Bargaining in Southeast Asia

Last year, there was an announcement of a Psy-inspired tourist police team in Seoul designed to stop the over-charging of tourists by merchants and taxi drivers. While we westerners are more to used to set prices, the developing world still relies heavily on working out a price between two parties. That practice can be used by locals on unexpected foreigners to inflate prices dramatically without them ever knowing.  The question: is that fair?

Since speaking with other travelers, I've found I'm not alone in trying to decipher the morality behind the fine art and skill of bargaining in Southeast Asia. Now that I'm home, I'm trying to explain the annoyances and joys of price negotiation to my friends. It's hard for people who haven't been abroad to imagine bargaining for every ride, piece of clothing, meal, hotel room, and tour--it not only takes a tremendous amount of skill and patience, but also an unexpected amount of good will.  

It turns out, bargaining is not about getting a cut-throat price or pitting competitors against each other.  It's about finding a balance: as my tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap said, "I find comfortable price for you and good price for me and we are both happy.  I want you happy, and I want to be happy too." Bargaining, when done right, is about laughing, joking, and a light-hearted attitude.  When both parties approach the transaction with a mutual respect, both people can walk away happy.

But is it fair for me to ask the question, "What is this worth to me?"  What is it worth to me in New York, where a beer is worth $6.00? Or where I am at the moment in Cambodia, where a beer is only fifty cents? Maybe its worth should be based on the Korean won, where I made most of my spending money. Some people (mostly Australians whose minimum wage is $16.88) feel that an item's worth should be based on the money they've saved.  If they have $2,000 saved a beer is worth one amount,; if they have $20,000 they have no problem spending a little more.  

Here's the dilemma: a tuk-tuk driver tells me that a ride to town is $5.00. I know the locals pay seventy-five cents. Is that fair? I'm clearly not from a developing country and I'm clearly indulging in a work-free trip, so should I overpay? Its fair to assume that my driver has never taken a vacation in his life.

While I was working for a news station in Cambodia, a colleague of mine interviewed a bunch of tuk-tuk drivers and found out that if they made $500 it was a good month, while some months they could make as low as $50. This is while working full-time in a country with no supportive infrastructure like healthcare or unemployment. It's hard not to give all your money away to the first person you meet, once you realize just how lucky you are.

Here's the compromise: What ends up happening, inevitably, is that you do overpay. But within reason. They say $5.00, you tell them the locals pay $1.00, so they say $3.00. You say $2.00 then walk away.  They will act like you are insulting them with such a low price and try and make you feel guilty, but as soon as you walk away they will run after you. As long as you know the local prices, you can rest easy in knowing that they definitely are making money off of you. You take the ride for $2.00: slightly higher than the normal fare, but still fair for all parties involved. They make more money than usual, and you are not taken advantage of.

But that whole exchange hinges on one important fact: that you know what the locals pay.  Bargaining can be a respectful process, but its inevitable that you will meet people who will, understandably, take whatever they can get. For every backpacker watching every penny, there's a middle or upper class family who pays the first price they hear either because they can't be bothered bargaining, their ignorance of the bargain culture, or because it is technically cheaper than they'd pay back home. Because of this demographic, the locals feel that all westerners are rich, indifferent to money, and willing to give them whatever they ask. So before you go anywhere, there are two important things to keep in mind:

1. Figure out what the locals pay for taxi service both in town and to and from the airport. Any price points you can find will help you to get an idea of what something is worth.

2. Learn three or four phrases of the native language (minimum) to let the people you are bargaining with know that not only do you respect their culture, but you know what price is fair (even if you don't).

I don't want to romanticize the whole process too much, which is easy to do back in the states. Sometimes you will have to bargain down with adorable children, or a woman with children swarming around her. Some people will get angry and bitter.  Some will play on your ignorance.

(Once I was rushed onto a bus that I assumed was included with a tour I had purchased, but I didn't ask the right questions and was charged an exorbitant amount for a 5 minute ride I could have easily walked. It was a ride literally down the block and I could see my start and end point.)

The whole process is stressful if you get too wrapped into it. Some locals will tell you that you overpaid while travelers will brag they paid lower than you. It's easy to constantly doubt yourself, and it's exhausting when all you want is a fair price and you're not sure what it is that means.  

The best you can do is come prepared, keep perspective, and remember that even the rudest people are just trying to feed their families and get by.  There are usually plenty of options to choose from, and plenty of time to make your decision.  If they aren't letting you walk away, it's probably because they don't want you to find out about other information.  You won't ever be a local.  You will always get a "special foreigner price".  But that doesn't mean you can't make a human connection and have a great experience.  After all, everyone wants to walk away happy.