BANGKOK, THAILAND – “We’ll take the expressway. You’ll pay the tolls,” he said with a grin.
This statement may seem harmless enough, but as this was the sixth or seventh attempt by an enterprising taxi driver to scam us in the first two days in Thailand, it was now much easier to spot.
Welcome to Bangkok, home of the taxi hustle.
The aforementioned trip was taking place on a quiet Sunday morning, and the destination was the Bangkok Railway Station in the centre of the city. From our hotel farther east in the Sukhumvit neighbourhood, it was a straight line to the station, or about as straight as possible among the haphazardly drawn streets of the Thai capital.
The suggested elaborate detour was a bold gambit on the part of this metered taxi, one that would have easily tripled his fare. Instead, with some help from a map and the right amount of confidence it was possible to switch to the proper route, despite his protests.
From the moment you step out of Suvarnabhumi Airport you are instantly introduced to the aggressive world of Bangkok road travel. Tens of thousands of cabs and motorcycle taxis roam the streets of the Thai capital, with varying degrees of legitimacy. This armada of vehicles has no shortage of demand, as it exists to serve the hordes of tourists that visit the city every year. In fact, according to the Thai Office of Tourism Development 15.8 million people visited Bangkok in 2010, making it one of the most visited destinations in the world.
Despite the fact that many of these drivers are eager to make the most of their fares, when armed with a little knowledge it is easy to avoid unnecessary costs. However, when dealing with it is also important to keep the situation in perspective. Even the most ambitiously overpriced taxi ride is likely much less than the average one back home.
The first and easiest step to take when looking for a fair ride is to find a metered taxi. Pay no heed to the boisterous touts imploring you to catch a ride with them, instead find one with a lighted sign on top. Several reputable companies operate vehicles a variety of colours; just remember that licensed taxis have yellow and black number license plates. By Canadian standards they’re very cheap, with a starting rate of 35 Baht (about $1.15 CDN) and 5 Baht per kilometre after the first two.
However, be aware of one common scheme where metered taxis to try to bargain tourists to pay a flat rate instead of turning on their meter. No matter how adept one might be in the art of negotiation, it will inevitably cost more than you would pay otherwise. If the driver seems unwilling to change his mind, you’re better off finding another ride.
Of course, the most commonly-encountered scams are those unsavoury individuals simply looking to take advantage of bewildered tourists. When heading to major tourist destinations it is quite prevalent to have touts come up to you and offer up unsolicited advice. “Oh, no that place is closed today, you don’t want to go there.” This is then followed up with the offer of a taxi ride to a much further destination.
While the Thai Baht is the prevailing currency in Bangkok, it is also possible to pay in American Dollars or other regional currencies, depending on the driver. If you are planning on doing this, ensure you are well aware of the exchange rate. Drivers are only too aware of the rates, and will try to suggest an exchange rate that is distinctly to the tourist’s disadvantage. One driver offered a rate of 15 Baht to the U.S. dollar – about half of the standard exchange rate.
While there are thousands of automobile taxis servicing the city, for shorter journeys there is something special about taking one of Bangkok’s iconic auto-rickshaws, or “tuk-tuks.” Said to be named after the sound produced by their sputtering two-stroke engines, these three-wheeled vehicles swarm the city’s streets and can be easily located from their drivers’ eponymous mating call, “tuk tuk?”
As long as you are not put off by sitting in the open-air cab through exhaust-filled streets, travelling by tuk-tuk can be a thrilling experience. Be aware though that there are no meters on these vehicles, so you will be in for some fevered negotiation. Drivers will always start with a number much higher than the going rate, so work your way down from there.
Actually, tuk-tuk drivers will often pitch two different rates, one being the flat rate for a direct route and another significantly lower with the caveat of making “one stop.” This ambiguous stop is usually to stores selling tourist knickknacks or tailored suits. Beware of these offers, as the time and distance to reach these additional destinations rarely accounts for the savings you will get on the cab.
That is not to say that taxi drivers will inevitably give you bad advice. There are many friendly and helpful people on the streets of Bangkok. Nonetheless, your best defence against the taxi scams of the city is simply to be armed with information. Know where you want to go, and always keep a map with you. Fellow tourists are also great sources of information on rates. Once you know the standard rate to get somewhere, it will be to your advantage in negotiations.
Originally published here on the Matador Network