I just spent a weekend in Kota Kinabalu going about the business of being a tourist; seeing sights, visiting islands and, of course, the most dreaded of all activities: taking a taxi.
I hate taking taxis purely because I usually have to bargain – no, beg – to have inflated prices lowered. Alas, I’m a tourist, inflated prices are my cross to bear.
But, ride with me for some good, bad and uplifting KK Taxi Tales – I will even use the meter…
The Easy Haggle
Friday night a CouchSurfing friend and I exited from El Centro a few Long Islands deep. A pleasant night, I don’t think it was raining, but it was too late for the bus.
Around the corner from El Centro there’s a taxi rank, which is sometimes empty and sometimes crammed with a gaggle of taxi drivers. On this particular night it was the latter.
4 taxi drivers stood around doing nothing. I stupidly insist on believing that driving any customer is better than doing nothing. In Taxiland this not the case – doing nothing apparently pays the bills just as well.
We approached the nearest driver, an older gent, and asked what the fare to my apartment is. “RM30”, he said without hesitation and broke eye-contact signalling his unwillingness to accept anything less.
I did a quick calculation. It was about 20:30, which means no traffic so the fare could be safely calculated on distance alone.
At last count it cost RM10 for a flag-fall, which buys 3km. Then it’s 12c per 100m after that. To my apartment it’s roughly 7km. So, I needed to pay for an extra 4km @ RM1.20 per km, which gives RM10 + RM4.80 and therefore the fare should really be RM15.
But there was a petrol price-hike recently, it’s been a few years since that fare was issued and I might be a few 100 meters off on the distance, so let’s say – for argument’s sake – no more than RM20.
Another stupid thought then entered my head: taxi drivers operate independently and one would love to jump at the chance to pick up another’s unclaimed customer.
Aaaah, no. We’re in Taxiland, remember?
Walking to the other end of the row a younger taxi driver was sitting alone, out of earshot from his older colleagues. “RM30”, he repeated after I asked for the fare. “That’s a bit overpriced, surely you can give me a better fare,” I suggested.
“Ok, RM25” he said as he looked past me at the older guys who was obviously checking him out to make sure he doesn’t undercut them. “That’s still too much,” I said, “how about RM20?”.
“Cannot,” he replied shaking his head, almost ham-acting as if for the benefit of the others who, judging by his sneaked peeks, were still looking as us.
It made me think he wanted to take the fare, even if it wasn’t at the Shark Tank rate. “There’s no traffic, it’s a quick in-and-out for you, I think RM20 is OK”, I said, emphasising the benefits and trying to close the sale.
I spoke a bit of Malay, hoping it would make him realise that I wasn’t just an ordinary tourist. Eventually, after again pitching the virtues of the easy traffic conditions and the little time he needs to invest, and with a final peak at the older taxi drivers who were now distracted by other customers, he softly nodded and quietly said “Ok, RM20.”
We hopped in and were off.
The Hard Sell Easy Buy
Last night we were in town again trawling for taxis once more. It was about the same time, but this time we were near Centre Point.
We approached the first grouping of taxis stationed between Centrepoint and Warisan Square, again a mix of young and old taxi drivers. We walked up to the young ones with the question of how much.
The first thing the young driver did was look over at the older driver, before he said “RM25”. I said “That’s too much, la. How about RM20?”, but the younger one repeated “It’s RM25, that’s it.”
I thanked him and walked off knowing that with the older drivers nearby there was no easy way to convince him otherwise. We walked around the corner to the drivers in front of Warisan Square.
This is a bad place to even ask, because there are plenty of well-pickled tourists pouring out of the Waterfront in a state of happiness induced by either the buzz from beer or the urgency to get back to their hotel *wink wink*.
Either way, you can blatantly overcharge them and they would likely not bat an eyelid. We skipped them and went around the corner to outside McDonald’s where there’s a fleet of taxis.
Predictably the drivers were honing their sitting skills. Again, a mix of young and older drivers in a tight-seated formation, which would be equally suited to playing cards. I walked up to a younger driver and decided on a different angle for my pitch.
“Boss,” I said continuing in my best Malay, “we want to go to this place, but I only have RM20.”
