Bangkok: I’m in a downtown area, standing under an umbrella, trying to hail a taxi; heavy rain here and the traffic is going slow. A taxi pulls up, bright yellow and green, open the door and get in. There’s that strong smell of krating daeng (red bull), and jasmine flower garlands. I see a Buddha rupa and various auspicious objects everywhere. The taxi is old-style, well maintained but at the end of its days. The same could be said of the driver; ‘Loong’, meaning ‘uncle’, a respectful term used with any old man. In fact he’s more like great-grandfather, smiling, childlike and ancient.
The most noticeable thing about him is he’s got no teeth and insists on grinning all the time. He’s likeable, asks me all the usual questions and it turns out his daughter lives near to where I live in Bangkok and that’s a talking point. He brings his attention to driving the car and I’m wondering how this is going to turn out, but it seems to be good enough. So I settle back and look round the interior of the cab because it is crowded in here. Blessings and charms are painted on the ceiling, a great profusion of strings of beads, amulets and decorative hanging things tinkling and clanking from the rear-view mirror, and it takes me a little while to notice that the dashboard is covered with all kinds of toy objects stuck on with adhesive. The dog with the nodding head, and they all have moving, swinging heads, like this; coiled spring necks and crazy grinning faces that wobble slightly with the vibration of the engine but roll around madly every time his taxi makes a sudden movement, a touch on the brakes, an abrupt acceleration. It’s quite mesmerizing.
I’m just taking it in here, all these wobbly heads and various swinging objects in the middle of the windscreen; a part of the journey I didn’t expect. I get in his taxi simply to travel from point A to point B thinking that he just takes me there – and he does that but feels it necessary to surround his passengers with… something, what is it? I know some Thais who would feel uneasy in here, seeing a connection with phi (superstition). I don’t engage with that stuff and thinking it’s like this because, for him, it’s just boring and pointless; there’s no reason for this journey or any journey, and this is a kind of anchor. Somebody else will get in, after I get out, and that person will tell him to go somewhere else and off he goes. When he gets there it’s the same as the place he just left, and all other places. Traffic in the city is like water in the river; it gets everywhere, into all the corners where there’s space for it.
Every passenger who gets in has a directional goal-orientated intention; this old driver is not part of that, even though he is very much present. For him it may seem incidental in a profound sort of way; just wandering all over the town in randomness and along the way he’s arrived at the concept of all these wobbly heads, I suppose. It’s suitable because it’s meaningless, like everything else. His taxicab is like this because he’s in a place where it’s always ‘now’. Most of the cause/effect, time-bound, goal-directed thinking is just not there. Apart from control of the vehicle, which he must know completely, he is free; he’s not going anywhere because he doesn’t need to go anywhere; there’s nothing he needs. He just takes other people where they want to go and there’s just the emptiness of it.
In the Hermann Hesse novel: ‘Siddhartha’ (chapter 9), Siddhartha speaks to Vasudeva, the ferryman, about a lesson the river teaches, that time does not exist. “The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth…in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future… Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.” He talks about listening to the ‘voice of the river’ and I’m wondering if it’s something like this that Loong is experiencing after a lifetime in the timelessness of this huge city.
Loong drops me where I want to go and it’s still raining. I get all the stuff done I was going to do and a few other things too and after a couple of hours I’m in some other part of town in another taxi. We’re stuck at traffic lights and I see this taxi go by with the same wobbly heads on the dashboard; amazing coincidence, considering there are 10 million people in this city – it’s Loong! And he doesn’t have a passenger. Quick decision, I pay off the taxi I’m in, the lights are still at red, jump out and run through the rain to Loong’s taxi. Open the passenger door and jump in – surprise, surprise! There’s wild laughter, and Loong’s great toothless mouth and all of it suddenly feels like a continuation, I was here all the time; I never got out of his cab the first time; the interval that happened in between was a daydream.
So, we set off back to my place and he’s happy about that because he gets to visit his daughter who lives nearby. I hear him explaining things to her on the phone. He’s too old to be driving, really, and as he’s doing that, I have a chance to revisit the strange and interesting timelessness that Loong’s taxi seems to contain.