Bargaining in Thailand – 7 Tips

Posted on Saturday, December 4, 2010 - 7 Comments

Floating Market Negotiations

I woke up in a daze, wondering what time it was and how long I’d been asleep. After, figuring out it was lunch-time, I ventured out to find the closest down-home food shack to get my first taste of real authentic Thai food in years. With my belly full of Pad Thai Chicken, stir-fried morning glory and a shockingly sweet iced-coffee (total cost $2.50 USD), I felt ready to brave the street-side vendors on the overcrowded sidewalks of Sukhumvit Rd.

Bangkok overwhelms the senses with its smells of exotic fruit mixed with sewage, the sounds of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and taxis competing with the inquiries of street touts, and the sidewalks filled with goods for sale.

The vendors have set up their tables and stalls right on the sidewalk and you have no choice but to walk past their wares. As I walked down Sukhumvit in search of an opportunity to reawaken my rusty bargaining skills, I was jostled by other tourists and accosted by vendors. I went past tables stacked with pirated DVDs, packs of Viagra, cheesy tourist T-Shirts, baggy fisherman pants, wooden carvings of erotica that would have been embarrassing in the 70’s, velvet posters of tigers and tuk-tuks, key fobs of elephants and knock-off handbags galore. Not what I was looking for!

Only when I noticed an old woman selling small carved wooden and cast metal statues of Buddhist gods did I stop and look at what she had on offer today. Right away, she sprang into action, noting what I was looking at, and squawking loudly. She was not going to let me leave without at least seeing how much I was willing to pay for what I was looking at. Instantly I liked her.

I pointed at the two items I wanted and she gave me a price on a calculator. This is typical as it avoids confusion. I just stood there for a moment wondering if I wanted to pay that much. Silence can be a good negotiating tactic if used appropriately. Of course, this was her opening offer and it was my turn to counter offer. I knew this, but was just thinking. She made a movement with her hand; palm down lowering it and pointing at me. She was basically telling me to make a counter offer; imploring me to bargain.

Thai’s know westerners aren’t used to bargaining, and no, you probably won’t get as good a price as if you were a Thai. All I could do was look at this tiny old woman and think how sweet she was. Of course she was looking at me thinking I’m an idiot or slow or something and she’s going to make a killing, but she showed some heart because then she just decided to counter offer herself. She dropped the price by 25% and since the tiny trinkets only cost a few dollars total, I decided to buy them. She was thrilled and put them in a small plastic bag for me. I am thrilled because I always wanted a little Ganesh I could keep in my pocket and I like the leaping/running tiger also!

If you are disappointed that I did not bargain her down more aggressively then you may not care for my bargaining tips, but if you think there is room for win/win negotiating then please read these tips:

  • Bargain with a smile – In, The Land of Smiles, losing your cool is very uncool. This should be a positive experience for you and the vendor.
  • Practice on lower priced items first – Most westerners feel uneasy and unprepared negotiating. We are used to having prices listed and paying that price. Well, all you need is some practice. So get out of your comfort zone and start negotiating on some less expensive items before you decide you want to buy that gold plated statue. That way at least you’ll have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into AND you will have loosened up and started having some fun with the whole process.
  • Use whatever Thai language you have learned – (You have learned some right?!). You’ll see the people smile and open up just because you’re trying. To get you started, two useful phrases are : “Tao-rai krap/ka?” – “How much?” And “Pang pai noi krap/ka?” – “It’s a little too expensive”. (Note: Men say krap at the end of a phrase and women say ka. It doesn’t matter to whom you are speaking. The ending is based on the gender of the speaker.).
  • Compare prices at a few different vendors to get an idea of how much an item will cost – This will at least get you in the ballpark of what you should be paying.
  • Seek a win/win situation – It’s very easy to get caught up in negotiating and start thinking the goal is to get the lowest price possible. Maybe that is your goal, but frankly, I don’t feel this is always necessary. For example, when I bought the two trinkets from the older lady today, I know I could’ve gotten a lower price, but I liked her spirit and felt like I received a fair value for my money so I chose not to negotiate further. A dollar in Thailand is worth way more than in the US (You can buy a meal for under $1 USD in Thailand). I felt like the amount I overpaid was negligible to me, but was substantial to her so I did not continue asking for a lower price. Am I out of practice? Yes. (That’s one reason I started small). Does it matter to me that I over paid by a dollar or two? No. Would I negotiate harder if the items were more expensive? Yes. Find your personal comfort zone.
  • Quit thinking you are being cheated – This is just how business is done here. The vendors are simply applying the principles of capitalism. They want to charge what the market will bear. Don’t you think Ralph Lauren does some research before they market that polo shirt that cost them $4 to make in China for $85 in the Mall? They are banking on the fact that you think wearing a Polo shirt will make you look hipper, smarter, richer and more attractive to the opposite sex and that you will pay max money for that (Silly Rabbit). Why do some people go to Nordstrom’s Rack instead of Nordstrom’s? It’s all the same, only here it is out in the open.
  • Be ready to walk away, or at the very least, APPEAR ready to walk away – If you start walking away the price will quite often drop tremendously and then, if you are still interested, you can pay that price. However, if the price does not drop and you really wanted that item, well, the vendor three stalls down probably has the same thing…if not, you can always go back with a sheepish smile on your face.

I hope these tips help you have a positive bargaining experience. If you have some interesting bargaining experiences or tips, please let me know.

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Comments

  1. Nice post. I see you have been working on your Thai! I’m glad you gave that old woman a good sale. Very cool that you view marketplace bargaining as an, at least partially, non zero sum game and something to be done for it’s own sake as entertainment. Much better than overly aggressive, zero sum power haggling with a third worlder who really does need that two bucks more than we do. +1

    1. I agree with Rod. Bargaining can be fun and mutually enjoyable when done with kindness and respect.

    2. The woman I bought my little trinkets from made my day. There was something about her energy and her attitude that inspired me. So, I certainly didn’t mind that I gave her a good sale.

  2. You got pictures of the items?

    1. Pictures coming soon!

  3. Hey Algis, I like your bargaining tips and you are absolutely right, you have to be willing to walk away. I bargained for my own Ganesh in Korea in October. My Ganesh glows in the dark, does yours? 🙂

    1. Nutan,

      I walked away a few times. I can’t wait to go to Korea myself. Glow in the dark Ganesh! Sounds cool. I guess I’ll just have to go to Korea for one of those.

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Algis

I have an insatiable wanderlust which takes me to some crazy places where I try strange foods, pretend I'm a local and talk with elephants. Keep reading...

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