Thursday, March 19, 2015

SLIMV X Cool Hunting

Last month, videographer Greg Stefano and writer Graham Hiemstra from the award-winning website Cool Hunting flew over from New York to interrogate me about the Bangkok taxi scene and learn all about Thai lucky charms. Here's the video that transpired from our get-together in the local amulet market where we perused all kinds of talismans and talked about the power of belief.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Check It Out

I usually refrain from featuring gizmos and tech news on this blog, but there's a new free phone app for rating Bangkok taxi rides that some Still Life readers might find appealing. Designed for both iOS and Android, it was recently launched by the Thai Department of Land Transport and is called DLT Check-In. I downloaded it a few days ago and it's super user-friendly. When you open the application for the first time, all you need to do is choose English or Thai language and enter your phone number. Then, when you want to rate your experience in a Bangkok taxi, you take a snapshot of the taxi license number posted on the passenger door and evaluate the driver and the vehicle itself. According to a statement issued by the DLT, cabbies who consistently receive bad reviews will be reprimanded, while those who receive positive feedback will be rewarded with a certificate to display in their cab. While the new app is a welcome addition and will hopefully improve the quality of service in Bangkok taxis, the DLT forgot one thing: allowing passengers to rate the Buddha images, sacred decorations, and other trimmings inside the cabs.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Holographic Taxi

The first thing I noticed in the taxi today was a giant hologram on the ceiling. When you tilt your head back just so, you see images of nine Buddhas on clay tablets, and if you lean your head just a bit the other way, three rows of seated monks come into view. Not only did the hologram help bring the images of the Buddhas and monks to life, it transformed the everyday experience of riding in a taxi into a mystical moment.   

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy Chinese New Year!

Wishing you luck in the year of the Ram
(especially if you take any Bangkok taxis)

Monday, February 2, 2015

No Crazies

Stickers prohibiting passengers from smoking, drinking, eating, and a host of other activities are commonly found on the windows of Bangkok taxis. But I've never seen one quite like this before. I'm still not exactly sure what it is trying to communicate. Apparently, enraged people with curlers in their hair shouldn't shout, ask questions, wave their hand, or act like a buffalo which has a derogatory meaning in Thailand referring to one's intellectual capacity.        

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thai Pillow Talk

Triangle-shaped pillows, or mon sam lieam as they are known in Thai, have been around for centuries in this culture. Some Thais still use them in their houses, and you can find them all over Thailand in local restaurants, hotel lobbies with traditional furnishings, and even in some Bangkok taxis. They come in a variety of sizes, but this particular one is perfect for the back of a cab. Despite its stiff appearance, they are surprisingly comfortable, and as we sat at a red light for what seemed an eternity, I sprawled across the backseat, tucked the triangle pillow under my head, and took a snooze.        

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Kid's Day

Today is National Children's Day in Thailand, or Wan Dek Haeng Chat. Celebrated every year on the second Saturday of January, it's the perfect day to hop in a taxi filled with toys and head to the zoo in Bangkok or to one of the many activities for kids sponsored by government agencies. On the other hand, if you're looking for peace and quiet today, I suggest you stay out of the malls and ice cream shops.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

In celebration of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday, today is a national holiday in Thailand. Since his birthday falls on a Friday this year, we are fortunate to have a long holiday weekend. Many Thais head straight to the beach and some make a beeline for the mall. Regardless of where the locals are spending their time this weekend, most don a yellow shirt. Why yellow you ask? Thais associate this color with Monday, the day of the week on which he was born, and anyway, it looks a little bit like gold, the color (and precious metal) that symbolizes royalty.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Military Chic

From khakis to camouflage to combat boots and shirts with epaulets on the shoulders, military style seems to be all the rage in Bangkok. While some of the accoutrements look like they came directly from Army surplus shops, most of the items are military-inspired. Considering how many Thais follow the latest trends, I'm wondering if this look is coming from the runways of Paris and New York, or whether it has something to do with the influence of the military junta currently running the country.    

