12 Tips to Haggle Like a Pro in Southeast Asia

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Haggle Like a Pro

Before we left on this trip the mere thought of having to haggle on a price with someone made me uncomfortable even though, funny enough, a big part of my old job was to negotiate on prices of medical products. In the West we rarely haggle with the exception of when buying things on sites like “Craig’s List” or “Gumtree” or when we buy a new car.  What do most people do when they head to the car dealership and buy a vehicle? They call up their dad or maybe a friend who is an expert on, or at least comfortable with haggling with pushy salesmen.

In the West we hate having to haggle on a price.  It just isn’t a skill most of us were taught and so, like any other skill that we haven’t practiced, we aren’t very good.

Just tell me what the price is and I’ll pay it!

The mindset of hating to haggle has to change when you come to Southeast Asia.  Souvenir shops, taxi drivers, and travel agencies to name a few, understand just how much Westerners hate to haggle.  Most vendors will pitch you prices on souvenirs anywhere from twice the price to sometimes ridiculous figures of four or five times the price.  Therefore it is imperative that you become comfortable haggling especially if you are a budget traveller like us!

I’ve learned a lot about haggling over the past year in Southeast Asia with knowledge and confidence gained mostly through trial and error. I made my share of mistakes in the beginning but now I feel completely confident heading into any type of situation where haggling will be involved.

The  following 12 tips which I have learned over the past year, will help you haggle like a pro during your travels around Southeast Asia.

1) One Chance to Make A Great First Impression: Be Genuine, Be Disarming

Learning a few local phrases and smiling are the absolute best ways to get off to a great start with your negotiations.  Try a new phrase with them and don’t worry about having perfect pronunciation.  Often times, if you pronounce it incorrectly they will laugh at you but they will appreciate you trying and it is a great ice breaker.  Compliment them, their baby, their English, but of course, always be genuine in your statements.

At the Mandalay Market

2) Do Your Research – Establish a Baseline

Once you know what you’d like to purchase, spend a bit of time checking as many different vendors’ prices as you can. Keep repeating this until you have established what the baseline price is for your product. An added bonus of doing this is that you’ll figure out pretty quickly which vendors are ready to negotiate and which ones are not.

3) Never Buy From the First Vendor You Meet  

Very rarely if ever should you buy from the first vendor you see. If you are thinking about getting that awesome Chang Beer muscle shirt to impress the ladies chances are, there are at least ten, twenty or a hundred different vendors selling the exact same thing. That first vendor that you visit may also be in a prime location, and therefore sees more traffic than vendors further in and may be less likely to negotiate on their pricing.

Banana T-shirt

4) Talk to Locals – Your Best Resource

The absolute best way to figure out how much things should cost is to talk with locals like the people at your guesthouse, favourite restaurant or bar.  They are your absolute best resource to tell you what you can “expect to pay” for whatever you’re looking to buy. We had friends who were chatting with some locals in Hoi An, Vietnam and mentioned in passing that they were looking at possibly buying a motorbike. Before they knew it, they had two locals working on their behalf with a bike dealer!

5) Be Aggressive Yet Respectful and Realistic in Your Opening Offer 

After doing your research and talking to locals, you should have a good idea of what price you should be paying for the product. Your opening bid should be aggressive but not insulting and your prior research as well as where the vendor is located should dictate what that offer should look like. A good rule of thumb is that the more tourists around, the more overpriced the product will be.

Sunday market Chiang Mai

6) Smile & Never Ever Lose Your Cool  

To the people of Asia, if you get angry and yell (lose face) while haggling it is a sign of disrespect and an embarrassing for them and for you. Always maintain your cool, smile and thank them whether negotiations went your way or not. Although some rare exchanges can leave you feeling frustrated and upset, I promise you if you smile and have fun while bartering, you will more often than not get a fair deal.

7) Be Ready and Willing to Walk Away From a Purchase

Walking away is often your strongest haggling technique. Often times if I like something, I’ll ask what the price is and if they quote me something outlandishly high, I’ll smile and say, “Thank you but that’s too expensive” and walk away.  Usually, but not always, they will chase you out the door and quote you a much lower number or ask you what you are willing to pay.  Walking away at the end of negotiations is a great way to close the deal at the price you want, however, you have to be completely committed to actually walking away from the sale for good because they may not always chase you!

Penis sandals

8) “Lucky Money”

In some parts of Asia there is something known as “lucky money” with market vendors. “Lucky money” is the first sale of the day for the vendor which some superstitiously believe will dictate how much money they will make that day. What this means for the buyer is that if you show up at market opening time, you may be able to get better deals as the vendors are sometimes more willing to work with you in order to start their day out with some”lucky money”.

9) Head to the Local Markets

Without question the best place you will find a killer deal is at the local markets.  The like old adage says, “Do as the locals do”, and this is especially true when it comes to shopping.  You can expect a language barrier and of course mayhem especially in the mornings BUT you can definitely expect to pay the cheapest prices for food, clothes, shoes, sunglasses, etc.  It’s also a great way to immerse yourself even deeper in the culture and the locals will love you for it!  On top of local pricing, expect lots of smiles, lots of people wanting to talk with you and for the photographers out there, its paradise.

Pyin Oo Lwin market

10) Remember Where You Are

After haggling in touristy places like Khaosan Road in Bangkok and District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City where prices are typically higher and vendors are more aggressive, we sometimes become a bit jaded. This jadedness sometimes comes out when we travel into small villages and local markets without us even realizing.  Always keep in mind where you are, be respectful in your offer and remember, a $5 dollar savings to you means nothing, but to people struggling to make ends meet, it can mean the world.

Vendor in China

11) Support the Artisans

There are endless vendors in major markets all around Southeast Asia selling the exact same things.  The same T-shirts, speakers, bracelets, and other crap.  These things are a dime a dozen and haggling hard on these items is totally fair game to me. However, when you do stumble upon a hidden gem where a vendor is selling handmade art and handicrafts, remember to give a price that’s fair. Lowballing a hill tribe women selling hand knitted scarves the same way you might low ball one of the hundred vendors selling knockoff Beats by Dre headphones is just not cool.

Crazy bracelets Bangkok

12) Close Like a Local

If you watch locals haggle it will offer you the best opportunity to see how it’s done. One thing you’ll notice is that when the buyer offers their opening bid they will do so confidently and definitively as if they’ve never been more sure that their price is the best price for both parties. For instance if a local offers 100 Baht for a product, the vendor might counter with 150 Baht, the local buyer will then take out their money but only the amount they want to pay, offering it to the vendor and then saying something like, “Ok…125 Baht.”  More often than not, this technique will result in a deal. I’ve personally used this local technique a lot over the past year and it works quite well.

Haggle like a pro

Just like learning any new skill, haggling takes practice to become comfortable. Over months of practice, lots of trial and error, I feel like haggling is now second nature and although I still occasionally strike out from time to time, I no longer feel uncomfortable entering into an exchange with a vendor. Don’t feel discouraged if it takes you a few weeks until you feel confident with haggling, believe me, it takes time.

Just remember, if you stay calm, collected and respectful while following these tips and you should be a pro at haggling in no time!

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Do you have any tips on how to haggle better in Southeast Asia?

Cheers,

 Ross & Alyse

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Ross

Lover of travel, photography, nature, movies, and nachos. If you love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we'll probably become best friends.
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