In ancient times, long before bar code scanners or even the invention of the pricing gun, people haggled over prices. It was an accepted practice: the shopkeeper asked for a ridiculously high price. The customer offered an equally ludicrously low price. And the two would shake hands somewhere in the middle.
The art of haggling has mostly disappeared in the world today, replaced by fixed price retail shopping. No negotiating, just pay what’s on the tag. No haggling. No hassle.
Gone but not forgotten, haggling lives on at Thailand’s markets, which offer us a wonderful opportunity to practice this ancient skill.
If you are on holiday in Thailand, the chances are, at some stage, you will find yourself in a Thai market. If so, you should be prepared to bargain with the vendors. That means you at least need know the basics.
The benefit of being able to bargain is obvious. You’ll get things cheaper. If you get things cheaper, your money will go further.
You may come from a country where things are so much more expensive, that you can’t be bothered to haggle. If everything is such a bargain already, is it worth trying knock down the price even more? Aren’t you just taking money out of the poor vendor’s pocket?
Well, no. For starters, the stallholders expect a little bargaining. On top of that, the first price they give you will often include such an obscene mark-up that they’re the ones taking money out of your pocket if you agree to it.
If you enjoy the challenge and love to negotiate lower prices, you’ll be in your element.
If, however, you view it as a chore and are just prepared to pay what is asked, well, you’ll make a few vendors very happy indeed.
Is Bargaining a way of Life in Thailand?
The answer to this is a resounding no.
Many visitors to Thailand believe that bargaining is a part of Thai culture. But it isn’t. Not really. If you ask any Thais whether they haggle for goods in the shops, they will probably tell you they never do.
In fact, if you go into a shop or a store and you start to haggle on prices, you are likely to cause serious offense. It really could be seen as an insult. But those are shops, possibly in malls, almost certainly with air conditioning.
Also, should you happen to be in Bangkok and visit the iconic weekend market at Chatuchak, you may find stallholders less willing to bend on price. Some will haggle with you, but possibly not all of them.
If you are at a Thai market, especially in a tourist area, that is a different story altogether. Here a little bartering is perfectly acceptable, if not expected of you. We don’t want to disappoint them – do we?
We’ve heard many Thais call us “farang baa maak” or crazy foreigners. If they think we are a bit mad anyway, why does it matter if we try and knock a few baht off the price?
One place where you’ll certainly be expected to bargain is the Weekend Market in Phuket.
The Thais working here know that you are on holiday, and they know that you think you need to bargain.
It is strange that we are expected to haggle since many of us come from countries where the concept of bargaining in a shop, or even at market stall, is absurd.
But if things don’t have prices on them, it is an open invitation to negotiate. After all, the prices are usually inflated anyway – sometimes grossly inflated – so don’t be afraid to try for a mutually agreeable price.
We mentioned above that Thais themselves are not always willing to bargain. On the surface, this may seem a little odd given what we’ve just described.
But you need to remember that where no prices are posted, the price offered to a Thai will almost always be lower than the first price offered to you.
However you feel about it, here are some tips to help you along:
Don’t Accept the First Price Offered
If you are at a Thai market, do not accept the first price you are offered. Although some tourists don’t like the idea of bargaining, it is part of the tourist market culture. Besides, there will always be room to manoeuvre on price.
It’s Easy If You Want More Than One
You will obviously have more leverage if you buy more than one of something. When buying two or three items from the same stall, you will always get a lower price.
Wait To See if You Want Anything Else
Don’t pay for something until you have checked out that vendor’s entire stall. If you do, then you find something else you want from the same vendor, you may have just lost your bargaining power.
You will get a much better price if you buy a few different items and then price them altogether.
Once you’ve done that, always ask for a round number. If you have 3 items, and the stallholder has given you a “package price” of (hypothetically) 830 Baht, then ask them for 800.
You’ll almost always be able to knock that last 20-30 Baht off the price, even after everything has been bundled together for one special price.
And round number also keep you from accumulating coins in your pocket.
It’s As Easy as Asking
It’s not difficult; all you need to do is ask. Most of the stall holders are used to selling to tourists, so they will speak enough English to reach an agreeable price.
You will always get a better price if you bargain, even if it’s only a small discount.
Decide On a Price in Your Mind
If you have a price in mind you want to pay, or what you think something is worth, then you can adopt a “take it or leave it” stance should they not agree to your price.
Sometimes saying “no thank you” and walking away is enough for them to reconsider. But if not, just move on to the next stall.
Thailand is “The Land of Smiles”.
Just because you are negotiating on price, there’s no need to be so serious. Enjoy the experience, and always smile.
If you are asking for what might seem an extremely cheeky price, but you are doing so with a huge grin on your face and a little bit of laugh, you may be surprised how often you get your way.
Try Another Stall on Expensive Goods
If the seller won’t give you the price you want, don’t give in. Remember to decide on the price you are willing to pay before you start negotiating.
We don’t know why, but for some reason we always find someone else is willing to go much lower. So on more expensive items, always compare a few prices before you buy. You might save a lot.
Don’t Get Too Excited
Smiling doesn’t mean getting over-excited. A vendor can tell the difference between having a good time, and the glint in your eye when you really want to have something.
By all means, smile, but try to maintain an air of disinterest if you can. If the stallholder sees that you are really keen on something, they know you are likely to buy it at any price.
Suggest a Price Way Below What You might Pay
Part of the negotiation involves narrowing the gap between a really high price and a really low price.
If stallholder asks you to name your price, start off with a ridiculously low price, and let them raise it. When you finally agree on a price, it will probably be much closer to what you were hoping to pay anyway.
You very rarely meet grumpy Thais. Most are just extremely nice people. So be nice back. When you are trying to bargain for a lower price, be nice about it.
We’ve already mentioned you should smile, but also try to be generally pleasant in your attitude. If the seller won’t budge, never get frustrated. If you do get frustrated, they may get offended and refuse to deal with you at all.
Once You Leave the Market – Forget Bargaining
OK, so you’ve had a good time. You still have most of your travel budget left, and you’ve managed to secure some excellent bargains.
Whatever you do, please don’t take your newfound negotiating skills away with you. What happens in the market, stays in the market.
In the shops outside, the price on the label is the price – just like back home.
Please do not forget that.
Bargaining in the markets can be fun, especially when you feel you’ve got the best price on everything you’ve bought.
Besides that, there’s nothing nicer than watching your money go further when you’re on vacation.
Read all our articles on shopping in Phuket: