Kuala Lumpur (The Star/ANN) - It didn't take much a backpack slung over my shoulders, an empty camera bag around the neck, some baggy trousers and voila, I looked every bit the Mat Salleh tourist.
Thanks to my British-Malaysian Chinese parentage, I was assigned to go "undercover" to check out how a typical tourist would fare with our KL cabbies, who had earned the city the reputation of having the worst taxi drivers in the world, according to LondonCabs.co.uk.
Popular website Tripadvisor also warns travellers about KL's errant taxi drivers who "refuse to use the meter, quoting a fare often with the view of ripping you off".
"This quoted' fare is generally akin to daylight robbery, and sometimes when haggling takes place, it is reciprocated with rude gestures or abusive language ..." adds Tripadvisor.
On Virtualtourist.com, a visitor posted: "I have travelled the world and from Bombay to Boston I can tell you the taxi drivers in KL are the biggest pack of thieving lying dirtbags you will ever come across."
Another responded: "Agreed! They are notorious and globally infamous for fleecing customers!"
So masquerading as a tourist, I quickly learnt that when you look lost and Caucasian, you're never short of a "friend" in Jalan Bukit Bintang.
"Hello, how are you?"
"Where you want to go, Miss?"
My first test case was a bespectacled man who leapt out from a line of cabs with the words "Metered Taxi" plastered across each side.
"Puduraya?" I asked cluelessly.
"No problem," he said.
The cab was fairly well kept, and we joined in the line of moving traffic in front of Lot 10 along Jalan Sultan Ismail in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
The driver was polite and friendly.
He set on getting to know me where I was from, what I was doing here and then offering several exciting trips for me to take: to Genting Highlands and back? 250 ringgit (US$81.8). National Zoo? 100 ringgit.
"In England, people have a lot of money, uh?"
"There's a recession," I replied.
"When you in Malaysia, your money very big!"
We drove for a bit longer and after a minute, I asked innocently: "What's this sign on your window aren't you supposed to use the meter?"
Only the cabs at a taxi stand use the meter, he explained patiently, "but you walk very far one".
We covered approximately 2 kilometres in about five minutes. The fee was 25 ringgit.
A quick check on the Malaysia Taxi Auto Fare website tells me the trip should have cost 8 ringgit.
I asked for a receipt, and he tore out a slip from his pink receipt book, handing it to me blank, with a knowing smile.
In all, I took five cabs, and surveyed six more, trying to get a fare comparison. Not a single one used the meter, and all had an ingenious excuse: Friday prayers, very bad traffic jam, hard to find customers, the machine is broken.
Fares for the same location varied; another cabbie who took me back to where I started, for example, charged 15 ringgit
Out of five cabbies I asked to take me to Muzium Negara, about 4.5 kilometres away, one wanted 15 ringgit, another 20 ringgit, still another RM25 and the other two 30 ringgit.
If this is how they treat a supposed backpacker, how much would they charge me if I was staying at a five-star hotel?
"How much to Le Meridien?" I asked one driver parked outside Pavilion shopping mall.
"45 ringgit" came the prompt answer.
Malaysia Taxi Auto Fare has that journey down to 10 ringgit, for a 10-minute, 4.5 kilometre drive.
The cab interiors varied most were well kept, and the drivers were friendly or indifferent.
There was only one driver who lived up to the number one ranking of "Worst Drivers" List, and I found him 100 metres to the left of Suria KLCC shopping mall's main entrance.
He was surrounded by a group of burly friends.
"Where you want to go miss?" he asked, more bullying than friendly. Central Market, I said, as he opened the door to a blue executive cab.
I wanted to go in one of the six red taxis parked around us.
'All the same price!" he said to the agreement of other taxi drivers who had crowded around him.
So I got in and the first thing we did was an illegal U-turn right across the pavement of a pedestrian crossing after the "walk" light had turned green.
Then we drove down a bus lane, went through a red light, and arrived at the far end of Lebuh Ampang, 1km away from Central Market.
"Is this Central Market?" I asked.
"Yes, there!" he said, pointing to the end of the road.
I handed him a 50 ringgit note for my 40 ringgit, 10-minute journey. What he said next really took the biscuit.
"No change, you go to that shop and get change."
Of all the taxi drivers I met that day, the only taxi driver who did not overcharge was a man in his early 60s.
He didn't use the meter when he took me from Jalan Tun H.S. Lee to Pavilion in Bukit Bintang and his asking price was 10 ringgit, the only fare to almost match Malaysia Taxi Auto Fare's calculations.
That's one in 11. The cabbies I encountered may not have been as nasty and rude as they have been made out to be. But when it comes to refusing to use the meter and fleecing the passenger, it seems all too sadly true.
US$1 = 3.05 Malaysian ringgit