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How to Barter in Southeast Asia

Charles Ray
October 18, 2012

Southeast Asia is a region with lots to offer. From great food to friendly people, the savvy traveler is sure to find something to write home about. While Hong Kong has a reputation among travelers to Asia as the shopping destination, the countries to the south are also great for those seeking bargains.

From bargain-priced electronics to local handicrafts and arts, countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are great places to shop. Shopping venues range from ultra-modern shopping complexes to little stalls tucked in an alley. The one thing, though, that can be daunting for first-time visitors is the Asian custom of bartering or bargaining.

Bartering is customary in most Asian countries, with the possible exception of some of the newer shopping centers that have adopted the Western custom of fixed pricing. If you shop in Southeast Asia and pay the first price quoted, not only are you paying more than you need to, but you're also missing the fun of immersing yourself in the local culture.

Bartering in Asia is not quite the same as the price-haggling you do in the U.S. when you buy a car. The prices are truly open and negotiable. The key to getting a bargain and, at the same time, enjoying the buying experience is knowing the etiquette of bargaining. Specific customs will vary somewhat from country to country, but there are a few universals that are handy to know.

Never Pay the First Price Quoted

Whether you're shopping for electronics in Thailand or gemstones in Cambodia, here's the cardinal rule: Never pay the price quoted by a merchant. Doing this marks you as a naif who is ripe for the picking. Word will quickly get around the market so that the next person you try to buy from will be likely to inflate prices over the normal starting price. The second rule you should follow: Never appear too anxious to buy.

So how do you respond to an initial offering price? Well, the rule of 50 percent is one that will often get a good price and can lead to some interesting back and forth. Let's say you see a jade bracelet that would make a perfect gift for someone special in your life. You look at it, but at the same time, you look around at other items that are on display. It might be a good idea to ask the price of another item nearby before focusing in on the one you want to buy.

Then, casually ask how much for the bracelet. Just as an example, let's say the vendor tells you the bracelet is $100. How should you react? "Oh, so much? Too expensive!", you say. He is sure to ask how much you're willing to pay. Best response: "I'll give you $50." Then, the fun begins. The original price will probably drop to $80 or $90, and you then respond with $60. This can go on for a while, but if you really want it, and you're patient, you're likely to end up at a price offer of around $70. If you're a real hard bargainer, you might even get it for as little as $60, which is a reasonable price given the starting point.

Don't Waste the Merchant's Time

As a matter of courtesy, don't spend time haggling over something you don't want to buy. These small merchants are working on razor-thin profit margins, and the time spent with browsers eats into that margin. If you're only shelf shopping, better to walk away. This, in fact, is a good bartering tactic in some cases. If a merchant wants to move merchandise, and you start to move away after his first quote, he's likely to reduce the price himself, putting you at an advantage.

As you gain experience in bartering, you'll find that shopping in Southeast Asia can be one of the most interesting aspects of your visit. So follow these simple rules to get the most from it.

Charles Ray has spent the better part of the past 50 years living and traveling in Southeast Asia. So far, his favorite destination is Cambodia, where the traditional bartering customs are still common throughout.