The Do’s and Don’ts of Haggling in Southeast Asia

Exploring the local market in Hoi An

Haggling or Bargaining. For many of us in the West, it’s a cultural difference that is hard to get used to when we first arrive in a foreign land. Being from England (a nation of people who love to queue and hate to kick up a fuss in public!) it is one that I have definitely struggled with over the years. Deeming it dreadfully impolite and being too shy to participate, I have without a doubt paid over the odds for day-to-day costs whilst travelling!

However, not only is haggling totally accepted in the majority of places in Southeast Asia (and South America), it’s expected! It’s the way business is done, deals are struck and livings are made.

From tuk-tuk rides to shopping trips in the market, you’ll need to be armed with your haggling skills pretty much everywhere you go. If you don’t, you will end up paying more for everyday items than the average backpacker (like I did in the past)… Nervous? Well lucky for you, our experienced backpacking community are here to help with a few tips to get you bargaining with the best of ’em in no time at all!

Local market in Southeast Asia
The local market is a great place to try out your haggling techniques!

The do’s and don’t of haggling (responsibly)

DO

1. Speak a little of the language

Even learning just a little bit of the local language (hello, please, thank you) will show people that you’ve not just stepped off the plane (even if you have! Most importantly, attempting to speak the language will demonstrate you’re making an effort to understand the language and culture. Check out our video on how to order food in Thai for starters!

2. Relax and take your time

Haggling should be fun, not stressful. Smile and have a laugh while you negotiate and enjoy the new skill you have learnt! Most importantly always be polite to the vendor.

3. Fake a walk-off and feign disinterest

It’s often the way that you’re able to get really great prices for the things you had absolutely no interest in buying in the first place! But oh that price keeps on coming down and you just can’t resist…

4. Don’t start your price too high

(Or too low for that matter – don’t take the piss!) Start bargaining at around half of whatever the vendor says, that gives plenty of room for the price to creep up.

5. Throw an odd number in, like 497

They’ll think you’re a seasoned pro and give you some respect dude!

6. Ask for extras to be thrown in

If the vendor adamant about the price, try a ‘how about give me this and this for this price?’ or ‘what if I buy three will you give me this price?’ Just make sure that you actually want seven colourful hats with bells on before you start the bargaining process!

7. Ask a local how much you should be paying

This is especially important for journeys. A local will give you a rough idea of what’s a fair price for a bus/taxi journey in that particular area. Remember that tourist prices will almost always be higher, but at least you have a base mark to go off.

The Colourful Interior of a Bus in Sri Lanka
It’s a good idea to ask a local how much they are paying for their bus journey.

DON’T

1. Get too carried away

Bargaining for your goods in a local grocery store or attempting to haggle for your alcoholic beverages in bars or your dinner in restaurants is not appropriate and will get you some funny looks. Remember – you can’t haggle everywhere!

2. Get angry!

Remember you’re the foreigner here; whoever you are dealing with is just trying to make a living and they’re not trying to rip you off (most of the time). Adopt a playful rather than an ‘everyone is out to get me’ attitude and you won’t go far wrong. See our opinion piece below on why you shouldn’t bargain too hard. Don’t be that jerk!

3. Give in too easily

Haggling is just a game that people expect you to play. Don’t think you’re being really rude by not accepting the first price – it’s just the way shopping is done here. The aim is to come to a fair agreement that you’re both happy with.

4. Bargain too late on

At the end of a taxi journey or when your purchase is all wrapped up and in your backpack, it’s too late. Get a price upfront. Once you’ve made your decision and accepted the service/goods you’ve lost all of the power you potentially had!

5. Don’t attempt your bargaining skills in taxis in major cities

In Bangkok, for example, It is much more cost efficient to ask your driver politely to put the meter on. Say in Thai – “Dit meter dai mai ka / kap?” Or, get an Uber or a Grab.

6. Continue to use your newly found skills at home

No matter how exciting and impressive they may be out here, they won’t work in TESCO back home!

5 reasons why you shouldn’t haggle too hard – Don’t be a Jerk!

(An opinion by Conan Griffin)

Let’s face it, haggling is rarely about the money. Sure, we might get fleeced in some places if we didn’t bargain at all, and, yes, bargaining is part of some cultures. But most of the time, our efforts only end up saving us a few bucks here and there.

So, we haggle for bragging rights, mostly, and perhaps because we believe that everything has an intrinsic “fair” price, a fixed cost for both local and traveler. At least that’s why I used to haggle so hard.

And I knew all the tricks, from asking for prices of random things to slyly grumbling to my friend in a “secretive” tone. I even had the walkaway down pat. And I still use these tricks on occasion because, well, taking the first price offered would be downright silly.

But after years of travel through dozens of countries, I don’t think of a “fair” price in the same way. No, I’ve realised that bragging rights and a couple of bucks come at a heavier cost to the person across from me.

