Many tourists in Thailand, at one time or another, will take a motorcycle taxi. Motorcycle taxis are at the end of just about every small street in Thailand as well as on all main roads. For a small fee, they ferry passengers on the backs of their bikes, up and down sois (small lanes), or zip in and out of the horrendous Bangkok traffic.
Taking a motorcycle taxi is cheap and gets you to places much faster than a car. But who are these motorcycle taxi drivers, and what is a day in the life of one like?
How to Find a Motorcycle Taxi Driver
Every motorcycle taxi driver in Thailand is required by law to wear a plastic neon vest. These brightly colored sleeveless vests are worn over their normal clothes, and each vest has a large number affixed to the back of it so a motorcycle taxi driver can be differentiated from others in his group. Some vests also sport the names of local businesses or the address of where their particular route is located.
Motorcycle taxi drivers are easy to find as they’re at the bottom of just about every soi and in many spots on every main road in Thailand. Their job is to drive up and down a set route, taking passengers for a small fee.
Average Salary of a Motorcycle Taxi Driver
The cost of an average motorcycle taxi ride is 15 baht. This will get you a couple of kilometers up a small side street. Most taxi drivers make between 300-500 baht per day, which at the high end is double the average Thai salary.
For this, they work around 10-12 hours a day and sit out in the hot sun and bad pollution. Out of this money, they also have to take the cost of fuel as well as any repayments they need to make on their bikes. The money isn’t as easy as it sounds either, as motorcycle taxi drivers are run by the Thai mafia and have to pay fees and kickbacks out of their daily salaries, just to be allowed to operate in that particular street.
Motorcycle Taxi Drivers are Mafia Run
To become a motorcycle taxi driver, you have to ‘buy’ the vest. Buying the vest means paying to the mafia anything from 5,000 baht up to 100,000 baht for the privilege of being able to wear that vest and drive that area. But that’s not all.
Every day, the mafia also takes 10-15% of the taxi drivers’ salary. The mafia then pays a high percentage of this money to their local police station, so they and their motorcycle taxi drivers are allowed to drive in peace. The drivers have to be careful to adhere to the mafia rules as deliberately ignoring one can mean being fired as a driver or worse.
The Daily Life of a Motorcycle Taxi Driver
Most drivers work one of two shifts, either from early morning till around 5 pm or 5 pm to around 11 pm or midnight, depending on the area. The evening shift is usually busier as people who might walk in the morning are tired from work and want a ride home, so these drivers can make more money for less work.
Most drivers spend all day sitting around waiting for a fare and, when a customer arrives, the next driver whose turn it is takes the fare. The other drivers read comic books and newspapers, talk to friends, sometimes help out at shops next to their motorbike stand or play Thai chess until another customer arrives.
They will eat several times throughout the day from local food stalls and, if they need a bathroom, it’s usually a trip up a small soi to pee in a secluded corner. Most taxi drivers are men although each win (the name for that particular group of drivers) might have one woman driver.
Being Friendly to Motorcycle Taxi Drivers
Most foreigners, I’ve noticed, simply get on the back of the bike and ignore the driver until they get to their destination where they pay and get off. As the same drivers are always at the end of each soi, I started to talk to the ones on my street every day when I walked past.
Within a few weeks, they were offering me food, asking me questions about my life, and giving me free rides. I also tip them quite well when I pay for a ride (which hardly anyone in Thailand does). Consequently, I’m well taken care of by the drivers on my soi with many willing to take me out of their way, even if they might miss another fare in the process.
Taking food or the occasional few bottles of beer will also go down well with them. It’s a nice thing to do and it does come back in good karma for yourself.
The life of a motorcycle taxi driver is hard. It’s lots of time sitting around doing nothing and having to put up with the hot tropical sun. Salaries are low, and hours are long yet most of them are always happy and smiling as they drive you down the soi.
The next time you take a ride on a motorbike taxi, try to have a conversation or, if you don’t speak Thai, at least be polite and smile. Tip too. Most of these guys are taking care of a family and kids on not very much money, so every spare baht is welcomed.