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Let's play word association. When someone says taxi-driver, what adjectives spring to mind? Gruff, snarly, smelly, disillusioned, arrogant, and unfriendly - words like that, right? So, how does forty-three-year-old Uthaiwan Sawangaroon fit into this generalization? She doesn't.
Uthaiwan is one of Bangkok's few female taxi drivers (and she doesn't even come from Roi-Et). She studied nursing at Chulalongkorn Hospital, and after working as a nurse for a couple of years, she went to work as a medical sales representative. She stayed in that profession until the late 80s when she opened up a factory that manufactures men's shirts. She still has the factory, but a year ago her husband decided to give cab driving a whirl, so she decided to assist him.
She wakes up every morning to drive her fifteen-year-old son, Raywat, to school, and then precedes to drive her taxi around Bangkok's clogged streets. Uthaiwan usually drives from 5 am to 3 pm. Her husband, Sataporn, aged 46, who is a mechanic with the Royal Thai Air Force, drives the cab from 3 pm to 1 am.
Uthaiwan's goal is to make Bt1,000 on her shift. Her husband's aim is to earn at least Bt700. The taxi cost them Bt1,200,000 (including insurance). They put down a deposit of Bt12,000 and they must pay the bank Bt700 a day for five years, and then the cab is theirs. A taxi can stay on the road in Bangkok for seven years from the day it first starts servicing customers. When the taxi-life of their current vehicle expires, Uthaiwan says she and her husband plan to buy a new cab outright.
Asked to describe her foreign customers and how they tip compared to Thais, Uthaiwan replies, "For some reason I find redheaded people to be very nice. The Europeans and North Americans don't tip very much. Usually just ten baht or so. The Japanese are the best tippers. Sometimes they give me Bt100 or even more. In Thailand, the women don't tip, but if the men like me, they will tip me about Bt50, and tell me that my husband is very lucky to have such a good wife."
Queried as to how she deals with the danger involved in driving a taxi, Uthaiwan says, "When I stop to pick up a passenger, I check them out. The head, the eyes, the mouth, everything. I notice their body language, and if I feel uncomfortable I just their destination is out of my way, as I am on the way to pick up my son. But, I really haven't had any major problems. I had one man once who really was crazy though. He had just left the Police Hospital and he was going to Sithanya Hospital where they treat the mentally ill. He was acting funny the whole time he was in the cab, and he became really excited once we came upon an accident. He got out of the cab, and I drove away, but he started chasing me. Later, he told the police that I hit him over the head, and stole Bt2,000 from him. Crazy!!"
Quizzed as to how she copes with rude and abusive drivers, Uthaiwan says, " I do not have a screen in my taxi, so I have to be very careful. People can see me, and I feel like I am representing women as a whole, so I shouldn't be offensive just because someone has done something silly. If another driver is being really annoying though, I will stare him down. I'll look right in their eyes, and let them know I am very unhappy with the way they are driving."
Besides arranging her own tours for visitors to Thailand, Uthaiwan is more than happy to dish out free advice on where or where not to visit in Bangkok. Recalling one humorous incident, she says, "I had some Malaysian tourists in the car, and when I mentioned the Grand Palace to them, they were shocked. They said that all the previous cab drivers that they had in Bangkok only offered to take them to massage parlors, and nowhere else. Just massage parlors. They thought that the only place that tourists went to in Bangkok was massage parlors."
What if someone does ask her to be taken to a massage parlor? Uthaiwan replies, "If it is a legitimate massage they want, I will send them to Wat Po to get a massage from the blind people who give good Thai traditional massages. If it's the other kind of massage, I tell them to ask a male driver." What if it's a woman who wants the other type of massage? "I have heard of those types of places, but I don't know where they are," quips Uthaiwan.
When pressed to list the pros and cons of driving a cab in Bangkok, the female driving fury says, "The money is good, and I love to drive. On the negative side, I hate the traffic, and if I drive for too long, I get back pain."
Questioned as to why she drives, Uthaiwan says, "I need money to help support my family, and driving a cab enables me to make that money. I also enjoy helping people very much, and I can do that while driving a taxi. I like to help women and children who are stuck in the middle of nowhere, and can't get a lift. If I can't take them to where they want to go, I will at least take them to the next busiest intersection where they can hail another taxi. And, I won't charge them for that."
In a parting comment Khun Uthaiwan says, "I want to remind Bangkok drivers not to be selfish. They mustn't be too aggressive. Nam jai, nam jai.
You can reach Khun Julie at (661) 846-2014 or (662) 531-2262 or through the Woman Taxi-Driver's Club at (661)-343-0709.