This weekend past I went about Kota Kinabalu as a tourist, participating in the most anticipated activities; seeing sights and visiting islands, and also the most dreaded; entering the bare, exposed savanna that is KK Taxiland.
Taking a taxi in Kota Kinabalu is especially grating because taxi drivers are such vultures; patiently waiting for a weak or desperate customer to stumble by. It’s always a mission to get taxi drivers to use the government-mandated meter, and if you don’t, risk being ripped off. This weekend was a little different though.
Ride with me for good, bad and uplifting KK Taxi Tales. I’ll even use the meter.
The Easy Haggle
Friday past myself and a CouchSurfer I’m hosting exit from El Centro a few Long Islands deep. It’s a pleasant evening weather-wise, I don’t remember it raining, but it’s too late for the bus.
Around the corner from El Centro there’s a taxi rank. Sometimes it’s empty, and sometimes there’s a flock of taxi drivers. This particular evening, it’s the latter.
4 taxi drivers stand around doing what KK taxi drivers often do; nothing. After all these years I stupidly insist on believing driving a customer at the government-rate is better than not driving at all. In KK Taxiland this is not the case. Doing nothing, apparently, pays the bills equally well.
We approach the nearest driver, an older gent, to inquire what the fare back to my apartment would be. “30 Ringgit”, he says without hesitation, breaking eye-contact, signalling his unwillingness to accept anything less.
I do a quick calculation; it’s about 20:30, which means no traffic, so the fare can safely be calculated on distance alone. It’s RM10 for the flag-fall, which buys 3km. After that it’s 12c per 100m. My apartment is roughly 7km, so it’s the flag plus 4km at RM1.20 per km. That’s RM10 + RM4.80, and rounding it up is really just RM15.
But, let’s assume the government is a bit behind the times (they are), and we consider the recent petrol price-hike, and the fact it’s been a few years since that fare was mandated, plus maybe I’m a few 100m off the distance. So, add an extra RM5 for a generous RM20, max.
Then another stupidly persistent, equally untrue-in-KK-Taxiland thought enters my head; taxi drivers are independent, and one would love to jump at the chance to pick up another’s unclaimed customer.
We then walk to the other end of the row where a younger taxi driver is sitting alone, and out of earshot from this older colleagues. “30 Ringgit”, he repeats after I ask for his fare. “That’s a bit overpriced, surely you can give me a better fare”, I suggest in my best Malay.
“Ok, RM25”, he says as he looks past us at the older guys who are obviously checking him out to make sure he toes the party line. “That’s still too much,” I say, “how about RM20?”.
“Cannot,” he replies while shaking his head, almost ham-acting as if for the benefit of the others who, judging by his sneaked peeks, are still looking our way.
It makes me think he wants to take the fare, even if it isn’t at the KK Taxiland rate. “There’s no traffic, it’s a quick in-and-out for you, so I think RM20 is OK.” I say, selling the benefits of my proposition hoping to close the deal.
My Malay vocab in this context is limited, but I’m hoping what little I do manage makes him realise that I’m not just another tourist. Eventually, after reiterating the virtues of the easy traffic conditions, and the tiny amount of the time he needs to invest, and with a final peek at the older taxi drivers who by now have either lost interest or are distracted by other targets, he softly nods, and quietly says “Ok, RM20.”
With the deal sealed, we swiftly hop and and we’re off.
The Hard Sell, Easy Buy
Last night it’s pretty much the same story. We’re in a slightly different part of town, but yet again trawling for taxis. It’s roughly the same time, but this time near one of KK’s oldest shopping centres, Centre Point.
We approach the first wake of taxi drivers stationed between Centre Point and Warisan Square. They too are a mix of young and old. We walk up to the young ones with our question. The first thing the young driver does is look over to the older drivers.
“RM25,” he says. “That’s too much, la. How about RM20?”, I say confidently, but the young one repeats “It’s RM25, that’s it.” I thank him through gritted teeth, and walk of knowing that with the older drivers so nearby, there’ll be no easy way to convince him otherwise.
We walk around the corner to the driver’s in front of Warisan Square, but it’s the worse place to even ask. There are plenty of well-pickled tourists pouring out of the Waterfront in a state of happiness induced by either a beer buzz, or the urgency to get back to the hotel with a new acquaintance. Here a taxi driver can overcharge to their heart’s content, and customers probably don’t even bat an eyelid.
We skip them and head around the corner to outside McDonald’s, where KK’s biggest flock of taxi drivers can be seen circling pretty much any time of the day or night. That’s an unfair analogy as it makes them see active. In reality they too are honing their sitting skills.
Again, a mix of young and older drivers sit in a tight-knit formation, one that would be equally suited to playing cards. I walk up to a younger driver and decide on a different angle for my pitch. “Boss,” I say, wielding my best Malay, “we want to go to this place, but I only have RM20.”
