guarantees at the least loss of a limb should an accident occur just becomes that much more surreal when your driver can’t stop giggling.
I met Mr. Thanusuwannasak at the airport in Bangkok. Newbies to Thailand fall pray to the AOT and their overpriced limos. Which are the same vehicles used by most taxi drivers except they are a staid factory silver rather than the neon pinks, greens, and oranges favored by the taxi companies. Those visitors who’ve been to Bangkok before, or who are cheap enough to seek out the public taxi concession, make the long trek down to the first floor of the airport and get in line for the ordeal of saving a few bucks.
On my most recent trip for some reason there were very few taxis waiting. But then maybe there was a reason. A lot of Bangkok’s taxi drivers are temporary hires from up north. The bad flooding probably kept them at home driving boats in their old neighborhood instead of taxis in the capital. Whatever the reason, I had extra time waiting for a cab and, for the first time, noticed a large sign that explained that the taxis servicing the airport were required by law to use their meter. The sign went on in great detail, warning touri about fixed fare scams. Nice. About time someone noticed and put an end to that scam. But then I noted the date on the sign was 2008. I think its intent was not to serve notice to touri, but rather to clue in new taxi drivers to the potential of making a few extra bucks by ignoring their meter and haggling for a fixed fare instead. Ya gotta love Thailand.
By the luck of the draw, I drew Mr. Thanusuwannasak as a driver, who between giggles actually acted like he knew where my hotel was. But I wasn’t fooled by his obviously contrived jocularity and prepared myself for the usual driver attempt at quoting an inflated price for the ride into town. Instead, Mr. Thanusuwannasak immediately turned on his meter. Maybe business has been slow enough he had the time to read that sign. And didn’t realize, like all rules in Thailand, it could be ignored.
Mr. Thanusuwannasak made such a production out of presenting his business card to me that I made a noble effort at pronouncing his name. I got another giggle in reply. I’m not sure if his was a congratulatory chuckle, or if I’d mangled his name so badly it was worth a laugh. It might have been that I’d insulted his mother. I decided the safest bet was to just start calling him Mr. Giggles. Which he responded to well. With yet another giggle.
Mr. Giggles asked where I was from, a typical query from airport taxi drivers and bar boys alike as your answer clues them into how big of a tipper you may be. He then asked if I knew about the flooding. I did. And I made the proper noises of compassion for the plight of the millions of Thais whose lives have been impacted by the rising waters. Mr. Giggles made a few properly sympathetic noises himself. Or perhaps found a new octave to giggle in. And then thanked me for coming to Thailand even though I knew how bad the weather was. Sincerely. And he quit giggling for a minute while he did so. I was amazed. It’s been a decade or more since I received that kind of welcome to Thailand. And yet that was the exact type of attitude that made me fall in love with the country in the first place. Mr. Giggles and his blonde ponytail earned themselves a nice tip on the ride. And I kept his card.
Flip a coin. Heads or tails. You have as much chance of landing a taxi driver at Suvarnabhumi Airport who lets loose with one of the glorious welcoming smiles that the Thai people are known for as you do one who grins just as broadly not in welcome but rather in anticipation of the few extra baht he’s gonna scam the stupid falang out of. And when it is the latter, it really is only a few extra baht. Maybe that’s why those guys don’t bother me as much as they once did. Seems like a lot of work and a nasty impact on your karma for what amounts to but a buck or two.
So yes, as officially posted, all airport taxis must charge by the meter. In practice, they almost all try and get a fixed fare out of you. 500 baht seems to be the preferred figure. That’s been the standard mode of operation for a few years now. For a while, it pissed me off and I’d run a small scam right back at them, acting dumb and confused to see how far down the road I could get them to drive before having to give up and demand they turn the meter on. But more recently I’ve mellowed. And now when the driver quotes some ridiculous fare I laugh, point at the meter, and settle back for the ride into town. The world looks far different when you giggle at it.
