I love getting into taxis around the world and striking up a conversation with the driver. You meet so many interesting people with so many interesting backgrounds. So on my recent two week stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I utilized the services of Mr. Sanguan Thaiyanto a couple of times.
I walked out of my hotel my first morning there to head over to the Starbucks across the street before doing some touristy things. I noticed Sanguan parked with his red Honda taxi along the curb, polishing the sun-dulled paint and many dents with such zest and determination. I admired his dedication to his work. Really. He knew that, although this was all he had, he wanted it to be the best that it could be. He ran up to me asking if I wanted a taxi. After a brief negotiation of a fare and where I wanted to go, I told him I was going over to Starbucks and to wait for me. When I returned, he had the car started and the air conditioning on. It was already 35º C and it was only 09:00. But it was nice of him to think about that.
My first stop was Tiger Kingdom. Well, that’s what I told Sanguan, anyway. He decided I should visit his old friend from the Thai army that now owned a shooting range. He assured me that I’d get “a good price” since they served in the army together. The prices weren’t that great. I’ve shot plenty of 9 mm, .45’s, and shotguns in my life that 1800 baht wasn’t worth it. As I walked out and instructed Sanguan to start the car, the old army friend decided I could shoot for “just” 800 baht. Still too much. Let’s go, Sanguan.
While driving to Tiger Kingdom, I got the lowdown on Sanguan’s family. Everything from his sick wife to his grandkids that live with him (or he with them, not sure), to how he isn’t allowed to come home at night unless he’s made 10,000 baht that day, to everything else I never needed to know about him, he pulled over to the side of the road. My quizzical, slightly perturbed, look must be universal language for, “What the fuck, Sanguan?” because he began to immediately explain that he was out of petrol. He showed me the low petrol indicator on the dashboard. Of course, the voltage indicator, the oil pressure indicator, the temperature indicator, and the check engine light were all lit up, so I’m not sure how much I could trust the petrol indicator. It’s amazing that the car was still running without petrol.
After the preceding and intimate tell-all about his family life, and fearing that it might lead to him asking me to give him a prostate exam, I felt pressured to give him money for petrol after hearing him explain he had no money (don’t ask what happened to the 400 baht I gave him). I told him I’d buy him 10 liters of petrol and that was it. I wasn’t funding his enterprise that day.
After my generous consolation prize of 10 liters of petrol, we finally arrived at Tiger Kingdom. The nice thing about hiring a driver is that they will wait for you no matter where you go. I was there for about 90 minutes, visiting tigers in their enclosures, looking around, etc. The visit ended with me getting sprayed by a tiger. It makes for a good souvenir pic and story, but other than that I just wanted to go back to my hotel and change. Sanguan had other ideas, as he thought I should visit every tourist trap around there. I had a deadline and had to meet people around 15:00, and now I had to shower and change since I was doused in tiger pheromones. I just wanted to get back.
First post-Tiger Kingdom stop was another shooting range. Again, another army buddy. I vetoed the idea. Then it was a monkey “sanctuary.” I have problems with tourist traps that abuse animals for show and profit (yes, I did my research on Tiger Kingdom and feel comfortable with that decision). I tried explaining this to Sanguan, but he didn’t grasp it. Seeing a monkey push another monkey around in a baby carriage isn’t my idea of entertainment. So then he took me to a snake farm. For 200 baht, I decided to look around. Including me, there were only three people there. The other couple was from Denmark. The place was dank and run down. There were multiple cages with various venomous snakes. There was the pit where they had their shows, with several burlap bags in the middle containing various snakes in preparation for the upcoming show. There was also a large cage full of rabbits and guinea pigs. We all know why they were there.
There was also the cage that consisted of no more than some posts in the ground with hardware cloth around it, tacked haphazardly. Inside was a four meter cobra. Other than the snake’s still-unrealized creativity, there was nothing keeping him inside. A simple push along the bottom and he’d be free. He slithered my way. I picked up a small handful of pebbles and tossed them one by one at the cage to solicit a response. It didn’t phase him. I watched him for a while, then he moved on to another part of the cage.
The show started. Again, the three of us sat there and watched at they tormented the snakes. There were lots of cobras. I was sure they were defanged or the venom glands had been removed, but when they brought the cobras up to within a meter of our faces and milked them, my doubts were cast aside. I give them credit for doing this show repeatedly each day, if even for just a few people. They brought out more snakes and tormented them as well. I was beginning to get bored. Not only was I still smelling like tiger pheromones, but just how many times can you watch someone agitate a snake and move out of the way just as it strikes. Then some striped, poisonous snake got loose and slithered along right under where I was sitting. I moved my foot just as he went by. One of the snake agitators ran up and grabbed him by the tail and pulled him back along the same route he had just slithered. OK, let’s go, Sanguan. This is really boring now.
So as we headed back into town, he started fumbling around and pulled out a pint of liquor and downed it within a few seconds. I looked incredulously at him and he assured me it was cough medicine. I had heard no distress from him all day, so I’m not sure why he needed cough medicine, but this was Thailand and things are different there I assured myself. I’m not sure if the increased blood alcohol level contributed to his getting lost on the way back or not, but we took a very circuitous route back. Plus he decided to turn off the a/c for some reason. Do you know how sweat and tiger pheromones smell in 39º C heat? It ain’t pretty.
I was really getting tired of talking. I dozed off for a minute, but was awakened by the jolt of a sudden swerve and the mumbling of something in Thai which I could only roughly translate as, “Oh shit!” and looked up as we swerved just in time to miss a head on collision with a large lorrie. I wonder if the second bottle of “cough medicine” that he dropped on the floor had anything to do with it?? We finally made it back into town and were about five blocks from the hotel but stuck in traffic. I told him I’d walk the rest of the way, hopefully not picking up any stray cats along the way that thought I was looking to mate.
Overall, it was an adventurous five hours with Sanguan. I enjoyed the antics of watching him drink and drive, getting lost, trying to pawn me off on other tourist sites for, what I presume, was to be some type of kickback. Even his car was decorated with a dashboard buddha and other trinkets which were probably the force overseeing our protection against the near miss with the lorrie.
Later in the week three of us had to go to the Arcade Bus Terminal in Chiang Mai for the bus to the Myanmar border. Sanguan was there to solicit our business as soon as we walked out of the hotel. As a matter of fact, everytime I walked out of the hotel, there was Sanguan polishing his red Honda and trying to solicit my business. Finally, on my last day there, I told him I needed a ride to the airport at 21:45 that evening. Sanguan was so nice! He starts driving about 05:00 in the morning and finishes about 19:00. He went home and ate dinner (or drank it) and came back to the hotel to pick me up. While trying to turn around in the car park area, he hit a tree. After assessing the damage and giving the fender a good kick, he determined that we were good to go. He got me to the airport without delay and wished me well and told me he’d be there whenever I returned. I hope to hire him again to be my driver.