Thursday, November 13, 2014

American Fever

The influence of American culture in Thailand is especially strong among a certain generation that grew up around American GI's who were here during the Vietnam War era. Many of these Thai baby boomers like to wear Levi's jeans, listen to songs by the Eagles, drink Coke, and smoke Marlboro cigarettes. Today, my cabby was even wearing a shirt with an American flag patch emblazoned on it. He told me that he once had the opportunity to go and work in the US, but he decided to stay in Thailand. He was afraid he would get homesick, and anyway, he told me that his brother moved to California and can send him anything he wants from the States.           

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Going Bananas

Lately, I've been noticing a lot of bananas setting in back windows and on dashboards in Bangkok taxis. One driver told me that they are an offering to the gods. Another cabbie explained how they attract more customers and compared his passengers to monkeys. Then one taxi driver told me that they were ripening in the sun and that he couldn't wait to eat one. And finally another cabbie informed me that they were there to provide protection. As he recklessly swerved in and out of traffic, I prayed that his bananas were working.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Yin and the Yang

As I sat in a taxi staring at a sticker in the form of an eight-sided Chinese bagua with a yin yang symbol in the center, I wondered if the driver was trying to provide a sense of well-being and balance for his passengers in the backseat. Certainly, I, myself, could use some of the positive energy that this feng shui diagram is supposed to impart. Yet, the placement seemed odd. These symbols are typically found on doorways, at dead-ends, in offices, and in homes. The few times that I've seen them inside cabs, they were in the front of the vehicle. My curiosity finally got the best of me and I decided to ask the taxi driver why he put this sticker on the back of the front seat. It turns out that it's covering up a hole in the vinyl upholstery.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Poultry in Motion

Besides elephants, chickens could be considered a national symbol of Thailand. You can find real chickens prancing around on Buddhist temple grounds and even on some city streets. Furthermore, cockfighting has long been a form of popular entertainment and roosters are a traditional Thai motif that can be found on ceramic bowls, in the form of offerings at sacred shrines, and even printed on stickers. And poultry is one of the main staples in the Thai diet. Once you've eaten gai yang (grilled chicken) with sticky rice or chicken satay on the streets of Bangkok, you'll see why these feathery friends are so popular here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Taxi Mitts

While taxi drivers in Tokyo sport white gloves, some of the cabbies in our fair city opt for more flamboyant accessories. Take, for example, the driver of this cab who is wearing striped purple gloves. Maybe it's just me, but this look seems completely out of place in a tropical environment. Perhaps he should consider turning down his air-conditioning just a notch.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cat and Mouse

Physical comedy translates well into many cultures, including in Thailand. In fact, slapstick comedy is extremely popular here, so it makes sense that Thais would appreciate the antics of the classic Warner Brothers characters, Tom and Jerry. The other day, my cabbie had a figurine with this famous cat and mouse duo on his dashboard, and the way he drove through the streets of Bangkok, I could tell he was a big fan of that cartoon. It felt like we were playing a game of cat and mouse the whole time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Photos

One question I often get when people see my taxi photos is, "Do the drivers mind when you take pictures in their cabs?". I assure them that I always ask the cabbies if it's okay and I often tell the drivers about this blog or my book, Thai Taxi Talismans. Most of the time the cabbies are thrilled that I'm interested in Thai culture and are more than happy to let me take photographs in their cabs. But there have been a couple of instances when the drivers resisted. In one case, the cabbie was very superstitious and told me that he thought it was bad luck for me to capture the images of the Buddha and monks. Another driver insisted that I go to a temple instead where there were more things to photograph. While that may or may not be true, at the time I got the distinct feeling that he was just trying to rack up the fare driving me around Bangkok. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

(Not-So) Hot Taxi

From the moment I asked the driver to take me across town, I could tell that he wasn't so excited to make the journey. He immediately complained about the distance and the likelihood that we would encounter a traffic jam at that time of day. Then, all of a sudden, I noticed that he turned off the air-conditioner, and a few seconds later, he pulled the car to the side of the road. I asked him what was going on and he told me that the car was overheating. It made sense in this city of intense heat, but strangely, there were no red warning lights that went on and there were no other signs that the car was facing a problem. The only thing that was overheating was my body from the lack of air-conditioning and my temper from the whole situation. But I got out of the taxi anyway, and as he sped away, the car was miraculously working just fine again.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Taxis on the Fly

