The Art of Bargaining in Southeast Asia

I have been in Asia for almost a year now and I’ve had my fair share of markets. From bargaining for weasel poop coffee in the Ben Thanh of Ho Chi Minh City to wheeling and dealing for a knock off Jansport in Fake Market of Shanghai to the massive Weekend Market of Bangkok, I have begun to see these financial exchanges as an art form. In the beginning of my travels, I could barely draw a circle but I’m slowly evolving and blossoming into a true bargaining artist.

Bargaining is a major part of the consumer transaction, many times it’s welcomed and even expected. A good bargainer is respected by the shop keepers; it shows them you’re not some mindless tourist who is easily ripped off but someone who has some sense to them. By the end of your travels it’ll become a way of your life; bargaining for everything from bracelets to transportation. You’ll yearn to feed that burning desire to get see how low you can go and oh my, what a rush it is when you do.

So if you find yourself in Asia anytime soon, keep in mind these tips from yours truly to help get you that happy price. I’ve been told I’m good.

Your Price is Right
Before you start to bargain, make a note to yourself of a price you would be okay with. Say you are browsing for that must-have “Same Same but Different” shirt (been there) set the price tag in the head before. It will give you a reference point and finish line to strive for. If you get there, you’ll feel good and if you get lower, even better.

The shop keeper will ask you to give your best price so keep it low initially. You can always add money and they will happily accept. Try your best not to start bargaining if you’re not serious about buying. They very well could accept the $3 price tag you said you would buy it for. Not accepting after that exchange is just poor bargain etiquette – it’s up there with “Indian Giving” in my book.

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Play The Field
If you are in a major market, it is more than likely that each stall will house the same ole, same ole. Walk around and see if one spot is offering the goods for lower. You can always inquire by asking “How much?” (brownie points if you use the local tongue) or the shop keepers may shout out their own price first. The lower the starting price, the lower you’re likely to pay.

Keep in mind that markets are major tourist spots which means exponentially higher prices. If you go off to an isolated shop, you’ll get a better price. But if you find yourself on the Lonely Planet path, keep that “off the beaten path” mentality and head to a stall that’s not smack in the entrance, receiving the most foot traffic, or filled with other tourists. Those stalls that don’t see as many customers will be more likely to budge as they’ll want the business.

Play It Cool
If you shriek in excitement over an item, telling your friend how much you love it, want it, need it…you’re digging yourself into an expensive hole from the start. The shop keepers will sense your demand for their good and they know they’ve got the supply. Your obvious desire will come into play and make it harder for you to hit that low. Keep it casual and cool. For effect, you can vocalize this nonchalent-ness with some sly “It’s okay” or “I’m not sure if I want it”. You can even add some drama with the slow walk away. Note that they may come after you saying “Okay! Okay! $5”. So again, if they offer your given price, be sure to accept. Bad karma if you don’t.

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Underestimate Your Skills
No matter how good you think you are, they are better. Home field advantage. This is their job and they are here day in and day out, long after you leave. They deal with more tourists than you deal with shop keepers. Remember this and try not to get too confident. Whatever tricks are up your sleeve, I can assure you they have seen them and know the next move. One to I like to avoid is the initial 50% cut off the given price. Sometimes I chose to give a ridiculously low price as a joke with a smile and work my way up from there.

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Early Bird Gets the Worm
Head to the market first thing in the morning and you’ll be sure to get a better price than when the tours unload mid day. Many shop keepers believe a sale in the morning with their first customer will bring good luck for the rest of the day so they are more flexible with prices. This is one of the best tricks in the book.

Stay Strong
You’ll hear pleas to try to make you cave in. They may guilt you with the “but no money” card or “bad luck if you don’t buy” card but stay strong. While some of these may very well be true, don’t feel you are obligated because of it. On the other hand, it is quite easy to feel flattered by their compliments and get sucked into their pitch. They are good sales people and do a great job in making you believe you look like an all-star in those parachute pants or that tree of life necklace. Make sure you’re buying it because you want it and not because of their kind words and flattery.
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Stay Happy
Keep a smile on. Don’t take it too seriously either. You can be friendly and still get a good price. Don’t get annoyed with the “Lady. Come Inside” or the “What are you looking for, Miss?” You may even be touched – a simple arm grab or maybe light shirt tug is not uncommon. Don’t get worked up over this and just take it all in stride. You’re a tourist in these spots and its better to accept that you won’t be paying local prices for everything than getting all huffy and puffy about it. Your currency is already taking you to the other side of the world so stay happy.

So that’s how it’s done, my friends. Game, Set, Match.
Just remember, you’ll be lugging that extra weight around so chose wisely.