The Lonely Life of a Bangkok Uber Driver

The man was unexpectedly handsome, or rather, ‘cute’ because of his sweet look resembled one of the K-Pop stars. He looked better in real life than the picture he put in his profile. The man who could have gone for a much better opportunity—represented a brand or appeared in an advertorial page of a magazine, not driving in a tiny Honda car. He was my Uber driver.

I was assigned to interview the co-founder of one of the national newspapers at his house in the outskirts of Bangkok. My intern—a wide-eyed college girl who constantly tries to outsmart me—and I slid into the back seats and sat in silence for a while. After the driver left the curve I received a text message from my intern, she said ‘My God So Handsome!’
This came out of nowhere and, before I could reply, I looked at her—an easier way for communicating with the person sitting next to you—and she then rolled her eyes toward the driver.
Another text came in shortly. ‘Didn’t you just seen his profile picture when you called an Uber?’ I slid the silent button on my phone and decided it was more comfortable to use text messaging. ‘I didn’t check. It felt like a blessing already that we got a ride in this traffic!’
‘He’s cute.’ Another text popped up. ‘I think I had seen him on TV or something. Maybe we should do an interview with this cute Uber driver. I can picture the article already.’
We were on the way to interview an important person in the history of Thai newspaper but, somehow, this Uber driver cuteness constructed an unyielding feeling, at least for her. My focus then shifted from the phone to the driver, who was struggling with the GPS navigation in his tablet attached to the console panel.
‘I don’t know how to get there.’ He said, apologetically. ‘Should we take the tollways?’
I’ve been living in Bangkok for a year and this type of question agitate me the most. I wanted to throw unkind words to his gorgeous face but I knew my intern wouldn’t agree with me.
‘We don’t know either.’ I told him. ‘I think it’s best if we can just, ummm, follow the GPS.’
The driver nodded politely. It was when my intern said something out loud for the first time.
‘It’s very nice of you.’
I looked at her and he looked at her (from his rearview mirror) for some kind of explanation.
Feeling responsible for giving an explanation, she proceeded, ‘I meant, it’s very nice that you still have us. Most people would have thrown us out already.’
‘Don’t mention it. I can’t do that anyway because the company policy.’
This conversation got my interests. I would like to know what he would do if a customer wanted to go outside the radar. What if the customer wanted him to give a ride to an island down to the south? So I asked where the farthest place he’d ever taken a customer to.
‘Pattaya.’ He answered with a sheer reassurance in his voice as if that experience was embedded into his long-term memory and could be brought back in an instant. ‘If you want to go to Krabi, Phuket, Chiang Mai, or the Thai-Cambodia border then I have to drive you there. It’s mandatory once I accepted your request. I can’t cancel it.’
‘How long have you been driving Uber?’ I asked.
‘Six months in total.’ He said. ‘But I’ve only done it fulltime for a month.’
‘Excuse me for asking.’ My intern interrupted and apologizing which I knew wasn’t necessary. I’m like her journalism babysitter who is only grateful for her help. She continued. ‘But how much do you earn for a month?’
’Around 20,000 baht ($555).’
The money talk was enough. At least it’s enough for us, for me, to reflect onto my salary and sat in silence while the car moved slowly in the interminable traffic.
It was my intern who broke the ice. ‘Sam. Do you think we have time for some bites before we go to the interview? I’m kinda hungry.’
The driver heard our conversation and came up with an idea.
‘You know I’m kinda hungry too. Why don’t we all stop somewhere and have lunch together?’
This is one unprofessional idea and I looked at the intern and saw in her eyes that she was star-struck. ‘I want him.’ They seemed to say.
‘Okay.’ I told the driver as soon as I realized that I was in charge of making the decision.
We went to the nearest restaurant we could find which happened to be a McDonald’s Drive-Thru. He parked the car in a parking lot of a Tesco and the three of us had lunch under the thin shade of his Honda Jazz.
‘This is the first time in a month since I left my old job that I’ve had lunch with people.’ The driver told us. ‘I never used to have lunch alone.’
‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ She asked.
Having a chunk of meat in my mouth I was unable to form a word. I know she was a playful girl but, in my opinion, this was pretty bold.
