Bargaining in Thailand – An Experience
Bombing the bargaining out of buying
A foreword on bargaining
Whether you are a local or a tourist,there’s one facet of Thai culture that iyou can’t avoid – bargaining. In Thailand, this is a fact of life that many tourists are shocked, elated or frustrated by and the simple truth is that it is everywhere. Jessica Jane Ross shares her experience with us.
When my friends and family heard I was venturing off to Thailand I was swamped with advice, precautions and excited tea parties which involved a group of women all talking at once, wanting to have their own two cents heard. During that time the only information that was retained in the centre of my memory sieve were three phrases – markets, bargaining and cheap prices! I respectfully nodded in agreement while sipping rooibos tea (I should have drank more of that!!!) and munching on sweet koeksisters while conjuring up visions of extravagant night markets with prices so cheap that carrying all my loot home would be the only exertion of the evening!
On arrival at Chiang Mai we headed off to our first night market experience. The words of Teacher Jack during class were a distant memory – haggling according to him was an art defined by patience, bargaining and negotiating. How hard can it really be and my excitement seemed to be the more prominent voice of reason. Upon entering the renowned Night Bezaar, my senses were assaulted with different smells, sounds, colours and the continuous movement of people. Unlike South African markets, there were no vendors shouting their wares and prices of their products they were selling. I was relieved not be swamped by sellers haggling me to buy their goods or trying to lure me into their tented domain to take a look at what they were displaying. This was heaven on earth! Teacher Jack must have been at a different Night Bezaar or maybe the Sunday Markets were a whole different ball game all together. Never mind, I was here and with a quick shake of my mother’s wise words about saving money I delved in.
I came across a stall with the most beautiful trousers of different patterns, colours and styles. I stepped forward with a typical foreigner’s fast pace movement and reached out to touch the exquisite fabric of the closest pair of trousers. It was like a metaphoric Hiroshima; before I had time to shake the dust out of my eyes and allow for the lip of the mushroom to rise she was there. She lacked desperation or the urge to invade ones space, instead her dynamite confidence, determination and will made her a formidable opponent. She stared up at me unblinking and wielded a weapon that I have grown to respect – a goliath of calculators that was so large it could have been used as a traditional weapon. I stepped back snapping my hand away from the garment and regained my poise. Her fingers danced on the calculator and she gave me her verdict. I peered at the digits and decided a confident front round about now would be the order of the day. I stumbled my way through what I thought was good bargaining lingo and walked away paying for the original price stamped in final digits – haggling didn’t even surface and it took a couple of minutes to realise that Thailand had just scored!
The Bargaining Epiphany
I continued walking through the market not wanting to make any eye contact when Teacher Jack’s words came back to me. It then dawned on me that a night bazaar reflected the heart of Thailand. The flow of life here is one of steadiness, calmness and experiencing it at a pace that gives you appreciation and fullness in every sphere. This system of existence confronts the Western culture where life is fast paced, stressful and everything must happen yesterday. I set off again and this time I would pace myself and the phrase “You break it you bought it” was altered to “You touch it, you buy it”. I approached a stall selling dresses and tops. The urge to touch was very strong and I had a flashback to when I was a youngster standing in the grocery store with my hands behind my back in the attempt not to touch! I spotted a dress hanging at the rear of the stall. That obstacle was unaccounted for and I had hoped to find something at the front where if need be, I could use the long legs I genetically inherited to get the hell out of there. I stepped forward tentatively with my arms crossed trying desperately to adopt the air of aloofness. I scanned the area keeping my head still, going through each step with precision. I took another step. The stall was empty – this felt like a top secret mission gone wrong – it never happened like this in the movies! I swivelled around and the re-enactment from earlier began to play itself out. Different vendor this time but they must all buy their calculators at the same shop – cheaper in bulk? This was no time for Mayday! I slowly and calmly stepped back and asked how much the dress cost. His nimble fingers drummed the digits out. I peered – asserting the aloofness – and cut the price by half. The dress hung watching in humour as the two figures began a dance of haggling. There was no fast paced dialect but an air of determination from both parties. The dress joined in the dance as I finally reached out to familiarise myself with the style and feel of the fabric. I was committed now and my big heart was my undoing. I walked away paying 50bht less but had the feeling that in those short minutes I had become, in a very small way, part of the flow of Thailand.
Since that night at Chiang Mai’s beautiful night bazaar I have arrived at the haggling table with my own set of bargaining weapons – a glean of Thai numbers, a respectful greeting and an adapted attitude that nothing is set in stone. I have walked down avenues of using my height as a tool of intimidation, forceful “aggression” and an attitude that the price I give is what the price will be. The outcome has been very humorous and even though the humour has been shared by my departing back and a giggling vendor it has made life interesting. There have been times when victory has been mine but the advice given by those who know are simple – stand back, take in the view, commit before haggling and enjoy conversing for a minute with the magicians of Thailand! Even though we foreigners struggle with the language there is one language we all can speak – the calm, determined click of digits being drilled on a calculator.