According to news reports, travelers flying into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport will soon have less to be crabby about when queuing up for taxis upon arrival. Within the next few weeks, new kiosks will be installed along with a "state-of-the-art" computerized system. This will replace the antiquated method of airport staff manually writing down passengers' destinations on slips of paper. It should dramatically improve the airport taxi service so that travelers won't have to wait in seemingly endless lines for taxis after long flights. Let's hope that they will also train the staff working in those kiosks to be more efficient and that they'll find a way to keep unscrupulous taxi drivers in check.

Monday, July 21, 2014

No Smoking Please

While some cab drivers in Bangkok puff away in the front seat between fares, many cabbies prohibit smoking in their cabs. It's common to see No Smoking signs in Thai taxis, but they're usually the plain kind that have a symbol of a cigarette with a red slash through it. This sticker has those symbols, too, but this one is much more personable and politely asks passengers to kindly refrain from smoking. The Thai government should use this same upbeat tactic to warn people about the dangers of smoking rather than requiring local producers of cigarettes to print gruesome images of black, tar-filled lungs on their packages.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Whiff of Relief

Herbs have been used for aromatherapy in this part of the world for centuries. Today, you can readily find herbal nasal inhalers for sale in pharmacies, supermarkets, mom and pop shops, markets and convenience stores throughout Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Some people, including this taxi driver, even make their own inhaler using a small bottle and their own recipe of fresh and dried herbs. Thais claim that the herbal inhalers can cure headaches and alleviate cold and flu symptoms, and many people here also use them to relax and de-stress. This cabby was inhaling his bottle of herbs every few minutes to relieve tension in the heavy Bangkok traffic. At one point, we were stuck behind a bus for ten minutes, so I could have used my own inhaler in the backseat to calm my nerves, too.   

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Taxi Ceiling

For some Bangkok cabbies, a plain grey car interior where they spend as many as twelve hours a day working, is simply just too, well, plain. The driver of this taxi, for example, added some flair to his cab with shiny patterned vinyl on the ceiling. It makes sense that some Thais would have an appreciation for decorative motifs when you consider how Thai architecture, decorative arts, textiles, and handicrafts have long included pattern in the design. This geometric pattern, however, is obviously far from traditional. It looks more like it came out of a 1980's music video.           

Sunday, June 8, 2014

More is Better

In Thailand, there's no such thing as having too much of a good thing. The general attitude here is that more is better. Even the driver of this taxi keeps adding and adding to his collection of amulets and statuettes of the Buddha, Hindu gods, and other icons. He believes the more sacred images he stockpiles, the more he will be protected from accidents, vile passengers, the police, and other evil spirits. The cabby is also convinced that his assemblage of talismans will attract more customers, and consequently more profit. I can't speak for others, but from the moment I caught sight of the driver's collection on the dashboard, I wanted to ride in his taxi.               

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Full of Bull

The image of the bull on the magical yantra cloth on the ceiling of the cab was an apt symbol for the driver of this vehicle. From the moment I hopped into the taxi, the cabbie was talking nonsense. He mostly rambled on about politics, the popular topic of conversation in Thailand these days, but everything that came out of his mouth was rubbish. Rather than arguing with him or telling him to stop babbling, I decided to tell him some crazy stories, too. As the old saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Reflections / Protection Exhibition

If you're in Bangkok and you're a photo enthusiast, I highly recommend stopping by Kathmandu Photo Gallery. Located in Bangkok's "mini India" near a Hindu Temple and run by one of this city's most prominent contemporary photographers, Manit Sriwanichpoom, and filmmaker, Ing K, it's an outstanding space to view photos with a point of view. 

