In Bangkok taxis are cheap (fares start at 35 baht), and abundant, and every color of the rainbow. Most drivers don’t speak much English, and they hate traffic. Fucking hate it. Some 10 years after my first trip to the city I’m still trying to figure out to where, exactly, some of these guys are okay driving, because there is bound to be serious traffic on the way to just about anywhere in the city, particularly from 3pm to 11pm, but I digress.
Available taxis are easy to spot: look for the digitized Thai character in the front window. When you flag the taxi down, the driver will in all likelihood pull up, roll down the window, and say something like “where you go?” He will then do one of three things: whistle through his teeth and shake his head no; stroke his chin like The Thinker and float a silly, off-meter fare (like 200 – 300 baht); or nod yes.
Keep the following things in mind to prepare yourself for all three scenarios:
Depending on where you’re going, there’s an excellent chance you will need to go through up to eight taxis before finding one willing to take you–this is normal, and this is no reason to give up and get frustrated and say fuck it. You will eventually find a driver to take you there, on the meter. Be patient.
You will increase your chances of success by speaking in Thai. If this sounds obvious to you, that’s only because you’re a sensible traveler–perhaps even a smart one–and sadly, in my experience, that makes you a minority traveler in Bangkok. It’s one thing not to speak a lick of Thai, or to even attempt to do so–it’s something else entirely when one tries to speak to a Bangkok taxi driver like one speaks to Uncle Greg at a family Christmas gathering in Livonia, MI. Here’s what I mean:
The best thing to say, phonetically spelled for your memorizing pleasure: “Pom ja bai [WHERE YOU’RE GOING] die, my cup?” (“I will go to [WHERE YOU’RE GOING], can you?”)
The next best thing to say, in a form of English the driver might understand: “I go [WHERE YOU’RE GOING] can?”
Don’t fucking say something like this, but you’d be surprised how many people do: “Hello! We’re going to the Grand Palace, but we’re not sure how long it will take? Can you also let me know how much it will cost?”
Say this and watch the driver’s eyes widen: “Hi! We’d like to shop at MBK, then go to Khao San Road, and maybe eat some Thai food and seafood. How much will it cost?”
Since I know you’ve resolved to learn a little Thai before visiting Bangkok, here’s a recommended Thai-language app on Apple’s App Store and on Google Play.
Unless it’s dire times and you need to get somewhere 15 minutes ago–in which case you are screwed anyway, because there will be traffic–don’t accept offers for non-meter fares, even if in reality it’s a reasonable price in your home currency, which it will be. Some may disagree with me on this, but accepting an offer of, say, 200 baht (perhaps twice as much as the metered fare) encourages drivers to be picky and to refrain from metered fares when dealing with foreigners. Such a thing can be irritating when you’ve cycled through six straight taxis and six straight off-meter-fare-or-nothing offers.
I don’t blame the drivers for this because, after all, they’re just trying to make a living and should absolutely bilk tourists and expats who don’t know any better or simply don’t care–I blame the tourists and the expats.
Don’t do it. Be patient. The nifty thing about speaking super-basic Thai is that you can even ask for a metered fare–whoa! Here’s how, again in phonetic spelling: “Gore meet-HER noi cup.” (“Please use the meter.”)
Speaking of patience, for god’s sake don’t lose your shit when dealing with taxi drivers (or vendors, or tuk-tuk drivers, or hotel staff, or any Thai with a heartbeat). Frustration will get you nowhere, and you will scare all the Thais who are walking by watching you lose your shit. There’s an overused phrase bandied about these days about keeping calm that a lesser man might invoke, but I’ll spare you. Stay cool. Don’t express your anger outwardly–keep it bottled up inside, which of course is the healthy solution to all of life’s problems.
Once you’re in the car and have agreed on the fare–be it off-meter or on–that will be the fare. I have taken hundreds of Bangkok taxis over the years, and not once has a driver ever reneged on this; that said, if you don’t agree on a set fare or ensure he flips on the meter (and to be clear, he may just forget to turn it on), the agreed-upon fare will be whatever fare he quotes you at your destination. Fair is fair, right?
As for tipping, always tip something, leaning generous while not overdoing it, unless for some reason you’re going off-meter, in which case the tip is inclusive of the jacked-up fare. Use your best judgement, which I understand is something most travelers pack away the moment they step on the plane, but you’re not most travelers, right? If you sat through horrific traffic, and the driver was nice, and he took you directly to your destination (instead of detouring to a Thai food-seafood restaurant), and he cranked up the air-conditioning and mesmeric Thai rock or luk thung on the radio, tip appropriately.
This isn’t an exact science, but for short trips, round up 15 – 25 baht; for longer trips, tip anywhere from 40 – 60 baht, more if you feel like it; nothing wrong with tipping 100 baht, but that’s probably too much.
With all of this said, don’t believe some of these Bangkok taxi horror stories. Shit happens, sure, but that’s the exception to the norm, not the other way around. I will always, always, always take a taxi over a tuk-tuk or motorbike: they are air-conditioned, cheap, generally safe (though, ahem, don’t expect seat belts, and holy shit can open highways be harrowing), and comfortable. The drivers are generally genial, if not wily dudes (which is one thing I like about them), and there’s almost always something agreeable on the radio, be it Thai talk radio (love it) or Thai rock ‘n’ roll (love it more).
In fact, from a certain point of view, riding in Bangkok taxis can be a rather pleasurable experience, which isn’t to say I’m suggesting you bring a sex toy along with you. You probably shouldn’t.