Not all of them do, mind you. I think at least a few must be reasonably sane, as there are so many surviving cabs on the streets. Besides, I've seen a lot of traffic, and very few accidents. However, my first trip to the airport, on my second night in town, when Bika and I went to meet Sam and Clara, proved to me that some Bangkok cab drivers have only a passing acquaintance with the concept of safe driving.
All seemed fairly routine, until we got on the airport tollway, and the driver accelerated, going faster, and faster, and yet faster still, until we were flying past all the other traffic, and he was occasionally changing lanes to avoid cars he considered too slow.
I glanced over at the speedometer and noticed we were going somewhere on the far side of 160km/h, maybe double the speed limit. I turned to Bika, and said, "Isn't he going a little fast?" "Yeah," she agreed, "maybe he thinks we're trying to make a flight."
I was only slightly nervous (particularly when I noticed there were no seat belts for the rear passengers), and Bika said, "Well, sometimes I ask them to slow down but he seems to have things under control." I shrugged. We were going fast but he wasn't weaving around like mad, or splitting lanes, or anything like that.
For that, I had to wait until my second crazy cabbie, yesterday, en route to my flight out of Bangkok.
While the taxi ride was happening, I didn't really think much of it. I did remember thinking, "Gee, he's really creating lanes out of halves of other lanes, and out of the breakdown lane, and cutting people up a lot," but I was strangely calm.
It wasn't until I was on the plane, watching the freeway scene in the Matrix Reloaded that I realized that my driver had done many of the things the stunt drivers in the movie had done, without bullets flying, and most importantly, without the crunching metal. Most impressive, considering that he had to do it in one take, without prior choreography.
In retrospect, I guess I should have realized it was going to be that kind of ride when he started the taxi moving before I'd closed the door. In fact, he was moving before I got my outside foot off the ground, which I then hauled in rather smartly as we took off.
As we pulled away, perhaps to distract me, he pointed out that we were a fender-bender which the police were already on scene for. No big deal, just a little twisted bumper action. Maybe that was another chance to realize something was up.
We zipped along and he asked if I wanted to take the tollway. "Eh," I said, and waved my hand, which he took to be a "No." I felt no particular need to pay an extra 70 baht in tolls for less than fifteen klicks of tollway.
But it seemed like he made that the challenge: "How quickly can I get to Don Muang without paying a toll?" The first clear evidence was his closing in way too fast on traffic in the slow lane, smoothly veering into the half-width breakdown lane, passing a flatbed truck and three cars on the outside, then cutting back in, all without touching the brakes. After that he made five lanes out of four by cutting between two cars which had left the normal distance between lanes so he could lane-split, again without breaking stride.
(It appears to be a rule of Bangkok driving that you never, ever brake for anything except an imminent collision. I confess I did some of this myself while driving my rented car, scaring my American passengers silly, but not appearing to faze my Thai passengers a bit. Perhaps they were just too polite to scream.)
By now I was hooked. I wanted to see what this guy could do. I was strangely calm. Traffic was only going about 80 km/h, and he wasn't able to do much more than 90 km/h, even with all of his ducking and weaving, now into the other breakdown lane, now again lane-splitting, then cutting up someone to get back into line when neither of those was working.
I did notice that he was religiously following the first rule of Thai driving. Largest vehicle has the right of way. He *never* cut up a truck, only cars. I also noticed that he had a lot more success in doing so than he would have had in, say, Boston, as people were just letting it happen. Once he'd established position, people didn't try to screw him and close out the gap he was sliding into. There were a good half-dozen times I think he'd have been in an accident in Boston, because people would've tried to stop him from cutting in. They'd at least have leaned on the horn, or flipped him the finger. Here, nothing.
At one point we passed some nut on a dirt 4x4 in the slow lane. That guy had to be insane, because he was on a major highway, going at least 40km/h slower than anyone else around, all of whom were swerving to avoid him. My cabbie pointed and laughed, and I laughed with him. As we went by I noticed the dirt 4x4 driver was a foreigner.
Sometime after that I decided I was going to tip my cabbie. Normally one doesn't, but I figured rounding up to the next ten baht would be a good way to pay tribute to some really fun driving.
There was one time I felt pretty concerned. Our cab had bobbed and weaved and ended up in a center lane leading to the tollway upramp. There was no way out, and my driver wasn't slowing down. I grabbed onto the handhold, wondering if he was going to make a sudden move left or right to cut someone up, or (heaven forbid) brake abruptly.
He did none of these things. We flashed past the toll gate at about 90. As we went by I noticed a sticker on the booth, that there was no one on duty, and the transponder lane next to it was simply closed. I guessed that the toll barrier was no longer in service, but that (in typically Thai fashion) all they'd done is to stick up a letter-sized sheet up saying, "No toll, don't bother to stop," but there was no indication of this in the big overhead gantries saying "Cash/Pass" overhead.
We zipped up onto the tollway and I then realized why my driver wasn't going faster than about 100 km/h. The cab couldn't go faster than that. He got daylight: clear road ahead of him, and he floored the pedal. The engined labored and we got up to maybe 110. I also noticed that now that he was going as fast as the car would let him he was no longer stunt driving.
The only thing that went wrong from there was that when I paid him he claimed not to have change for 120 baht. This nearly lost him his tip, but I thought about it, pulled back my 20 baht note and handed him a couple of 5 baht coins. 110 baht for 103 on the meter, or a 7 baht tip. Seventeen cents. Yeah, that's fair.
Nice driving. Hope he lives.