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He wore an over-sized United States army, moss green button-up shirt, with a black patch sewn on the side that read 'Security.' He was only about 5 feet tall, with a round face, slick black hair, and slight beard. The sweat on his face ran down to his shoulders, his shirt was soaking wet. He was too small for the shirt and it seemed to devour him as he walked, hanging off his arms and reaching down to his knees. The shirt had holes and was missing the top three buttons. His brown pants were held up with a thin rope. He smiled as he repeated, "20 baht."
"20 baht. 20 baht to go down Tanao Road across Bamrung Muang Road to the City Pillar Shrine, to Sanamchai Road to see the walls of Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. 20 baht to see the golden roof of the Wat Po Reclining Buddha on Chetuphon and then across the Phra Pinklao Bridge to see King Rama's Royal Barges, before heading back down to Wat Arun to visit the Temple of Dawn," I asked.
â"20 Baht," he smiled, "American, I can tell from accent."
He was a taxicab, or a Thailand sÃ£amlÃ¡w, driver. His only possession was his small three-wheeled motorized taxicab. It sounded like a power saw when it revved up, as black and blue lead-soaked smoke seeped from the exhaust, leaving a distinct trail.
For years, Bangkokians have placed bans on the tuk-tuk, trying to prevent the production of any new three-wheeled taxis. However, to Thailand's surprise, every year new drivers and tÃºk-tÃ's appear. The LP fuel they use is actually cleaner than diesel or petroleum, but objecting citizens claim that modernization is the key to Thailand's success and power. It is a moral dilemma, as Thailand would like to eliminate the tuk-tuk, the drivers are the poor North-Easterners who make less then 3,000 baht ($90 USD) a month. They also provide the transportation for tourists and the impoverished Bangkokians who use the cheap tuk-tuk as a family vehicle to travel around the city.
His tuk-tuk was hidden in the alley. He was looking for business and I welcomed his warm smile. He was full of excitement and tried desperately to impress me with his English.
"Me, I'm Freebird," he said.
I hopped in the multi-colored tuk-tuk that had purple and yellow lights attached to the top which flashed on periodically. The tuk-tuk had a sheet metal body with open sides; there was a small cabin for the driver in the front and seating in the rear for passengers. The decorated colored roof had old advertisements attached to it. Inside there were pictures of King Rama the IX, a wooden sculpture of Buddha, and a faded picture of a baby girl.
He agreed to spend the day driving me to my scheduled stops, but there would have to be just a few unscheduled stops as well. Freebird explained that he earns free fuel tickets by taking passengers to certain businesses. This is in part how tuk-tuk drivers earn a living.
First, he stopped at a Thai Gem Store and Freebird instructed me to stay in the store ten minutes because he needed fuel for today. "Leave and don't buy anything," he said.
I went into the store pretending to be interested in the most expensive gems available before sneaking out the back door to my tuk-tuk. Freebird, explained about the Thai Gem Scam and how several jewelry stores will persuade foreigners to buy thes"precious gems." The foreigners send the gems home, before appraising them, and will be out of thousands of dollars because "the gems are worth not that much, not good quality," he said.
Freebird received one fuel ticket from the Gem Store and we had enough fuel for the afternoon. Next, he took me to a tailor. "Buy something if you wish," he said, "They are good. Best. I get five tickets here."
I walked into the store surprised to find some of Thailand's finest tailors, silks, and fabrics. Again, I looked at the prices, compared fabrics, and pretended to be a wealthy American so my tuk-tuk would have fuel for tomorrow.
I slowly realized that this was the life of Freebird.
Everyday, he completes the same routine. He takes tourists where they want to go, throws in a government run information kiosk, stops at a couple extra places like the tailor or gem factory to get fuel vouchers for the day, and does it over again the next day.
"I live with my brother. He married a Surat Thani girl. He is a Bangkok man. I stay there free. I use to have a family...once. Now all I have is one daughter. She is in Surat," Freebird said as we sat on a busy sidewalk of Bangkok city.
When Freebird found out I was American he couldn't stop talking about his best friend Tan, who liked the Lakers basketball team and owned a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. "I drive it sometimes," he said.
He described how Tan married an American English teacher in Thailand and now travels to America sometimes. "I want to see America too, New York City is the best...what about football...lots of money," Freebird said.
He told me about the music he liked, all American songs, from the Beatles to his favorite song Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I caught him singing the lyrics in broken English to the Freebird song while zooming through Bangkok city, "I'm as free as a bird now and this bird you can't cage...you know it?" he asked. "Good song. Sing my friend!"
He was full of life and passion. Freebird, a forty-year-old man, told me about the Thai clubs and discos he goes to when he gets off work that play only American songs. "I learn more English that way. I never went to school," he said.
He wouldn't tell me his real Thai name, and would only change the subject when I asked about Thailand.
"I learned English on Pattaya beaches," he said, "I use to work as a boat driver for seven years there and would pull parachutes with tourists over the water. I picked up little English and practiced with them. I worked until my German boss went back home and I was fired. Then I want to Surat Thani to work as a guard, and now I must work here in Bangkok with my brother and friend one year. I keep going and save money."
I admired Freebird.
His mother lived in a province of Bangkok and Freebird told me how wise she was. "Don't fly, she says. My brother was going to fly to Surat one month ago and my mother told him cancel. He did and took the bus. The plane blew up and he could have been on it. So, now I don't ever fly."
I had a flight out of Bangkok to Krabi that night and Freebird told me several times to cancel it for my safety. "Not like America, don't fly take the bus, not like America here," he said throughout the afternoon, "not like America."
He used to live in the province with his mother, but he said there were about ten different Thai gangs that would take his money. He explained how he made 5,000 baht ($150 USD a month) there, but half of it went to the various gangs that roamed the city. "I had to pay them or else, there was shootings all the time. You must be careful here," he said, "not like America."
Freebird dropped me off at a local Thai restaurant for dinner. "I am going to see America one day and I will look for you," he said.
I could only smile in response.
I invited Freebird to join me for dinner. I had learned so much from him that afternoon, but all he said before he drove away was, "I must work. Good-bye my American friend and God bless you."