By Maxmilian Wechsler
SINCE the demise of the much-hated, smoke-belching oversize songthaews, Bangkok’s roads have now grown accustomed to a new and much smarter though no less controversial form of public transport – the ubiquitous Toyota minivans.
Considered a necessity by many commuters, these sleek and somewhat characterless vehicles are loved by city travellers because they are relatively inexpensive, air conditioned, and every passenger is guaranteed a seat. But they also receive plenty of complaints since some, though not all, drivers seem to believe speed is more important than safety (see sidebar).
Minivans were introduced in Bangkok in 1995 to meet transport requirements to and from the congested inner city outlying areas. Minivan services took off as more and more people migrated to Bangkok looking for work, and public buses became overcrowded and, because of the frequent stops, slow.
With faster travel times and a seat for everyone, it’s no wonder so many people choose minivans as an alternative.
Victory Monument in Bangkok is the main hub of minivans en-route to destinations in Bangkok, its suburbs and neighboring as well as distant provinces. This is where they stop to pick up or drop off passengers. Vans registered to pick up passengers are identifiable by yellow number plates and are allowed to have more passenger seats than private vehicles registered for personal use, which have blue or white and black plates.
While many of the latter are in use illegally for public transport, it is recommended passengers only use minivans with yellow plates. These are operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), a state enterprise under the Ministry of Land Transport that regulates minivans within the city, suburbs and five neighboring provinces. Minivans which bear the BMTA logo are covered in red and purple circles.
Minivans are also popular with commuters travelling to provinces outside the Greater Bangkok region. These minivans have either red and blue or green and blue stripes, yellow number plates, and are owned by various transport companies with routes approved by the BMTA. This type of minivan can also be boarded at Victory Monument. Information about their routes can be found on websites such as www.thailandlism.com/minibus.html or www.rottuthai.com.
Almost all minivans carrying passengers are Toyota Commuters, known for their reliability, durability and low price over similar vehicles produced by other manufacturers. They are used not only by individual commuters, but also to transport school children, tour groups and employees of specific companies.
Men behind the wheel
To shine a light on this booming segment of public transport, The BigChilli spoke to three drivers.
“I have been driving the same route from Pak Kret in Nonthaburi province to Minburi, a distance of about 30 kilometers, since I started 12 years ago. I can cover the route in an hour or less if traffic is not heavy. I usually make four round trips every day, around 240 kilometers. I drive daily from 5.30am to 10pm with breaks for lunch and dinner.
“I am lucky to own my own minivan because other drivers who can’t afford the 100,000 down payment must rent, usually for about 1,500 baht a day from Monday to Friday and 1,300 baht on weekends.”
Mr Mamu says his vehicle is one of over 5,000 public minivans with yellow plates registered with the BMTA which service over 120 routes in the capital and greater Bangkok. ‘I operate legally, but there are others with blue or white plates that aren’t legally permitted to pick up passengers. People should avoid them because these are the ones that drive fast and dangerously and cause accidents.
“Registered minivans can carry no more than 15 people, including the driver. On a full run, thirteen passengers sit in back and one up front with the driver. The minimum fare on my route is ten baht. It depends on the distance. The fare all the way from Pak Kret to Minburi is 25 baht, a fraction of what a taxi would cost,” said Mr Mamu, adding that he makes 1,800 – 2,000 baht daily, less 400 – 500 baht for fuel. It’s enough to support his family, said Mr Manu, whose wife also works. He has many regular customers who travel mainly to and from work.
But it is hard work driving all day in heavy traffic. Mr Mamu said that while motorists often claim that minivan drivers are reckless, every day he sees countless drivers of private vehicles breaking traffic laws and sometimes causing accidents.
Asked why Toyota Commuters are so popular with drivers, Mr Manu replied: “This vehicle is the only one suitable for public transport. They are easy to maintain and to drive, and passengers like them as well.
“The mileage on my minivan is now over 500,000 kilometers and I have had very few problems with the vehicle. It is well made and reliable and I will change to another minivan every five years.”
Mr Mamu claims there are no big companies involved in the minivan business, as there are with taxi cabs. At most there are individuals who own several minivans and rent them out. “I wouldn’t like to drive a taxi because they have to go many places, while I drive only one route. There are about 130 minivans running on the same route.