‘No.’ He said and I swallowed my Big Mac. We couldn’t believe our ears, given how breathtakingly handsome he looked and was probably pretty much free to spend time chasing girls.
‘So I heard you guys talking about an interview. Interview who and what for?’ The Uber driver asked.
I thought about holding back the answer but my intern was quick to talk to him and reveal our tasks for the afternoon.
‘Wow. You guys have a great job!’ He said, almost shouting. ‘I really do want to meet him.’
‘Can I join you at the interview?’ He asked.
I quickly exchanged eye contact with my intern.
‘Sorry. You can’t.’
When we arrived at our destination the newspaper founder completely ignored me and my intern, instead, he invited the Uber guy, first, inside his mansion. We followed them into the grand living room, glass walls filled with teak furniture and a wide-screen television, but all of it really felt empty. The old man was curious about new technology and something called sharing economy.
We spent the first hour talking about nothing but how Uber is a marvelous business that could change the entire world. I looked around his empty house and suspected that he might well be a lonesome man like our Uber driver.
After this episode ended, I continued to receive unsatisfying rides from Uber. One time the driver had his wife in the front and they began fighting. Another time my Uber disappeared from the GPS and appeared later on the South China Sea.
UBER
Then about two weeks later I met him again. By accident. I didn’t notice that it was the same guy until I stepped into his car, a small Honda Jazz, and, realized I was fucked. It was 2 a.m. My friends and I were drunkenly making our way back to our homes from a karaoke bar in Sukhumvit.
‘Hey, it’s you!’ The driver cheerfully welcomed me into his car. He then read my facial expression and registered that I was still fed up with the earlier event. ‘How are you?’ He asked, as if he wanted to fill the awkward silence. ‘Met lots of famous people lately?’
‘Yes. It’s my job.’ I wasn’t on my way to meet any famous people, so I wondered, ‘Will he follow me inside my house too?’
‘So you live there. It’s a pretty upscale neighborhood yeah?’
‘It’s okay.’
‘You must have a very decent salary.’
I wanted to laugh and tell him what I really earn writing for a magazine. One chooses life behind the wheel and thinks Uber makes driving sound like a sophisticated job (at least we would rather talk to an Uber driver than a taxi driver) but the core of the job still the same. You are a driver. While it sounds like you’re not taking it seriously—being an Uber driver—because it’s part of the new sharing economy model, it isn’t really make any different from others taxi drivers out there. Worse you are chained to the commitment that you can’t reject the customers.
‘So where is your home?’ I asked. Looking again at his handsome face and finding a reason to forgive him.
‘This is my home.’
I thought he meant Bangkok is his home but I was wrong. When he said ‘his home,’ he meant his car. He eats, sleeps, drinks and take his cigarette breaks in this very vehicle.
‘That sucks.’ I finished our conversation as the car pulled into the drop-off of my building.
My drunken friends and I got out of the car. The Uber driver turned on the light as if to see if anyone has puked in the back seats. I caught a sorry look in his face before the light went off. That was the last time I saw him.
Sooner or later he will realize that having a conversation with his customers is pointless. You’re almost making friends with someone but you are not actually friends. Then you are back to square one with another customer with another interesting life story. It is one of the things a regular taxi driver has learned beforehand by their single-mindedness and their unperturbed natures.

Sam Nathapong is an independent writer and journalist working in Thailand. Twitter@samnathapong
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11 thoughts on “The Lonely Life of a Bangkok Uber Driver

  1. I’ve lived in Bangkok and taken Uber, but have never taken an Uber in Bangkok. (Ha.) Really enjoyed reading this story and fancy your writing style. I found you through WordPress’ feature on 2016 Blogging Goals, and totally support you in your interest of free speech for 2016 in Thailand. It’s a brave thing to do in that area of the world, given the politics.

    Kudos to you and best of luck in 2016!

    -Cindi

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I once met a really handsome Uber guy too but he was driving a Mercedez and he also owned a Teanna. He was quite nice and really made an effort to locate the place I was going to and got out in the rain to ask for directions. I love Uber to be honest.

    Like

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