Published: February 14th 2012February 14th 2012
If the word barter conjures up images of 16th century peasants trading magic beans for cows, then you may want to read on. Bartering is a very important part of life in Asia. The simple fact is that Asia is cheap. Hostels, restaurants, taxis, prostitutes…everything you could possibly want is much, much cheaper than in the Western World. The problem is, the locals know this. They know, they know you know, and they may even know that you know that they know you know. Trust me, I know.
Typically, if you get into a taxi in any Asian countries, the following scenario will play out. The taxi driver will suggest a price that is ludicrously high. Take Phnom Penh for example. You can probably hire a taxi driver to take you around the city, stopping off at various points, for around $5 (I‘ll working in dollars here because that‘s what they do in Cambodia). The driver, however, will suggest something like $30. He’s hoping that you’re going to do a mental calculation in your head and think “30 bucks to get driven around all day is much cheaper than wherever I come from; I’ll do it!” This is where you
have to stop and think. I mean, if you’re paying about $3 for your hostel room and spent $1 on your lunch, do you really want to be blowing your budget on a taxi?
It’s a tough concept, but you have to think in the currency that you’re in. It’s no good thinking that because something is cheaper than your native country it’s worth doing, because you may be paying 10 times the price in Cambodia, or whoever you are. Of course, this kind of thinking isn’t for everyone. It’s really up to how much money you have and how much of that you want to spend. Sometimes it can get pretty ridiculous; take Indonesia, where £1 = around 15,000 rupiah. You’re arguing with some dude over a few thousand rupiah, which seems a lot, and suddenly you realise you’re arguing over 30p. When and where you draw the line is up to you. These are just some bartering tips.
1) Have an idea what you should pay. There’s no point getting all huffy about the price if that is what the actual price is. Speak to other travellers and find out how much they paid for something.
2) Go as low as you can. If a taxi driver wants $30, don’t then think ‘I’ll offer him half’, because chances are that he’s probably chancing his arm and hoping that you’re one of those dumbass American tourists who feel some sort of moral need to spread their wealth about. Laugh at his $30 and offer him $2 and see what happens. You’ll find his price comes down quick.
3) If you feel a moral urge, well, try not to. To use taxi drivers as example (I didn’t just spend my time abroad in taxis…); in many cities, there will be lots and lots of taxi drivers loitering around. Many of them will be desperate for work and will probably settle for a very low price - lots of travel websites will tell you to try and avoid exploiting these people. Lad Traveller completely supports this idea, but don’t get to hung up about idea; you’re not going to solve the poverty problem in Asia by giving a taxi driver a little extra.
4) If there’s one question that man has pondered on for many years, it’s ‘how much should I tip?’. This is especially difficult if you’re from a non-tippy (it’s a word) country like England. I spent four days with a Nepal trekker guide called Rimal, who took my travel buddies and me around the Himalayas. The three of us decided that a tip of around $20 each would be fair; after all, he’d done a lot for us and presumably was getting paid a small amount. We later spoke to a group of girls who’d tipped their guide a whopping 500 Nepalese rupee. Unfortunately, this equated to $5. Personally, I think we overtipped and they under tipped.
5) If there’s one thing that fucks me off, it’s people expecting a tip. At many Asian airports, you’ll find that the kind employee that you thought was helping you carry your bag is actually someone looking for a fee. This often leads to mistrust - later on, the taxi driver who is actually trying to help you out by carrying your bag gets an earful about trying to extract extra money. Try to suss out who’s trying to help and who’s trying to scam you.
6) Always agree a fee before entering a ‘contract’. In fact, specify as much as you can; simply popping into a taxi and saying ‘the airport please, there’s a good chink’ won’t only make you a potential racist, it’ll also mean a longer journey than you planned. What the taxi driver hears is ‘the airport please, and if you fancied stopping off at your brother-in-law’s shop in the Bangkok ghetto and refusing to drive further until we’ve bought something, well that’s alright too.’
7) My favourite bartering technique is the ‘get up and walk out of the shop routine’. It goes like this.
You’re in the proprietor’s store, haggling over a price. You can’t agree; his fee is still way above yours. Your only option (apart from paying the higher fee, obviously) is to walk out of his shop, complaining that his price it too high. Then, either one of two things will happen. Either the shop owner will run outside and offer you a lower price, or he won’t, and you’ll have to crawl back on your hands and knees, begging for his earlier fee, which is highly embarrassing. Sometimes however, even this isn’t enough…
December 23rd, 2009. We arrived in Bangkok, tired but buzzing. The city was absolutely packed but finding accommodation proved to be surprisingly easily; unfortunately, the landlady was the strangest owner of a Guesthouse I'd met yet. She offered us a room for 450 baht, and we did the obvious counter off of 350. No, she said, and the turned away from us and began reading her magazine. She was playing hardball, but we were happy to go up to 450, as the rooms were okay and the location good. ‘Nope’ she said. ‘No deal.’ Err...ok, but why? ‘Because Thai's don’t barter.’ was her response. Righhhhhhht. Well we all know that's a lie, because we'd already bartered with the taxi driver. It was an unusual tactic from the land lady, but forays out into the local streets showed that everywhere was full, and the accommodation here was good, even if the landlady was clearly crazy. Eventually, we had to apologise to her, and feeling like naughty school children, were led to our room. It became fairly obvious over the next few days that she was a little special. The landlady had a habit of looking at you for about 30 seconds before speaking, she had a very girly high pitched voice, and she had wild mood swings that took her from a very helpful lady to a spiteful bitch. Actually scrap that last one - that’s just every girlfriend I’ve ever had.
Of course, as with all things in life, practice makes perfect. It'll take time to get used to bartering, and it may even appear a little daunting at first, but I actually really enjoyed bartering. Not only was it a chance to engage in some good light-hearted banter with the locals, but it also saves you money, and who wouldn't want to do that?