“I like to drive my own minivan because I am free. I don’t have to worry about the rental and I make money every day. No one controls me and no mafia extorts money from me. As long as they drive carefully, drivers of legal minivans don’t have to worry about being arrested by the police like drivers of the illegal vehicles.”
“However, the police will stop any minivan driver for traffic offences. We aren’t immune as some people might think. Often the police send notifications to drivers by post to pay fines, mainly for speeding. This applies mainly to minivans driving on expressways. I don’t drive on expressways and my route is usually congested, so I don’t really have to deal with speeding tickets.”
“I have third class insurance, obey traffic laws and in many years behind the wheel I have had only a few minor accidents,” he said.
Mr Mamu usually picks up passengers at bus stops. Sometimes his minivan is hired out for up-country trips, in which case he must inform the BMTA and Department of Land Transport and be issued with the proper documents.
“My minivan has a TV monitor for passengers. I also play DVDs. The stereo system is good, and has karaoke. Most rented minivans don’t have this kind of entertainment,” he added.
drives the same route as Mr Mamu. He was born in Sukhothai province and lives with his wife and two kids in Nonthaburi province. His wife doesn’t work. Mr Ruam also drives a Toyota Commuter he bought on installment two years ago for around 1.7 million baht, including interest.
“I have been driving a minivan for 14 years. Before that I was a motorcycle taxi and tuk-tuk driver,” explained Mr Ruam, who starts work at 5.30am and finishes around10.30pm, with breaks for lunch and dinner.
“Minivans are popular with commuters because they are cheaper than taxis and can offer entertainment, so people aren’t bored. When you enter a taxi the meter starts at 30 baht, but the highest fare for my minivan is 25 baht. Going the same distance in a taxi would cost maybe 300 – 400 baht. Minivan passengers know the fare because most of them are regulars. Everything goes smoothly and is well organized. There’s no wasted time discussing the fares.
“I stop at bus stops but sometimes also outside big office buildings or department stores if a customer hails me or wants to disembark.
“I obey traffic laws and don’t drive above the speed limit. I am very careful near schools. I don’t like drivers who go fast without concern for the safety of pedestrians and other drivers, just to make more runs. I’ve never had a serious accident, only a few small scrapes.
“Sometimes people will book my minivan for a trip up-country. Many people know my mobile number to make bookings.”
Mr Ruam said that every three years registered minivan drivers must attend a training session at the Department of Land Transport in the Chatuchak district of Bangkok which lasts for two days.
“I like to drive a minivan,” he said. “I can make good money, definitely more than driving a motorcycle taxi or tuk-tuk. I don’t plan on switching jobs, ever.”
who was born in Chonburi and lives in Bangkok with his wife and two children, rents his minivan. “I have been driving a minivan for three years. Before that I was working for Bridgestone as a mechanic. I rent a Toyota Commuter for 1,300 baht per day. I rent the car from a person who owns several minivans, and there is always one available for me.
“I drive from 5am to 7pm daily and after paying the rent and 400 – 500 baht for fuel my profit is 600 – 1,000 baht per day. You might think my fuel costs are high, but I am driving all day. It is not an easy job but I like it.
“My route is from Rangsit to Minburi, which is about 30 kilometers. The average time for one trip is about an hour, but if there’s a lot of traffic it is much longer. I stop many times along the route but only at bus stops. The route is serviced by about 150 minivans.
“I would prefer to own my own van but I don’t have 100,000 baht for a down payment. If I put down less the bank or finance company requires a guarantee, which I don’t have.
“I obey traffic laws and don’t speed. My van has yellow plates and is registered with the BMTA. Fifteen people can ride in the van including myself. The fare ranges from 10-25 baht. I have third class insurance.
“I don’t pay for maintenance of the minivan; this is done in the workshop of the owner. He pays the insurance as well. My only expense is fuel. My car has only a stereo system for entertainment, no karaoke or television.”
Like the other drivers, Mr Amphol is sold on Toyota Commuter minivans. “Recently someone imported minivans made in China, where I believe several companies are now producing them. They are probably cheaper but I don’t think they are as durable and reliable or would be as popular with passengers as the Toyota Commuter.”