From now until June 29th, I have the exciting opportunity to show twenty of my favorite taxi photos in the gallery. The exhibit includes both black-and-white portraits of the cabbies reflected in their rearview mirrors, as well as color photographs of talismans in Thai taxis. Hence, the title of the exhibition, Reflections / Protection. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might recognize some of the photos being displayed in the gallery.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Balinese Taxis

On my recent trip to Bali, I took a few taxis, and for the most part, it was unlike taking cabs in Bangkok. First of all, in Bali there are few taxis on the road to hail. Instead cabbies sit alongside the streets holding up "taxi" signs while waiting for customers. The taxis look like regular cars with no emblems on the side of the vehicle, nor special lights to designate that the cars are taxis. And there are no meters which means you need to haggle the fare, unless you don't mind getting overcharged for the ride. Balinese taxis, similar to  Bangkok cabs, however, often have offerings to the gods on the dashboard. Palm leaf baskets filled with flowers and fruit give the Balinese taxis a tropical flair. And to add to the exotic vibe, some of the drivers even tuck small blossoms behind their ears.       

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Uber cool or Overrated?

Despite the fact that Bangkok has an abundance of taxis on the streets at all hours of the day and night, more and more locals and visitors are turning to the Uber mobile app to get a cab rather than hailing taxis with their red wahng, or available, lights turned on. Passengers using the app will avoid headaches with cabbies who decline to give them a ride, drive recklessly, and refuse to turn on their meter and instead ask for a flat rate. Those in need of a cab simply 'pin' their current location on their smart phone or tablet and wait to be picked up, and when it comes time to pay, their credit card is automatically billed. Never mind that the fare is at least double the normal cost or that the taxi will most likely be lacking in the talismans and other decorations that make Bangkok taxis charming and unique.     

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Happy Songkran!

It's that time of year in Thailand to bust out your loudest, most colorful, tropical shirt. Whether you're traveling, partying, or working during Songkran Festival, this is currently the national uniform. And if you're like the cabby in the first picture, you won't forget to wear a towel around your neck. You'll need it to wipe the sweat off your forehead in this extreme heat and for drying yourself off when you get splashed with water from Songkran celebrants.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Blowing the Whistle

There are many people in Bangkok who want to "blow the whistle" on the current government and put a stop to their antics, but it's rare to see Bangkok taxi drivers who do not support this Prime Minister. I asked the cabby about his political views and he told me that he isn't in favor of any particular party, but he believes that there needs to be big changes politically in this country. Oh, and he thinks it's fun blowing his whistle at rallies.   

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Taxi Pagoda

On the dashboard in the taxi last night there was an elaborate multi-layered display with a menagerie of lucky icons. On the lower levels, Thai monk statuettes faced the driver and passengers, and on the top tier there was a Garuda mythological bird figure spreading his golden wings in front of two Buddha images. This setup goes above and beyond your average taxi dashboard altar in Thai taxis. It's more like a little pagoda.        

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Taxi or Scooter?

Advertisements for motor scooters seem to regularly appear in Bangkok taxis. Are they trying to target passengers who are fed up with traffic jams and rude cabbies? Doesn't promoting the use of motorbikes ultimately hurt the business of taxi drivers? And why is that Lady Gaga impersonator awkwardly perched on the bike's seat? 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sleepy Heads

Besides snapping photos and talking to the drivers during long commutes in Bangkok taxis, I admittedly take occasional naps. Riding in the backseat of a cab can be relaxing, presuming the driver isn't blaring the radio or talking loudly on their phone, as long as the roads are smooth, and provided there are no ambulances with loud sirens passing by. Today, it didn't help to have a sleepy dwarf plush toy with heavy eyelids sitting in the back of the car near me. Just like when someone yawns and it causes you to yawn, looking at the drowsy character was outright sleep-inducing. I ended up dozing off for most of the ride, and when I woke up, I felt a little bit like the sluggish troll in the taxi, minus the green stocking cap and long white beard.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Glitzy Taxi

If there's two things that most Thais love, it's glitz and glam. From ostentatious jewelry to flamboyant costumes to crystal chandeliers, many people in this culture are attracted to all things sparkly. Even the driver of this taxi likes to be flashy. He personally glued rows of dark blue and clear crystals onto his steering wheel to add a little bling. Even the Toyota logo twinkles in the sunlight.