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Friday, February 15, 2008

Taxis in Thailand

Taxis in Thailand sure can be a pain.

At least I live in Bangkok, which has taxis; if you aren't familiar with the country, you would be astonished at how many cities don't, even those whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism. (In those places, you have to depend on tuk-tuk's (three-wheeled motorcycles with a passenger area behind the driver, open sides, but a roof), motorcycle taxis, or so-called "baht buses," which are basically pick-ups with a top but no sides and a bench down each side.

But I'm talking about real taxis, as in a four-wheel automobile.

Just recently I read that Bangkok has around 10,000 taxis (a number easy to believe in a city some estimates put at having as many as over 15 million residents). I rarely have trouble seeing taxis in the neighborhood I live, and most of the time flagging one down is easy.

But just often enough to irk thunderation out of me it happens that the driver will pull up, all four doors locked, and crack his window to ask where you're going. And if your destination isn't one with which he (or, on extremely rare occasion, she) wants to bother with -- zoom! Off the taxi goes, leaving you standing there, irked.

Especially since the law specifies that a Bangkok-based taxi has to take you to any Greater Bangkok destination.

Another problem with taxi drivers here (and other workers in service industries such as hotels and the like) speak not only little or no English (which most Western tourists and foreign residents here speak well to native), but also no Korean, no Mandarin or Cantonese, no Japanese, and certainly no other Western languages. And people visiting, living, or doing business here from the places those languages are spoken are a large component of the foreigners who show up in Thailand.

These days, all taxis in Bangkok have meters, and are required by law to use them. But sometimes, especially if your coming from one of the airports, the driver will want to quote some ridiculous price instead of using the meter. For instance, in average traffic it costs me about 220 baht to travel from the international airport to my home. And 50 baht of that is for not having to find a taxi by myself -- there are desks outside where you can get in line and the staff will call you when your turn is next and a taxi is available (rarely a long wait). If you want to travel via a motorway (toll road), that's extra, of course. In my case, about 80 baht.

So, in all, I pay around 300 baht.

But even getting a taxi at the official desk center is no gaurantee the driver will stick with the meter. Sometimes the driver will pull away, then hesitate as he's about to start the meter, asking, "800 baht, no meter?"

And he's got a strong motive: The folks back at the desk have a record of which taxi is dispatched to which destination, but they collect nothing from the passenger; you give the 50 baht together with the fare -- but they apparently don't check the meters. So, the driver can turn in whatever the average cut for a particular trip is, pocket the excess, and almost certainly remain undetected. (At least drivers who work the airport almost all speak enough English to get by.)

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