I’m not longer a strapping lad, but am still quite capable of carrying my own luggage. Taxi drivers at the airport all assume that’s part of their job though, even when they’ve got a good ten years on you. That the driver I pulled by the luck of the draw on a short hop back into Bangkok never even made an attempt at grabbing my bags should have clued me into a potential problem. When I hopped into his cab and he asked for ‘my paper’ I knew it was a clue to a potential problem. The driver gets his own portion of the receipt the girl at the taxi line scribbles on. She hands his to him, and yours to you. Yours has a ton of legalese on it but also includes the phone number to call to lodge a complaint when your driver misbehaves. Bad drivers like to get that information away from you. I’ve learned to tuck the receipt away in one of my bags that gets thrown in the trunk. Then I can act dumb when the driver asks for it.
The surprise though is what came next. Usually the driver asks if 500 baht is good. Instead, my not too helpful but ready to scam me driver pointed at the meter, turned it on, then added that there was a 50 baht additional charge (there is, it’s imposed by the airport). His apparent honesty threw me off my game. Until I realized it was a classic case of misdirection: get their focus on one hand so they don’t see what the other hand is doing. The other hand in this case was the meter. It started clicking away at a speed not normally used by anyone or anything in Thailand.
I’d read about this scam. Some drivers in Bangkok have their meters set to turn over at a quicker rate. And I finally had run into one of the rigged meters. By the time we hit the first toll plaza, the meter was already close to 200 baht. Shit. The problem was obvious. How to deal with it was not.
Confrontation is never a smart option in Thailand. But then neither is being a victim of a scam. Traffic was heavy and moving slow, so I had plenty of time to consider how best to handle the situation. I briefly considered and discarded the idea of jumping out of the cab at the next toll plaza. It’s not the best place in the world to catch a new taxi.
I was staying at a hotel I frequent often where I’ve become buddies with the bell hops, security guards, and the other dozen or so Thai guys who hang out around the lobby with no apparent job duties to perform. The ‘little guys’ often are the ones who can make your stay the most enjoyable. So I’m always friendly with them, pass out tips, and sneak a few cold beers back to hand around late at night when I return to the hotel from the bars. I decided I could press the issue when I arrived at the hotel, and that my buddies there might have my back (you can never be sure; Thais usually side with a fellow Thai regardless of the grievance).
I’d just decided that I’d hand him the regular fare and ignore the inflated fare on his meter when my driver got a phone call. After rattling off a bunch of Thai that I could barely get the gist of, he hung up and then apologized to me for taking the call. But his loom had just become ocean front property. The flood they’d been warning of had finally reached Bangkok. And, cuz karma works that way, the waters had made a bee line for his abode.
“Water. Up, up, up!” he explained using his outstretched hand to demonstrate the new heights the river had reached. “My loom,” he added shaking his head in sorrow, “No sleep.”
Shit. Not only had he become human and talkative, but was in the midst of experiencing a personal disaster. And as cold hearted as you may assume I am (which, really, is a safe assumption), the idea of arguing over 100 baht with a man whose living quarters had just been destroyed hardly seemed sporting. Especially since when we reached the hotel the scam part of the fare only came to 70 baht, just over two bucks.
The usual handful of smartly dressed hotel employees in their vaguely militaristic uniforms encircled the taxi as is the norm when we pulled up to the lobby entrance. And I think I made the right call. Or at least I did by my moral compass. After my bags had all been removed from his vehicle, I handed him the full figure shown on the meter. Plus the 50 baht the airport charges. But no tip. And then laid my hand gently on his shoulder while wagging my index finger at him and said in a reproachful manner, “Your meter . . .”
He got it. Immediately. My disappointment in his failing to be the good man Thais aspire to be was obvious. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he replied apologetically nodding his head with each expression of regret. He’d been busted and knew it. But the gods had bitch slapped him once already in a major way, and made up for it somewhat by producing a falang who wasn’t willing to kick him while he was down.
I dunno. Maybe that was the wrong call. It really didn’t cost me anything, but it also allowed him to sail off and fleece some other unsuspecting touri. I’d like to think he considered the near bust a warning and had his meter set back to its proper speed. But I doubt it. And with my luck, I’ll get him instead of Mr. Giggles at the airport on my next trip too.
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