Bargaining in Southeast Asia

by Greg Jorgensen

Some of you may remember that classic scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian, running from pursuing Roman soldiers, tries to buy a disguise from a vendor for full price. The vendor, insulted at Brian’s disinterest in haggling, schools him on the rules of getting the best price. It’s a hilarious scene and – surprisingly – pretty accurate when it comes to how to bargain in Southeast Asia.

For anyone coming from the West, bargaining isn’t something that’s common; except for expensive things like cars or houses, or at garage sales and similarly unstructured market-style situations, a price is a price. But in Asia bargaining isn’t only accepted – it’s expected. In fact, even at places where you’d think bargaining is a no-no – shopping malls and the like – there’s still a bit of wiggle room if you’re nice.

But most travelers to Southeast Asia shop at markets, and this is where haggling moves from a mere formality to very nearly an art form. The most important rule is to never think of it as a contest where two opponents battle and only one wins. This mindset will usually just lead to stress and arguments, and that’s no fun for anyone. Instead, think of it more as a friendly challenge to work your way toward a price that both parties accept.

The general rule of thumb is to take the price the vendor gives you and cut it in half, with the full expectation that they’ll balk. At this point, the game is on – them trying to work you up, and you trying to keep things down. For example, say you like the look of an elephant statue on display. You ask how much and the vendor comes back with 100 (for simplicity). Come back at him with 50, to which he’ll shake his head and say 80. You say 60, he says 75, you say 70 and he agrees. Of course, not every transaction will go so smoothly, but you get the idea.

There’s actually a lot of serious study that has gone into how bargaining works, from cultural and societal influences to complex computer models of neural evolution, all of which is far too bombastic to get into here. While it’s probably overkill to think of those things while bargaining over an elephant statue, there are definitely a few strategies that you can use to tip the scales in your direction.

First, think about that elephant statue in terms of perceived value and real value – do you really want it or did it just catch your eye? If you really do want it, then the real value is high and it’s worth bargaining over. In your mind, come up with a maximum price that you’d pay for that awesome elephant statue and use that as your benchmark. If the price that you and the vendor agree on is close to this price, you can safely say you’ve bargained effectively.

Next, don’t forget that bargaining in Asia is half commerce and half theater. Don’t be afraid to get dramatic and ham it up. “How much is this?” “100.” “100?? Ohhhhhh, I can buy two bottles of beer for 100! How about 50, then we can each have a bottle of beer.” A little bit of laughter goes a long way, and if the vendor likes you he’ll probably be a bit more inclined to give you a deal.

Also don’t forget the ‘move on’ rule – if the vendor won’t meet your maximum value, say thank you and move on. Usually the vendor will call you back, and then you know you’ve got a bit more room to maneuver. However, if they don’t call you back, you’ve got a rough idea of what that elephant statue costs in this market. The best part is, there will usually be a dozen other vendors offering the same statue, and you can try again.

And lastly, it’s easy to think that the vendor’s sole purpose is trying to fleece you for as much money as he can. While there are certainly unscrupulous vendors who will take advantage of unwitting tourists, most are simply trying to make a living. Think of it this way – if you were to buy a new car and sell your old one, you’d want to get as much for the old one as you could. Your average market vendor in Southeast Asia is of the same mindset – a fair price for a fair product.

Keep these things in mind and with a bit of practice you can nail the bargaining game in a few tries. Bargain hard, but don’t forget to have fun and smile!