He repeats the destination and the amount, and mulls it over in a way that makes me hopeful he will accept it without further ado. But my hopes shatter as looks over at an older driver who seems to be the group’s comic relief, and replies something along the lines of “why don’t you take your RM20, and go buy a burger instead?”.
That pissed me off, so I hiss at him “you’re obviously very good at business; happy sitting”, before we stomp off towards a main road that cuts past McDonald’s between Asia City and Centre Point. Now I’m out of ideas, so I tell my CouchSurfer we’re crossing the road, flagging a taxi going in our direction, and accept whatever they offer.
We get to a bus-stop, and wait for all of 2 minutes before a tax stops to offer us a ride. I tell him our destination and ask how much.
He pauses for a second before he says “RM20”.
I feel like everyone in Malaysia might have, or if they don’t they should have, a heartwarming story that features an Uncle Wong. Here’s mine.
This morning we’re up early as my CouchSurfer is heading back to Beaufort. Plan A is to get to the train station. Alas, traffic is bad in the mornings, especially a morning like this one, where an hour earlier it was pissing it down with cats, dogs, and a few show ponies too, and have now settled into just a persistent downpour.
We’re on the side of the road looking for a taxi, plenty of time to spare, but in the rain and the but-end of KK, so taxis and horse-drawn carriages number the same. Eventually we’re out of time, so in a last-ditch effort, we really should have been the first ditch, we walk into a nearby hotel and ask at he front desk if they’d mind calling us a taxi.
Of course they don’t mind, in fact, the lady on the reception desk is super helpful, predicts the cabbie will take 20 minutes, and charge RM35. It matches what my housemate estimated it would be during a convo last night. It’s extra when you call them.
Exactly 30 minutes later a sprightly, old-but-clearly-full-of-energy Chinese gent bounces into the lobby and towards reception. The lady points at us; it’s our taxi driver.
Mr. Wong, we discover, is his name, but I call him uncle. “Not much time for the train,” he says as we load my CouchSurfer’s luggage into his car. “Yeah,” I say, “we left it a bit later. But can we try?”
“Caaaan,” says Uncle Wong, “but traffic no good. Heavy rain. Very bad.” he ads, jabbing the sky in case the origin of the heavy rain wasn’t clear. As we hit heavy traffic he says “No time for train”, and pokes at the clock, which shows we have 10 minutes left for a 20 minutes journey. “How about bus? Same price, same speed, but every hour.”
My CouchSurfer agrees that it’s a better idea, and suggests going straight there instead of wasting, and money, on a long shot to try for the train. “Ok, uncle,” I say,” Good idea. No train. Just bus.”
“Bus, no train?” paraphrases Uncle Wong to make sure we’re both on the same page. “Yes, straight to the bus.”
Over the next 20 minutes Uncle Wong endears himself to us with first a weather update, as he showed us pictures from this morning’s newspaper about what the stormy weather did in China and Thailand over the weekend.
We laugh outright as he tells us how he lost his Nokia, and then had to get another phone. “I get an iPhone 5,” he says, “why not?”
“My fan,” he says, and at the time I think he probably means his friend, “said of my NOkia I”m a Super Taxi Driver. Now, with iPhone 5, they call me Super Gold Silver Taxi Driver.”
Just then we hit some taffic. “Look, traffic,” says Uncle Wong, again jabbing against the windshield in the direction of the traffic we otherwise might miss. “I take shortcut”, he says as he immediately cuts into a little side street that, up until this point, was non-existent. It has not a single car on it.
“Aha!”, exclaims my CouchSurfer, “Super Golden Silver Taxi Driver, indeed!”
Uncle Wong likes that. “My card,” he says as he holds up his left hand with a yellow piece of business card-sized paper in it. “I’m on the Internet.”
Sure enough, Uncle Wong is on WhatsApp, WeChat and email. I’m thoroughly impress and now think, Chinese accent aside, he probably did mean fan earlier and not friend.
Moment later, in spite of grid-locked traffic all around us, we arrive at the bus terminal. Uncle Wong slows down to make sure he stops right behind the Beaufort bus. Wouldn’t want the bus to leave before my CouchSurfer gets on.
Then he charges us only RM30, making a memorable experience truly unforgettable, and restoring our faith in KK’s taxi drivers.
We bid farewell to Super Gold Silver Taxi Driver Uncle Wong in English, Malay and Mandarin, but he’s already distracted by a WhatsApp from his next customer.
I save Uncle Wong’s number – 019 840 4870 and his email too, fully intending to call him again soon. Alas, I have a sneaky suspicion he’s a very busy man with very many repeat customers.
After all, he’s Super Gold Silver, you know?