I handed the cab driver a slip of paper with an address written on it in Thai. He looked at it, raised his eyebrow, and handed it back.
I waded through the sticky Bangkok heat back to the street corner and waited for another cab. I was trying to get to a remote village 30 miles outside of the city, well beyond the reach of public transportation. People had warned me that getting a cab driver to take me there may be difficult. I picked another cab out of the gridlock of traffic in front of me and tried again. The slender middle-aged driver read the address carefully and checked a map. To my surprise, he gave me a weak smile and agreed.
One of my rules of thumb is to never trust cab drivers in Thailand. To be fair, the tuk tuk drivers are really the ones that have earned this reputation, but the cab drivers are only marginally better. As we pulled away, my eyes gravitated to the driver’s taxi license on the dash. Sure enough, the picture matched up and I made a note of his name. The meter was running–so far so good. I decided to feel him out with some small talk.
“How’s your day going so far? Bad traffic, huh?”
“Yes. Very bad. It’s always bad though, so I’m used to it.”
The trip was supposed to take an hour or more, depending on traffic. We started talking about Bangkok, what I was doing there, the weather, etc. Eventually, the conversation shifted toward cost of living and wages. He lamented the fact that Thailand was so cheap for foreigners, but wages were extremely low for the locals and how hard it was to make ends meet. He had been driving as many hours as possible to try to make extra money. He casually remarked that he had been going since 10pm the night before, driving through the night. I looked down at my phone and checked the time…he had been going for well over 12 hours straight.
“Is it OK if I smoke? It helps keep me awake.”
“Sure,” I said. I generally like for my taxi drivers to be conscious.
After about thirty minutes of conversing with this man, I trusted him. He was friendly, we had good conversation, and he was doing me a big favor by driving to the middle of nowhere. Just another good person trying to get by.
As the city traffic turned into less crowded freeways, our conversation became more sporadic. I looked up and noticed him nodding off. I thought it was just a twitch, but then it happened again. This guy was clearly falling asleep.
I instantly perked up and started talking to him. I figured if he was talking to me it would be harder for him to fall asleep. I forced as many words out of him as I could, like a desperate guy on a bad date. He pulled out another cigarette. I hate the smell of tobacco smoke, but each puff was reassurance that our car wasn’t going to fly into a ditch yet. He smoked another cigarette, and another. Then he pulled over on the side of a four-lane highway.
“I have to pee.”
There I was, sitting on the side of a road in a Thai taxi while my driver greeted the stream of passing cars with a stream of his own. This was definitely one of those “WTF am I doing here?” moments.
We finally arrived to my destination. I was only going to be about two hours, so I offered to pay the same price for a ride back if the cab driver was willing to wait. I figured he could really use a nap, and I could really use a trustworthy (and well-rested) taxi driver. He accepted the offer.
I returned a few hours later and found my driver waiting as promised. I was relieved to be hopping in the car with a freshly rested cabbie. I asked him if he had a nice nap…
“Too hot. Couldn’t sleep.”
It’s a miracle I made it back.