Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reflecting on Buddhism

Bangkok taxi drivers are creative in the way they display their collections and images in their cabs. One of my favorite things cabbies do here is to lie a picture down on the top of the dashboard to create a reflection in the windshield. It's interesting to watch the transparent image change according to the light outside and in relation to what's on the other side of the glass. A reflected image of Buddha against a blue sky is especially serene. When I see the reflections of Buddha or monks superimposed on various backgrounds while riding in a taxi, I'm reminded of the Buddhist expression, "Buddha is everywhere".

Monday, April 28, 2008

Emerald Buddha Taxi

When I photograph inside Bangkok taxis and tell cabbies about this blog, most of the drivers are very interested, and many seem supportive of my project. Some drivers even start showing me extra talisman stored in their glove compartment, or they ask that I photograph the amulets hanging around their neck. Some even ask me to promise that I'll include the photographs from their taxi in my blog.

Today, when I asked the driver if I could photograph his reproduction of the Emerald Buddha, he was completely surprised. He told me he thought it was strange for me to take pictures of a copy when I could have photos of the real jade statue sitting in his own temple. He suggested I go and see the original, and then he offered to take me there. Even after I told him about my ongoing project of photographing inside taxis, he shook his head and said, "You should really take a picture of the real one".

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Turtle Taxi

The other day in a taxi there was a small metallic turtle hanging from the ceiling. The driver explained how turtles are Buddhist symbols of long life, and he suggested I go to a temple on the Chao Phraya River and partake in the ritual of releasing a young turtle into the water to assure that I live to be very old. I told him that I had already set a turtle free at Wat Rakang (Temple of the Bells), and that it had hopefully already done the trick.

While we were chatting, I started to think about the irony of this symbol of long life dangling from a safety pin. I couldn't help but think that this tired old turtle needs a more comfortable and respectful place to rest his shell. But, instead, this poor creature is precariously suspended in air, hanging on for dear life.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Cabbys are the true superheroes in Bangkok. They rescue the weary, heat-exhausted, pollution-inhaling citizens of this city, and protect normal folks from harm with talisman and lucky charms. They pick people up and fly through the city during those rare moments there's no traffic jam.

As we know from pop music and the movies, superheroes aren't perfect. In the case of Bangkok taxi drivers, sometimes they have no idea where they're going, they may try to overcharge you, they might take the long way to jack up the fare, or perhaps even refuse to take you somewhere. But, never mind those inconveniences and annoyances. Even Spiderman and Batman have bad days.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Takraw Talk

The other day, when I hopped in a cab, the first thing I noticed were miniature takraw balls dangling from the rear view mirror. If you're not familiar with takraw, it's a popular sport in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, the Phillipines, and Indonesia that involves players bumping a rattan ball with their feet, knees, chest, and head. Sometimes a net is used. Otherwise, the players stand in a circle volleying the ball among themselves, hacky sack style.

I assumed the driver was a fan of takraw, so I asked him if he plays. He answered, "No". So, then I asked if he ever played the sport in his life, and again he said, "No". Next, I asked him if he enjoys watching takraw, and he replied, "Not really". At that point, I was extremely curious and a little confused at why he had miniature takraw balls in his taxi. I considered the possibility that it wasn't his taxi, or that he shares the car with another driver. But, he told me it was indeed his own cab.

Finally, I directly asked him, "Why do you have these takraw balls in your car?". And, he responded by telling me they came attached to the basket hanging above, and that it was a set. At that point, I felt a little disappointed that they were simply a decoration with no meaning to the driver. But, then again, they make a nice conversation piece. After all, it gave the two of us something to talk about.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Golden Boy

Yesterday, in a taxi, I spotted a miniature-sized golden statue of a boy standing near the air-conditioning vent. I asked the driver about it, and he told me his name is Gu Mon Tong, and that he's a young Thai ghost. It struck me as unusual and a little creepy. And, it was surprising since most Thais are genuinely afraid of ghosts.

So, then I asked him, "What is this ghost doing in your taxi?". And, he replied by explaining how he helps attract more business. I would have thought the opposite is true. From my experience, ghosts scare people away - even ghosts with a slight grin on their face.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Madame Beckons

Naang Gwak นางกวัก is the Thai goddess who lures in money with her sticky paw. Her name literally means "madame beckons". You can find her kneeling in noodle shops and gesturing to passersby on dessert carts on the streets of Bangkok. And you can see her on brightly colored incantation cloths, like the one inside the taxi in the photo. Amid ancient Khmer symbols and sacred writings, there she sits with a chunk of cash in her mitt. She's not one bit shy about it. In fact, you can detect a look of pride and satisfaction on her face. Besides recently coming into money, she's apparently had a big, tasty bowl of those noodles or a few of those luscious, sweet treats.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Real or Plastic?

Flower garlands, known as "phuang malai" พวงมาลัย in Thai, add to the tropical Asian feel in Bangkok taxis. Strings of jasmine, along with carnations, roses, and other colorful flowers make the cabs smell nice. But, you shouldn't take a sniff before you give them as an offering to Buddha (or to anything else sacred) - the scent is reserved for the receiver.