The young driver repeated the destination and the amount and mulled it over in a way that made me think he would accept it.
But then he looked over at the older driver who paused before replying something in the line of “why don’t you take your RM20 and go buy a burger instead”.
That just pissed me off. I looked at him and said “you’re obviously a very good business man. Happy sitting.”
I was out of ideas, so told my CouchSurfer that we’d cross the road to catch a taxi going in our direction, and then accept whatever they offered. In front of Centre Point we crossed over to the Asia City-side and, at the bus stop, waited all of 2 minutes before an empty cab stopped to offer us a ride.
I told him our destination and in Malay asked how much. He pondered it for second and said “RM20”.
I wished I could see the other taxi drivers so that I could laugh in their faces and perhaps flip them the bird, but we were too far away.
I think everyone probably has a heartwarming story that features an Uncle Wong. Here’s mine.
This morning we were up early as my CouchSurfer was heading to Beaufort and Plan A was to get to the train station. Traffic is bad in the mornings, especially one like today where it was bucketing down with rain a few hours earlier.
At about the right time we were out on the street, in the rain mind you, looking for a taxi which was nowhere to be found. Time was running out, so in a last ditch effort, which really should have been our first course of action, we walked into a nearby hotel and asked at the front desk if they would mind calling us a cab.
The receptionist was very helpful and said the cabbie would take 20 minutes and charge RM35, which is about what we expected after my housemate confirmed as much during a conversation the night before – it’s extra for calling them out to come to you.
Almost exactly 20 minutes later a sprightly, older-but-clearly-full-of-energy Chinese gentleman bounced into the lobby and checked with the receptionist, who pointed at us.
It was our taxi driver.
Mr. Wong, we would discover his name to be, but I called him uncle. “Not much time for train,” he said as we loaded my CouchSurfer’s luggage into his car. “Yeah,” I said, “we left it a bit late. But can we try?”
“Caaaan,” said Uncle Wong, “but traffic no good. Heavy rain. Very bad.” he added, jabbing the sky to underscore his statement.
As we hit heavy traffic he said “No time for train” and poked the car’s clock, which was showing about 10 minutes left for a 20 minute journey. “How about bus? Same price, same speed, but every hour.”
My CouchSurfer thought it was a better idea to then just go straight to the bus terminal instead of wasting time and money on a long shot to catch the train. “Ok, uncle” I said, “Good idea. No train, just bus.”
“Bus, no train?” confirmed Uncle Wong and I replied “Yes, straight to the bus.”
Over the next 20 minutes Uncle Wong endeared himself to us with first a weather update, as he showed us pictures from this morning’s newspaper about what stormy weather had done in China and Thailand over the weekend.
We were outright laughing when he told us about how he lost his Nokia and then had to get another phone, so he said “I get iPhone 5, why not?”.
“My fan,” he said and at that time I thought he probably meant 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 traffic. “Look, traffic” said Uncle Wong jabbing against the windshield in case we missed it. “I take shortcut” and immediately he cut into a little side street and came out on a road with no cars on it.
“Aha!” said my CouchSurfer, “Super Golden Silver Taxi Driver, in deed!”
Uncle Wong liked that. “My card” said Uncle Wong as he held up his left hand with a yellow piece of business card-sized paper in it. “I’m on the Internet”.
And sure enough, Uncle Wong is in on WhatsApp, WeChat and email. I was thoroughly impressed and thought, Chinese accent aside, he probably did mean fan and not friend.
Moments later, in spite of grid-locked traffic on the main road, we arrived at the bus terminal. Uncle Wong slowed down to make sure we got off right behind the Beaufort bus, called over one of the staff and said “Here, 2 people for Beaufort.”
He then charged us only RM30, making a memorable experience truly unforgettable and restoring our faith in KK’s taxi drivers.
We bid Super Gold Silver Taxi Driver Uncle Wong farewell in English, Malay and Chinese, but he was already distracted with a WhatsApp from his next customer.
I’ve saved Uncle Wong’s number – 019 840 4870 and his email too, and will for sure call him again in future. But I have a sneaky suspicion he’s a very busy man with very many repeat customers.
He’s Super Gold Silver, after all.