I wandered aimlessly through the colourful stalls of Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak market. Running only on weekends, this market is a favourite for locals and tourists alike. From souvenirs to food, clothing to buddha figurines, and (I was told) even live animals, it seemed like this maze of vendors literally sold everything. And, being the first time I had stepped foot into one of Asia’s famous markets, I wanted everything. The only problem; haggling in Asia was how things worked, and I didn’t know if I had the skills to rise up to the challenge.
I got my first taste of haggling when I was in the Dominican Republic with my brother. We wanted to go parasailing and found a guy. I asked the price, he gave me a number, and in my completely stereotypical way of avoiding being rude (as in yelling, ARE YOU INSANE!?) I told him I would ‘think on it’. My little brother, however, went about things completely differently.
“For the two of us? We’re in.”
Again, I had to find my inner polite Canadian and stand by in solidarity instead of bursting out in laughter (HAHAHA YOU IDIOT! AS IF THAT WILL WORK!). But he was the one laughing in the end because somehow, it actually did work. We both went parasailing for a little more than half of what everyone else paid for one person. And so my little brother, who had never been outside of Canada until now, got us the best parasailing deal ever. Well done Jake.
The best part about the whole interaction? It was friendly banter the whole time. No one was rude, and while both sides were obviously trying to get the best deal, both were willing to cede and not take complete advantage of the other. Standing on the outside, it was an awesome transaction to watch and one I stored in mind to try to replicate.
There, in Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, I had my first chance. I was eyeing some change purses; pretty jewel tone colours with little elephant prints. I wanted one for myself, but also some to take home to friends. With my eye on the prize I approached the vendor and got to work.
He was rude and abrupt, he ignored me and moved on to someone else while I waited. I choked and bailed. As I walked away I cursed myself in my head for being so crap. But it was hard, this vendor was so different from the cool guy in the Dominican Republic. And that’s when I realized how different haggling was around the world. This guy wasn’t going to ask me to go for a beer later. This wasn’t laid back island life. This was crazy Bangkok where everyone is in a rush, people are more curt, and English isn’t as prominent. And so I walked away from the vibrant stalls of Bankok’s most famous market and headed back to my hostel where I planned to pick the brains of fellow travellers and staff in the effort to pick up some good tips for haggling in Asia.
I have since spent about six months in southeast Asia. I’ve wandered the markets and shops in ten different countries learning to haggle for everything from food to souvenirs to custom made clothing. And while I may not exactly be a master, I’ve definitely learned how to get the job done. So if you are headed to Bangkok, or elsewhere, here are my 10 best tips for haggling in Asia.
1) Know what you are willing to pay ahead of time and separate that money so it seems like it’s all you have. I have a separate change purse for this exact reason.
2) Never accept the first offer (even if it seems like a good deal) cut it in half and go from there.
3) SMILE and remain friendly. No one likes being yelled at and treated poorly. Never get angry.
4) Be willing to walk away, often they will come after you and agree to your price.
5) Buying in bulk will get you a better deal, so shop with other travellers.
6) Wander the market before you start haggling, if there are multiple vendors selling the same item, you know you can get a better price (feel free to use this information in your haggling as well).
7) Shop early; the first sale of the day is considered to be lucky and you can get a better deal.
8) Don’t be too interested in an item. If they see you love it, they are less likely to budge on the price because they think they have you.
9) Ask other travellers, or at your accommodation, approximate prices for what you should be paying for things so you have an idea before you go in.
10) Remember, these vendors often have families and children to look after. That $1 difference is probably not a big deal for you, but could be a meal for them. Be cheap, but don’t be too stingy.
Haggling is a talent. It’s not always easy for everyone, and it definitely takes some practice. But as long as you stay friendly and respectful, it can be a lot of fun and you can get some great deals.
Do you have any additional tips for haggling in Asia? I would love to know your suggestions in the comments below!