Riding The Gravy Train of Tourism: taxi drivers in Thailand

DSCN2772I chose the island of Phuket, not because I had read rave reviews about it, or had been wooed by its exquisite beauty …   In fact, I did not even look at a single travel brochure or webpage.  Rumour had it in China, amongst us foreign teachers, that Thailand was an ideal summer destination to while away the weeks of no work and no income.  Thailand was definitely cheaper, sunnier, freer …  and less polluted than China.  A breath of fresh air for suffocating lungs…

When asking Jack, a Thai national of Indian descent, which island he recommended, he definitely suggested Phuket.  J., an Australian sailing fanatic, who recently had to cancel a trip to Thailand due to work commitments, also spoke fondly of Phuket.  ‘But,’ he added, ‘it has changed and is no longer the paradise it used to be.  Still affordable, but no longer the backpackers’ nirwana of cheap and cheerful.’  With this advice in mind, I opted for Phuket, no further research required.  I booked my ticket, arranged hotels that looked reasonable and was ready to explore and experience…  with the advantage of having some insider information..

My first taxi journey from the airport to the hotel  in Bangkok was definitely made smoother through knowing how much I should expect to pay.  Although the initial quote was not exorbitant, I paid about 25% less after demanding a metered ride into town.  Once in Bangkok, I almost avoided taxis altogether as I made liberal use of the city’s excellent public transport system encompassing metro, sky train, river taxis and express boats connecting shopping centres and the touristy and historical sites.  I was impressed by the politeness of the Thai people, queuing patiently.  No mad scramble to be the first to board the train, even before people have had a chance to get off, as in China.  No need to elbow your way in through the narrow doors of buses and trains, disregarding passengers trying to disembark, as in India.  On the one occasion I used a motorcycle taxi, an orderly line was formed, which no one tried to breach…  And the courtesy even extended to people giving up their seats on the trains for the elderly, or the young or actually anyone who might need to sit down.  Not something I often witnessed in India or China..

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And then I arrived in Phuket…  As the hotel blurb gave ample indication of the expected taxi fares from the airport, my metered taxi was spot on and actually turned out a little more economical,  but not cheap though…  I enjoyed my first couple of days sauntering between my hotel and the beach, taking in the sights and smells of Thai food with a Russian twist.  Fully anticipating English to be Phuket’s second language, I was amazed to find the unmistakable signs of a strong Russian presence on the island as many restaurants printed the names of dishes in Thai and Russian before adding the English touch.  And as for trying to ban the burkini on the Phuket beaches and tourist boats to the surrounding islands???  Surely, the Thai people would not want to antagonise the many Arab visitors who flock to their shores and tourist attractions..  And if I came to Thailand to have a break from the Chinese… they apparently also swarm in their droves to Thailand…

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After a few days of local sea and sand therapy and calling in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s beach by speedboat, I decided to check out the ‘viewpoint’, a hill crest overlooking the three beaches near my hotel.  A glance at the map suggested a distance of just over 1.5 miles.  Before setting off, I enquired at the hotel reception about the cost of a taxi…  I balked at paying £14 (to the viewpoint and back) for a distance of barely  5km which I could easily walk, even the steep parts.  Map reading is not my forte, especially when it comes to interpreting scale, but the island of Phuket only has a few roads, so I felt pretty confident of my course of action.  To ensure I did not  add unnecessary miles to my hike – it was very hot that day – I consulted several taxi drivers on my way up…  ‘You can’t walk that far.  It is at least 7 km.  It will take you an hour to reach the viewpoint,’ they warned, smirking and shaking their head at the mere thought.  Really??  I showed them the map, pointing to the scale… But as they were unwilling to adjust their price to take into account I had already covered some tarmac or even admit their price was way too high in the first place, I stubbornly kept on following the trail of motorcycle tourists who were clearly heading in the same direction..   I admired the sights along the coast and arrived at the viewpoint in good time and glad I had not been fooled into an expensive taxi ride up the hill…

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Two days later, I intended to explore Patong Beach, a very touristy stretch of coast, full of bars and restaurants and night ravers and famed for its ladyboys’ show…  But a ride to Patong Beach and back would cost me 900 Baht, the receptionist at my hotel and the local tour operators insisted..or £21 for a 20 minute trip..  And that was even before I paid for the show, or had a drink and food somewhere..  Travelling solo can be expensive, unless of course I embrace the freedom of two wheels and get to grips with riding a motorcycle…

On the other hand, the advantage of being a single traveller is you don’t travel on your own for long and handy tips are passed down from other travellers: a shared taxi to and from the airport saves you two thirds of the cost; hiring a taxi for half a day to tour the island is more cost effective than paying for single trips to touristy destinations; you find out what discounts other people manage to negotiate to visit Phi Phi and James Bond island ; hiring a motorbike for a week only costs 1000 Baht…

But as long as the rich Arabs, Chinese and Russians are all too willing to pull out their wallets to show off their cash, the taxi drivers and tour organisers will be all too happy to carry on riding the gravy train of tourism.  What did Jack call the non-Russian white tourists of today???  Cheapskates!!  ‘And,’  he carried on, ‘ tourists always end up paying a little more than locals…’  Maybe he is right, but even he agreed that  900 Baht for a return trip to Patong Beach was going a bit too far…

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