There are some taxi drivers, however, that prefer a brightly colored silk or plastic version. These drivers apparently appreciate the longevity of them, but, of course, they're lacking the exotic aroma (even if you're technically not supposed to smell them). The artificial garlands serve the same purpose as the real ones, but, considering they're used as a gesture of respect, they just don't seem to carry the same genuine feeling. If you ask me, they're the equivalent of a fake smile. And in a country that dubs itself, "the land of smiles", that's not a good thing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Happy Thai New Year!

I know I promised photos on the inside of Bangkok taxis, but it's Songkran Festival in Thailand, and it's impossible to ignore what's going on outside. Songkran is the Thai New Year which is celebrated every year at this time. Traditionally, it involves a ritual of gently pouring water over your elder relative's hands. But, today the festival has turned into a 3 day all-out frenzy of spraying and splashing water in the streets.

If you want to stay dry, this is a good time to ride in a car taxi (if you can find one that's available). Otherwise, put on your Hawaiian shirt, grab a water bucket or a Super Soaker, and get ready for some wet and wild fun!

Happy Songkran!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Buddha and the Bear (Yin and Yang)

Bangkok is a city of contradictions. Here modern culture co-exists with traditional ways of life. This is a place where high and low culture come together, and no one seems to notice. It's not unusual, for example, to find a luxury condominium project next to a leaning wooden house with a corregated metal fence. And, it's normal to see Buddhist monks shopping at 7-11.

The plastic yellow bear lying next to the Buddha statue in the photo is another good example of the types of contrast you find here. For a foreigner, like me, this combination of objects seems funny and a bit strange. But, for the cab driver, and for most Thai people, this grouping is a perfect mixture. This unlikely pairing is proof that Asians can find harmony between opposites - this is the coming together of the Yin and the Yang on a taxi dashboard.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Saving Face

Small versions of Thai masks, like the one you see in the photo, are collected by those who appreciate traditional Thai culture, and they make an unusual souvenir for travelers, too. The masks are based on characters from classic Thai stories, and range from angels to demons. Popular characters include the part-elephant Hindu god, Ganesha, and the monkey god from the Ramakian stories, Hanuman.

Larger versions of these masks are worn in Khon, a classical form of Thai dance drama. Khon is performed by troupes of non-speaking dancers wearing colorful and sparkly traditional costumes that include a gold headdress or mask that covers the entire head. The dancing is accompanied by music played on traditional instruments with a chorus that tells the story. To read more about Khon, go to

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Turn Left, Turn Right

Occassionally when you take a taxi in Bangkok, the driver has no clue where the place is you want to go. Sometimes they initially claim they know because they want the business, or they just don't want to admit they don't know every part of the city. The other day, after the driver had agreed to take me to the place I told him, he started driving in the opposite direction. At first I thought he had misunderstood me. But, then I quickly learned that he had just arrived in Bangkok from another province, and had no idea how to get to the desired destination.

At that point, I considered asking him to stop the taxi so I could get out, but luckily, I remembed how to get to where I needed to go, and I could direct him the entire way. It helps a lot that I can speak some Thai. But, for foreigners who can't speak the language, taking a taxi in Bangkok can, at times, be frustrating.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to assure finding your way around this place without a major headache. One thing you can do is to arm yourself with a map. It probably won't help to show the driver the tangled web of streets, but you can use it yourself to help navigate and tell the driver where to go. Most drivers understand some basic English, such as "turn left, turn right, u-turn, and stop", and, of course, you can always point in the direction.

Another tactic I recommend is to bring a business card of the place you're going. Make sure it includes their address written in Thai, and their phone number. Some business cards in Bangkok even have directions on them. The other approach is to have someone at your hotel, restaurant, or other tourist spot, who can speak both Thai and English, tell the driver where you want to go. Or, you could have them write down the location in Thai for the driver.

If all those things fail, and the driver gets lost, take the Thai approach - sit back, relax, and don't worry. You'll somehow eventually get there. And, in the meantime, you might find yourself in a fascinating part of the city you wouldn't have seen otherwise. Oh, and don't forget to tell the driver, "Mai Pen Rai", which means "don't worry, it's no problem".

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Feng Shui Boogie

If you get into a taxi in Bangkok and see a mirrored ball hanging from the rear view mirror, you shouldn't get the wrong idea. It's not there to turn to the rhythm of Donna Summer or the Bee Gees on the radio, or to use to check if you have any pad Thai noodles stuck between your teeth. Mirrored balls in Asia, the kind found in homes, businesses, and cars (not the ones in the dance clubs) are commonly used in Feng shui. If you're not familiar with Feng shui, it means "wind-water", and is the ancient Chinese practice utilizing the laws of heaven and earth to help improve your life.

The mirrored balls are believed to reflect negative energy away from you, bringing you into alignment with harmony. In cars, the mirror reflects away evil forces that cause accidents. Another reason they're used in the taxis is because of the low ceiling which is believed to have a pushing down effect on you. The idea is that the mirror reflects the ceiling back before its pushing effect reaches you. The mirrors are also used to reflect natural elements outside, such as fresh air, back into the car.

When I see the mirrored balls in taxis, they give me a sense of well being. In some ways, they're not so different than the disco balls in the clubs. The disco music and dance club atmosphere also helps to release all that negative energy, and brings you back into alignment.