Where’s Latka Gravas When You Need Him?

The Taxi Shuffle

I don’t speak Thai, but I’m pretty sure this card says, “Do you know the way to my hotel? I sure don’t. Please feel free to take advantage of me.”

“No matter what the taxi driver says, Niagara Falls is not on the way to the airport.”

–Seattle Mariner Alex Rodriguez on New York City cab drivers. 

One of the few ways that Bangkok is similar to other cities is the dishonesty of its taxi drivers. What surprised me was the magnitude of their attempted highway robbery. I realize a little chicanery is the price any tourist pays for being an out-of-towner, but my experience went above and beyond.

The saga started when I caught a taxi from my hotel to the Bosotel early Saturday morning. The traffic was light by Bangkok standards, but the trip still took an hour and cost 90 baht, or $4US (not much to Americans, but substantial given the economy). The trip there was uneventful, but the return was anything but because I couldn’t get anyone to take me where I wanted to go. Not at the normal price. By the time I found a hack, I felt as happy as Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” because I repeatedly endured the same trauma, only it wasn’t as funny.

The process started with me hailing a cab. The driver would pick me up, drive a few blocks as I explained where I wanted to go, first in English, then in Thai (with the assistance of a nifty business card from my hotel). Next, the jitney jockey would pretend he didn’t understand and drive a few more blocks as he appeared to figure it out. Suddenly, he would miraculously understand, say my destination was quite far and quote an off-meter price of  $8-to-$12, then drop me off when I balked.

If I had been smart enough, and had known which direction I needed to go in, I probably could have gotten to the hotel free, 10 blocks at a time. It just would have taken a couple of days. I didn’t have the time, though, because I had to return to the trade show to place an order.

Sure, $12 isn’t much, and it wasn’t a question of my not being able to afford it (although it was a budget buster). It was the principal of the thing. As a tourist, I knew I was going to pay a premium for services for which locals paid far less. I just didn’t want to pay a stupidity tax as well. 

I know the world isn’t a logical place, but I was still having difficulty figuring out why returning to my hotel cost twice as much as leaving, even though the distance was the same. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the difference was how I caught the cab. At the Delta Grand Pacific, a concierge hailed the taxi and the driver stayed on the meter. Out in the street, however, they wouldn’t even negotiate… 

It was one of the few times in my life I recall feeling a cartoon light bulb had ever gone off over my head. I walked to the nearest Western hotel, hung out in the lobby, then pretended I was a guest so the doorman would hail a cab for me under the theory that the driver would have to stay on the meter. I not only paid the meter rate, I also lucked out and got the best driver of the bunch. This guy was so good, he got me back to my hotel in nothing flat, by Bangkok standards, reducing what should have been a 100 Bhat fare to 61, so I gave the remainder to him as a tip.

And we both parted company happily.