Advice for successful (and sometimes even fun) bartering in South East Asia
By Charlotte Halligan
March 12, 2010
I am from middle-class England, and I can tell you with some authority that the typical clichés remain true: the stiff upper lip may have loosened slightly, but is still there; queuing is practically a spiritual act; good manners are more important to most people than morality (break into my house and I’d be more upset by muddy footprints on my carpet than the stolen goods); and arguing in public is a more painful experience than root canal surgery,
To say that coming from this background and diving headfirst into South East Asia has been a bit of a culture shock would be an understatement. And nowhere has my social conditioning been more tested than in the street markets of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. Bartering for goods is a way of life in Asia, and one that takes a lot of getting used to. You can’t go out for a pint of milk without having to argue for 20 minutes (actually, that’s not true – you can’t go out for a pint of milk at all, really, dairy has not caught on much in Asia, but you get my drift).
Over the last eight months of travelling around the region I have been ripped off more times than I care to count and I have gotten some real bargains. I have torn my hair out in frustration and I have had spent whole afternoons enjoying good natured bartering in fascinating environs. Throughout my time here I have been growing accustomed to the culture of bargaining, and while I still make a lot of mistakes, here are some essential survival tips that I have compiled to make the experience more enjoyable for all involved.
Know what you want to pay
Going into any negotiation blind is a bad idea and a sure-fire way to get ripped off. Look around, decide what you want to buy, and then decide the highest price you are willing to pay for it. When bartering, start at around the quarter of the price you actually want and work your way up. If you don’t know what your end point will be, how can you pick your starting bid?
Know when to walk away
In every exchange there is a price that the seller will not go beneath. It’s a simple rule: if they aren’t making a profit they won’t sell it, similarly, there should be a price that you won’t go above (see why it’s so important to decide what you want to pay?). Sometimes these two amounts don’t match up and a sell that keeps both parties happy can’t be made. If that’s the case, just walk away. Don’t let yourself be bullied into buying something at a price that’s too high for you. Sellers will try all sorts of techniques, from getting angry to pleading poverty. Remember, you are buying goods and not giving to charity.
Don’t get too caught up in the moment
Despite what I just said, don’t get too carried away in the hunt for a bargain. We’ve all been there; you start negotiating and suddenly you’re so caught up in getting the lowest price possible that you end up arguing over tiny sums. If you find yourself getting frustrated over 10 cents, ask yourself who needs it more, or if it is even worth 10 cents of your time to argue for twenty minutes. Be sensible!
Never lose your temper
All bartering should be good natured: it is part of the experience of travelling and, depending on how you handle it, its something you will either look back on fondly or with loathing. Try and make it the former.
Always smile and be polite, never raise your voice, have a laugh and let the seller know that you understand the act of bartering.
Don’t check the price after you’ve paid
There is always a temptation once a sale is complete to check with other market stalls to see their prices, or compare with other travellers to see how much they’ve paid for the same thing. Don’t. Invariably you will discover that you have paid more than someone else and feel like you’ve been had. Or, in the rare case that you have paid less than someone else, you will end up sounding like a smug nob end and successfully make someone else feel crap. Once a deal is done, consider it complete.
For some travellers I have met getting the lowest price for everything from clothes to rooms, transport to food, is all consuming, and ultimately ruins their experiences. I have seen people literally rip money out of the hands of a Vietnamese trader; listened while someone has bored an entire bus by recounting how little they have paid for this or that; and watched as someone refused to pay the grand sum of 50 cents in an internet café in Laos because the connection was too slow.
I hold to the maxim “good price for me, good price for you” (and generally close all my bartering with that line). If you end up in a situation where you know you are being charged slightly more than a local, and the trader knows you could still afford more, but both are happy with the price, then let it be. Everybody wins.
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