If you spend any time on the road in Thailand, you’re bound to notice a scruffy face decorating the backs of trucks or printed onto their mud flaps. And if you’ve seen the 1970s crime drama Serpico, you might recognize that face as a fully bearded Al Pacino, who has become a symbol of protection and good luck to many drivers of Thailand’s commercial trucks.
What do Pacino and Serpico have to do with Southeast Asian trucking? In the film, Al Pacino plays undercover NYPD officer Frank Serpico, who is determined to root out corruption within the police force. This portrayal must have struck a chord with Thai drivers seeking protection from local law enforcement. Thailand ranks 85th out of 175 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and according to authors Bertil Lintner and Michael Black in Merchants of Madness, “a traffic policeman in Bangkok might stop motorists—especially trucks and other commercial vehicles—and demand bribes to ignore real or imaginary traffic offences. In this way, a policeman can collect thousands of baht [Thailand's currency] a day.” Needless to say, commercial truck drivers are always looking for ways to avoid paying these bribes.
That’s where Pacino comes in. While Western drivers personalize their vehicles to help stand out in the crowd, Thailand’s truck drivers keep the divine in mind when they dress up their rides. Many people in Thailand practice Theravada Buddhism, which has its roots in the oldest known Buddhist texts and considers “gods” (devas) to be beings who can protect people. The more protectors one has—whether or not these protectors are traditional Buddhist figures—the better. As a result, drivers decorate their taxis or trucks with Hindu or Taoist talismans sitting right next to Buddhist figurines, flowered garlands, and portraits of monks all in the name of protection. Random bits of pop culture occasionally make it into the mix—which is why you can find a bearded Pacino’s face displayed in an unlikely place as he protects drivers from corruption.