Bangkok taxi passengers being taken for a ride

Bangkok taxi passengers being taken for a ride

With emergence of Grab, cabbies' loss is citizens' gain

"Passengers are tired of tampered meters and destinations refused." (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

The Department of Land Transport in Chatuchak was abuzz last Monday when 30 taxi drivers converged on the complex, holding placards protesting the impending legalisation of Grab taxi service.

It was a campaign promise of the Bhum­jaithai party to legalise Grab. Anutin Charnvirakul's party not only ended up in the ruling coalition -- it also clinched the Transport Ministry. Part of Bhumjaithai's agreement to join the coalition was that it would implement its campaign promises. Cue the sound of Champagne bottles popping over at Grab head office.

Things weren't so joyous in the multi-coloured cabs of Bangkok that trawl the streets in more conventional forms.

Those 30 taxi drivers were allegedly representing the city's 40,000 drivers. They turned up holding placards curiously made from the same-coloured cardboard, written with the same-coloured pen. Let's just put that down to coincidence.

The drivers claim Grab has decimated their revenue. The app has turned regular passengers away from hailing from the side of the road. The angry taxi drivers had a list of four demands, including legal action against ride-sharing services such as Grab.

"Say no to Grab!" one sign said.

"Is a foreign service really better than a Thai one?" screamed another sign, held up by a skinny man with a straggly beard, proving that when all other arguments fail, go for the jingoistic jugular.

His question is an excellent one, however.

Is a foreign service really better than a Thai one? We shall answer the straggly-bearded man's question before this column is out. For it is the heart of this heated debate.

But first, let us move our attention away from the Department of Land Transport in Chatuchak, and instead make a journey across town to the area known as Bang Lamphu.

There was one taxi driver who was un­able to join the protest.

Sawoei Phuttisan, 57, has been driving a pink cab for a number of years for Saha­korn Taxi Thai, a large hailing-cab company in Bangkok, the likes of whose drivers were hoisting placards in Chatuchak last Monday. Only, as I said, Sawoei didn't attend. He couldn't attend. He was busy making a ruckus of his own in Bang Lamphu.

You see, Sawoei is one of those cabbies who wait for passengers at Suvarnabhumi airport. The "official" ones that you have to line up for. As his friends were hoisting placards in Chatuchak, Sawoei was picking up a foreigner by the name of James Loakes, a Brit fresh off the plane. James stood in the official taxi queue, picked up his official tab, and when it came to his turn, he got Sawoei.

"Khao San Road, please," said James.

"OK," said Sawoei.

This is a fare that should have cost James around 400 baht on the meter. And yes, Sawoei turned on his meter. Only by the time he'd pulled up at Khao San Road, the fare was nowhere near 400 baht. It was hitting 4,000 baht, or 3,985 to be exact.

Sawoei had a "turbo-meter" installed in his cab. This is the latest clever trick that Bangkok taxi drivers employ to fleece passengers, usually foreign tourists who know no better.

Suvarnabhumi cabbies have had it tough of late. For a long time they enjoyed making good profits off tourists by claiming meters were broken. It used to be that tourists were greeted with a wai and "Welcome to Thailand". Now it's a fat man in a blue shirt behind the wheel saying: "Sorry meter no work you pay 1,000 baht OK?"

One of the sad things for these cabbies is that people started complaining. Authorities got wise to their antics and started cracking down.

Luckily there are a few clever drivers and they thought up a new ruse. Drivers now flick on the meter but it runs faster than my staff do to the som tam stall at noon.

With a few mechanical alterations, there is now a little blue switch installed right next to the gear stick, which is where Sawoei had the convenience of switching on and off the "turbo-meter" … with an emphasis on the "on" switch.

"I learned how to do it from other taxi drivers like myself," Sawoei confessed, at exactly the same time as his comrades were screaming for justice at Chatuchak. "So I went and made the alterations on my own."

James, the fleeced tourist, called the tourist police and they soon found Sawoei, who was paraded before the media the same time his colleagues were holding placards demanding justice. The Airports of Thailand announced it had res­cinded Sawoei's right to pick up passengers at either Suvarnabhumi or Don Mueang -- suggesting he is free to use that switch anywhere else in the city.

He also received a fine of 2,000 baht for tampering with the meter, and another 5,000 baht for overcharging a passenger. This comes to 7,000 baht, or the equivalent of a little under two fares from the airport to Khao San, an amount Sawoei probably can recoup in an afternoon.

Oh, and yes, he did have his taxi license taken away from him. For a whole six months, dear reader. That's right: 180 long days.

Sawoei was paraded before the media but it was hard to tell if he was repentant. If he shared any emotion with his friends over at Chatuchak, it was a look of being really, really hard done by.

And if that wasn't enough for one day, there was another incident regarding taxi drivers.

It was announced by the Land Transport Department that the fine for cabbies who reject passengers would go up from 2,000 to 5,000 baht.

This is something James Loakes, and anybody else who has just arrived in Bangkok, should know and understand. As weird as it sounds, in Bangkok you don't tell a cab driver where you want to go. You have to ask his permission.

It's a cultural thing. It's like not being allowed to touch people's heads, or taking off one's shoes when entering a house.

This is what happens: When hailing a cab, one waits for the cabby to wind down his window. When he does, you peer deferentially into that open window and say, in an obsequious tone, where you wish to go.

The driver will pause, and look away. He may even scratch his chin. For a good three to five seconds he will contemplate your destination.

Is it convenient for him? Does it fit into his cosmic plans? Will it please him to drive you there?

Finally he does one of two things. He will sniff at you with a short nod of the head. This is Thai for "Yeah, OK, if I have to, then get in". You are then permitted to enter the cab.

But more often than not, he will shake his head. This is a rejection. You are then required, by local custom, to step away from the cab quickly, so as not to bother the driver any longer, in order for him to continue on his journey.

With this in mind, we finally return to the straggly-bearded man's placard at the top of this column, and the question he posed.

In an industry of turbo-meters and pernickety cab drivers, those cabbies at Chatuchak are absolutely correct. If Grab is to be legalised, there is no justice for Bangkok cabbies.

The same can't be said for the passengers.

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

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