A close inspection of the interviewees’ minivans revealed a striking difference: The two privately owned vans were clean and equipped with fire extinguishers under a seat. The rented one was pretty run down, with dirty seats. It is not surprising that drivers who own their own vehicles take better care of them, and if possible passengers should try to choose these vans.
“Cheap, comfortable and safe, but smelly and too fast.” What the passengers think:
“The only thing that annoys me sometimes is that the driver waits until the minivan is full before he gets started, but I understand that he must take the maximum number of passengers to make money,” Ms Tullaya said.
“I like minivans because the seats are comfortable. They usually have a good sound system and some have televisions and show DVDs. So the journey is pleasant, which is not the case with taxis whose drivers like to talk.
“As a woman I feel the minivans are safer too. My colleagues are also afraid to take a taxi after dark.
“Also, taxi drivers sometimes don’t want to take you where you want to go. The minivans have a set route, so I know I will get to my destination. There are a lot of routes, but sometimes not enough vans. Sometimes you have to change vans to get where you want to go, but sometime you can make a deal with the driver. You tell him after the last stop where you want to get out and ask how much to pay. After 10pm the fare is higher, five or ten baht over the regular fare. Many minivans run until midnight.
“Some of my friends complain that minivan drivers go too fast and always use the horn, but I understand that they must go fast to make living,” said Ms Tullaya.
“What I don’t like is that sometimes the drivers are careless and drive too fast, and some minivans are dirty and smell bad.”
“The minivans drive dangerously, like like zig-zagging through traffic and braking and accelerating sharply, which makes me dizzy and afraid we’ll have an accident. Also, some vans smell bad, and some passengers too. The seats are old in some minivans and dirty,” said Ms Marisa.
She would prefer to commute in a taxi but can’t afford it and also feels they are dangerous after dark. “I have heard of girls who have been raped or an attempt has been made by the drivers. They talk and make sleazy suggestions. If I take a taxi I sit in the back and listen to music using headphones to discourage the driver from initiating conversation,” she said.
MINIVANS have received a lot of negative publicity because of drivers who speed, abruptly change lines, disregard red lights or stop suddenly in traffic. Anyone who reads the local newspapers knows they have been involved in numerous serious accidents all over Thailand.
A survey conducted by the Bangkok-based Foundation for Consumers (FFC) reported that 108 out of 334 accidents between October 2011 and December 2013 were caused by minivans, resulting in 146 deaths and 823 injuries.
In one of the most horrific accidents in August 2013 in Chachoengsao province, a minivan collided with a 22-wheel truck, killing nine people and seriously injuring seven.
Following is a partial list of more serious accidents involving minivans on Thai roads in 2013 and 2014:
• Seven people were killed and three injured when a minivan hit a parked ten-wheel truck in Nakhon Ratchasima province in February.
• A woman was killed and 10 people injured when a train hit a tourist minivan in Kanchanaburi province in February. The driver of the minivan reportedly tried to dart across the tracks as the train came to the crossing.
• Seven people were burned to death and two seriously injured after their minivan crashed into a post in Chonburi province in March 2013.
• Seven people were killed and four injured after a collision between a minivan and an 18-wheel truck in Nakhon Pathom province in May 2013.
• Four people were killed and six injured when a minivan overturned in Chainat province in June last year.
• Three people were killed and five injured when a minivan overturned in Nakhon Ratchasima province in July 2013.
• Nine people were killed and seven injured after a minivan hit the rear of a 22-wheel truck in Bang Khanak district of Chachoengsao province in August 2013.
• In a head-on collision between a minivan carrying ten foreign tourists and an 18-wheel truck, two people were killed and nine injured in Sakaeo province in September 2013.
• A Philippine national died and two other foreigners were injured during a visa run in a minivan which crashed in Trang province last October.
• Seven people were killed and two injured following a collision between a minivan and a 10-wheel truck in Nongbua district of Nakhon Sawan province in November 2013.
• Twenty-two students were injured when the minivan they were travelling in collided with a container truck in Pattaya in January 2014.