By Bill Horgan.
One of the unique experiences in Bangkok is hopping on the back of a motorcycle taxi – called moto-sai by Thais.
Motorcycle taxis are useful for short trips; you know – a distance that is too long to walk in the Bangkok heat, but too short to bother with a taxi or risk getting stuck in traffic. The moto-sai is convenient because the driver can weave in & out of traffic, unaffected by gridlock, and deliver you to your destination in a matter of minutes.
In short, motorcycle taxis are probably the most convenient form of transportation available in the city of Bangkok.
Enhancing the convenience is the fact that a moto-sai is easy to find. On most corners in Bangkok, a collection of motorcycles can be seen accompanied by men (and the occasional woman) wearing orange vests (or occasionally pink, green or purple) that identify them as official motorcycle drivers. The spot is permanent, and the drivers themselves pay a fee every month to allow them to work from that location. The group of drivers form a little community, and often erect a small shelter to provide shade when the sun is shining and protection from the rain when the storm clouds roll in. They often pass the time playing cards or board games when there are no customers around.
One of the icons of Bangkok is the sight of a Thai woman – an office worker – decked out in her office gear of a tight skirt and 3-inch high heeled shoes, carrying her oversized purse and perhaps a plastic bag of prepared food as she travels to or from work during peak hour. What makes it iconic is that these lithe young women sit side-saddle on the back of the bike, one high-heeled foot perched delicately on the footrest, looking as comfortable on the back of a motorcycle in Bangkok traffic as they would relaxing on the sofa in their living room.
My experience is quite different. At 6’3” and well over 100 kgs, I sit on the back of the motorbike holding firmly to the hand-hold at the back of the seat praying that the driver – who is normally only about half my size – can handle the bike with my enormous girth behind him.
Still, I’ve been hopping on and off of moto-sais in Bangkok for ten years now and never had a problem.
There are typically only two challenges for foreigners who want to take advantage of the convenience of motorcycle taxis.
First, many (if not most) motorcycle taxi drivers don’t speak English. It can be painfully difficult for a foreigner to arrange things with a motorcycle taxi driver without a common language. Mitigating this difficulty is the fact that motorcycle drivers are experts in the area that they service. They know every street, lane and back road. They know the name of every building. If you can pronounce your destination – the orange vested driver can get you there.
(One side benefit of having these guys on nearly every corner is that if you are walking in Bangkok and unsure of exactly where to go, motorcycle drivers are always happy to provide directions for how to get there – even if you don’t hire them to take you).
The second issue that foreigners face is the question of how much to pay.
Motorcycle taxis have a standard and well-understood pricing for their Thai customers. Most drivers earn a regular income by offering a “ferry service” to daily customers at a reasonable price. For example, a group of drivers might run back & forth between a BTS station and a local school, charging students 15 baht for a one-way trip.
There might be different, higher, prices for foreigners. This is something to get used to in Thailand.
The spot where there is a group of moto-sai taxi drivers is referred to as “win-moto-sai”. In some of the very busy or better-organized win-moto-sai, you will see a price list posted, giving the price for most typical destinations. If not, though, the usual advice is to ask the price before you take the trip to avoid any misunderstanding at the end.
Be prepared, though, to pay a small premium for the speed and convenience of a motorcycle taxi. Tourists are often surprised to find out that the motorcycle taxi is usually more expensive than the ubiquitous air-conditioned meter taxis. The motorcycle makes up in speed what it may lack in comfort, and that is what you are paying for.
Motorcycle taxi fares – unlike fares for meter taxis – are unregulated. Still, during my decade in Thailand, I’ve never felt cheated by a motorcycle taxi driver. While they might add 10 or 20 baht to my fare from time to time, most of these guys are pleasant, helpful people who will get you where you need to go efficiently, and usually charge foreigners the same fare that they charge their Thai customers.
So, when you look at the street and you see gridlocked traffic. It’s too far or too hot to walk. You need to get there soon. Look for the guys in the orange vest on the corner. Tell them where you need to go, ask them the price in advance, then hop on, hold on and enjoy the ride!
Bill Horgan has lived in Bangkok for more than 10 years and is a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University.
Picture: Stuart Kelly. All rights reserved 2016