So if you’ve ever questioned the idea of “fair” price or inwardly cringed at someone relentlessly haggling over a three-dollar t-shirt, here are a few things to think about.

1. Backpackers are rich compared to many locals

We are, comparatively speaking, rich. I used to baulk at this idea, thinking, “Who, me? I’m not some rich dude.” The truth was, and is, that being able to visit exotic locales makes me rich, at least compared to many locals, some of whom, like the average Cambodian garment worker, make less than $100 USD a month.

No matter how you slice it, that’s not a lot of coin. Now your veritable wealth is nothing to be ashamed of; just be grateful for your good fortune and graceful with how you interact with the world.

Backpackers eating pizza_CocoHostel_Khao Sok Thailand
No matter how you slice it, backpackers are rich compared to the majority of locals.

2. Remember the vendor is just trying to make a living

We are haggling with another person, a human being who is just trying to make a living— and not an opulent one. I’d bet that Cambodian orange juice vendor is not stashing away for his upcoming European tour. No, he probably pushes that cart up and down the steep streets of Siem Reap selling fresh-squeezed juice for 25 cents a cup to take something home to his family. Can you blame him if he tries to take home a bit more by charging tourists 50 cents? That’s not to say you should pay 50 cents if you know the going rate is 25, but be amiable about it.

3. What is a fair price?

We look like jerks haggling over a few dollars and cents. Listen, it’s 25 cents. Is 50 cents a “fair” price for sipping fresh OJ under the Cambodian sun? You bet. Is 3 bucks “fair” for a t-shirt that says “Angkor What?” Of course. And haggling in ways that suggest those aren’t “fair” prices does not make you look good. I know because every time I made some poor vendor desperately call after me just to get me to turn around and grace them with my two-dollar purchase, I was that jerk.

Meat Stalls at Chow Kit Wet Market
What is a fair price?

4. Better stories

We get better stories—and memories—by treating people humanely. Though I don’t tell it often, my favourite bargaining memory is of haggling for a four-foot wooden totem pole in Arequipa, Peru. After squeezing that lady out of every last cent I could, I got back to my hostel and realised what a jerk I’d been.

So I went and bought a bouquet of flowers, which I took to her the next day along with the extra few bucks she had been trying to get me to pay. It’s one of the better memories of bargaining I have. Now you tell me if that isn’t a better story, too.

5. Accept that as a tourist, you will overpay

We will always get taken for a little extra anyway. You don’t have to like it, but you might as well get used to it. Think of it as a tax for being able to see the world, and budget a few bucks every day to a “getting ripped off at least a little bit” fund.

That’s not to say that you should give up bargaining or knowingly overpay, but you should accept overpaying as part of the great adventure that is traveling. And if overpaying for your coconut water or your souvenir batik sarong is the worst part of your trip, you’ve done well, my friend.

Now let’s see how it works in practice…

The following is a common day to day experience for the backpacker in Southeast Asia. The scene is any Asian city. The temperature is of course scorching. Here’s how to play the haggling game and use the skills you have learnt on the street…

Public transport in Southeast Asia

Mr Tuk-Tuk: Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk.

Sweaty Backpacker: (Grows hotter, redder and sweatier the minute as he traipses the streets looking for guest houses…)

Mr Tuk-Tuk: Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk, Tuk-tuk. Hello, where you go, my friend?

Sweaty Backpacker: (As his flip flop breaks and he nearly gets run over by a motorbike crossing the road, he is finally worn down by the persistent Mr Tuk Tuk and the promise of a short and breezy journey.) Okay. How much to town centre?

Mr Tuk-Tuk: (Eying the farang up and down, assessing how much of a beginner he is.) Okay 500, let’s go!

Sweaty Backpacker: (Feigning a complete look of shock, shaking his head) No way, 250!

Mr Tuk-Tuk: Oh cannot, cannot. Ooooweeeeeeeeeeeee. Cannot. Okay okay cheap cheap for you. 400.

Sweaty Backpacker: (Firm, he’s done this before) 300. Good for you, good for me.

Mr Tuk-Tuk: Ah, ooweeeeeeeeeeeee, My petrol very expensive – cannot cannot.

Sweaty Backpacker: Okay never mind. (Pretending to walk off).

Mr Tuk-Tuk: Okay, okay let’s go.

The two depart on a beautiful journey into the sunset and despite stopping off at three gem shops and two travel agencies, the ride works out jolly well for all involved.  Two joyful souls brought together by the wonderful concept that is bargaining.

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    Nikki Scott is the founder & editor of South East Asia Backpacker. A traveller-turned-entrepreneur, she left the UK in 2009 and after 6 months on the road, she started a bi-monthly print magazine about backpacking in Asia. South America Backpacker soon followed and today she runs her backpacking enterprise from her base in Spain. Her honest and fascinating book, Backpacker Business, tells the story of her success in the face of adversity.