Travelling in Prasit Suwan's yellow-and-green vehicle gives an entirely new meaning to a taxi jaunt in Bangkok. After a respectful wai, which he offers to both young and old, his infectious smile, humble demeanour and a genuine heart for service, makes passengers feel at home.
The most obvious thing about his taxi is the money. The interior is covered with a myriad of colourful foreign currencies, old and new, in the form of banknotes and coins adorning the ceiling, sides of the dashboard and rear boot. Most of the decorations have come from tips given to him from appreciative passengers. He also apportions part of the money to make merit at temples requiring renovations.
Among what seems like clutter _ passengers are free to use the karaoke set placed in between the front seats, and mouth fresheners and smelling salts for people who might become faint during the ride _ are handwritten announcements telling passengers they can get discounts off the taxi fare if they can get him to laugh, tell a joke, and more. Prawit's helpful and outgoing nature has made him popular not just among fellow taxi drivers, but also foreign and local passengers.
The media began noticing him for his maverick mannerisms and penchant for assisting people in distress. In the past decade, the 70-year-old Nakhon Ratchasima native has become somewhat of a celebrity, featured on television for pioneering karaoke in taxis and assisting accident victims.
On the day Life met the gregarious former army corporal, he was waiting for customers at the Bang Sue MRT station. Breaking into a lopsided smile, he looked a picture of health for a person his age. His presentable and courteous manner was instantly endearing. On the drive to Siam, he spoke about his life and what inspired the gimmicks to entertain tired or moody passengers. Coming from a family of army men had trained him at an early age to stand up in the face of adversity. After retirement, Prasit says he decided on becoming a taxi driver so he could to assist and serve people from all walks of life. His devotion towards his passengers seems honest and sincere, as he tells me convincingly that more than 95% of the time he will do everything in his power to keep people who sit in his vehicle happy.
"I never react to how people behave towards me," said the old-timer. "I always believe in being respectful and kind despite being shouted at by passengers. I don't take them seriously, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
"It comes naturally to me to be service-minded. After retiring at age 60, I wanted to find a job that would give me the freedom to do my own thing. This occupation is tailor-made for me _ I have always wanted to be my own boss."
As we weave through early morning traffic, his cool-and-collected demeanour becomes more obvious. He drives cautiously, and despite his advancing age, it is difficult to fault his sense of direction as he manoeuvres his 15-year-old taxi with relative comfort.
In the hopes of getting a discount, I try to impress Prasit with my mediocre voice, but while belting out a 1980s hit on the karaoke machine, a speeding motorcycle cuts in front of us with audacity. The only person not frazzled by this brazen encounter turns out to be the driver, whose reassuring smile eases the tension. As we reach the next intersection, he begins to share the nitty-gritty details of what being a taxi driver in Bangkok entails.
"Driving in bottleneck traffic at first was nerve-racking _ but I was determined to make it work. I was also out to prove that travelling in a taxi in Bangkok can be a pleasant experience," he said.
"To help ease tension between passenger and driver I installed a karaoke set, in the hopes that it would help break the ice. I also held steadfast to the motto 'never get upset'. Even with the most rowdy passenger, I never go tit for tat, but choose to be polite and courteous to them. When they realise that I am not retaliating, they mellow down and even tell me to keep the change. I try to be empathetic towards them and genuinely want them to just chill out and relax."
The gimmicks to give passengers discounts are often not taken seriously, it seems, as most people instead opt to give him a tip. He attributes this behaviour to the fact that humans usually return kindness shown towards them with good gestures.
It is not unusual to find Prasit's taxi waiting for passengers at Bangkok tourist attractions. This he says has become a habit because of his genuine desire to help visitors who are lost. He said it is a known fact that taxi drivers nowadays are out to make a fast buck by taking advantage of tourists.
As a token of gratitude, he said many of them gave him currencies from their native countries, in addition to teaching him a few phrases in their mother tongue. Prasit, who usually uses English to break the ice with foreign passengers, says he can ask questions such as "Hello, how are you?" and "Where would you like to go?" in about six languages, from French to English or Russian.
He started attaching international currencies to the interior of his taxi when passengers began giving him tips in his early years of being a driver.
Instead of using the cash, he said it was better for him to remember the kindness shown by preserving the notes and coins in neat plastic covers for years to come. The last time he counted, the amount had reached about 100,000 baht.
He has also accumulated 57 friendship books where he has people write a few words about their experience in the taxi.
The bespectacled senior citizen _ who hopes to stop driving in two years _ is also candid about the fact that he has been a victim of four attempted robberies because of the money in his vehicle.
The most severe case was an attempt on his life by young delinquent passengers who found the lure of the cash in his taxi too much to resist.
"Two young men and a woman boarded my taxi late in the afternoon," began Prasit. "I think they didn't originally think of robbing me, but when they saw all the money, they might have in the spur of the moment wanted to rob and kill me.
"When one of them tried to strangle me with a belt, I put my hand in between my neck and the belt so I could breathe and convince the young man to not harm me. I pleaded for my life.
"Luckily the young lady with them was able to convince them to not harm me because I was old. In the end, they were so remorseful that they said sorry and even left me a tip."
The unsettling encounter hasn't deterred him from pasting banknotes and coins in his taxi.
By demonstrating mercy and kindness towards everyone, Prasit has persuaded himself that he can assist passengers to lessen their aggression. One can only wish him all the best in this endeavour and say a silent prayer for his safety.
About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert