South by Southeast: Ugly bargaining

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Most visitors in Southeast Asia are on a tight budget. Lucky for you, the prices here are very negotiable. As I’ve learned during the past two months, everything from the price of my guest house, to my tuk-tuk to souvenirs, is up for negotiation. For a traveler living “on a shoestring,” it’s a been a useful skill to master. But sometimes there’s a difference between bargaining your way to a good deal and just plain “ugly bargaining.”

While in Myanmar, I watched in horror as a backpacker haggled with a woman over a dollar of bananas, walking away shouting in disgust that “he’d been ripped off.” In Laos, I listened as a girl berated our minivan driver for “leaving 30 minutes late.” Ultimately, this kind of “ugly bargaining” gets travelers nowhere. When we get aggressive over small sums of money, it makes locals more jaded about their interactions with foreigners. Not to mention the money involved, while small to you, can mean a great deal to a local.

Bargaining in Southeast Asia need not be an “ugly” affair. If done right, it’s an interaction that benefits everybody. You, the traveler, get a good deal and the local merchant earns some much-needed foreign currency. Everybody goes home happy. Wondering how to do it right? Check below for a few tips.

Rule #1 – Everybody Can Win
Bargaining is not winner-take-all. In a good bargain, both the buyer and seller get something of value. Don’t aim to make your bargaining session a contest with winner and losers. You’re trying to make a purchase, not prove a point or show off your haggling-savvy.

Rule #2 – Stick to Your Word
Negotiating for anything is built on trust. If either side feels the other won’t fulfill their terms, it’s much more difficult to agree on a price. Once you’ve settled on an amount, commit to pay for it. Don’t walk away and check elsewhere. Don’t back out. And if you have no intention of completing a transaction in the first place, don’t ask for the price.

Rule #3– Be a Good Guest
When walking around with plenty of foreign currency in our pockets, it’s easy to assume a mindset of superiority. When we shop at home, we expect a particular level of service will come with our purchase. But in Southeast Asia, mass tourism is still a relatively recent phenomenon – English is a second language and infrastructure is often unreliable. When your bus leaves 30 minutes late or the the power is out at the restaurant, freaking out at the staff is poor form. Don’t stand for poor service, but a little patience and a smile goes a long way. It will work out…promise.

Rule #4 – Keep Perspective
Long-term traveling means sticking to a budget. But don’t let your own budget get in the way of the bigger picture. Sure, you might be saving a few bucks, but the gap between your income and the average merchant in Southeast Asia is huge. A week’s wages for you could be more than they earn in an entire year. If you don’t get the price you wanted, consider the extra as a gift for their assistance.

Rule #5 – Smile
Not every bargaining session works out perfectly. Maybe a merchant still managed to get a few extra Thai Baht than you planned. Or you’ll hear another traveler bragging about a great deal that was better than your own. In these situations, remember to smile – a few dollars lost in a bargain isn’t the end of the world.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.