Travel guides and Lonely Planet forum posters will tell you that haggling is part of the Thai culture.
They’ll scare you with stories of how you’ll go home burdened with kitschy trinkets in your suitcases that you paid five times their worth for in the Night Market in Chiang Mai or the Floating Market in Bangkok.
While there are bad apples in Thailand just as there are anywhere else, on average the prices set by a Night Bazaar or Walking Street vendor in Chiang Mai are quite reasonable and, though haggling might be something you’re doing to experience the local culture to its most authentic full, there are occasions when it’s neither the time nor the place.
Take a look at this quick primer on when to haggle and how to do so successfully, and when you should give it a rest.
1. Supermarkets, department stores.
“Well, of course, I wouldn’t haggle at a supermarket,” right? You would be surprised-some travelers actually do this!
Not you, of course, but just in case you know someone who’s about to embark on a trip to Thailand, they might appreciate the tip that the price tags in a Thai Tesco (aka Tesco Lotus) are much like the price tags in a Tesco (or Wal-Mart) back home: barcode ain’t negotiable.
This is where you can certainly haggle, as long as you pick the right hotel. My advice? Don’t try this at hotels that are part of a huge international chain-Le Meridien, Shangri-La, and all.
They operate much like their counterparts across the globe and you simply don’t walk into a five-star expecting bargains unless you are a card-carrying member with marks to redeem or have frequent flyer miles to burn.
Independent hotels in Chiang Mai that owe allegiance to no mega-corporations, well now that’s a different story. And you will be spoiled for choice, too: three- and four-stars are everywhere in the city, serving with high standards and hospitality you won’t find anywhere else.
Pool your friends together and tell them you’re looking to book three or five rooms, or even just one room over many days (say five) and the desk clerk or the reservation officer will almost certainly offer you fantastic deals as long as you don’t expect anything unreasonable like half price off.
Most properties offer long-term rates too, with varying definitions of what constitutes “long-term.” (Generally, seven to ten days is a safe bet.)
3. Craftspeople and artisans
Much of what makes souvenirs and artwork sold in Chiang Mai special are that, very often, the person selling it is also the one who made it – there’s no corporate middleman, you are getting it straight from the source.
That is why the price set is already going to be quite reasonable. Moreover, Chiang Mai craftspeople take pride in their products, which tend to be quite high-quality, unique, and very much worth the price.
While there is room for negotiating, the mark-up is generally not high and they do have to make a living. You can find goods direct from artisans at the Sunday and Saturday Walking Streets, and occasionally in the Night Bazaar.
When you are buying honest-to-goodness gold and silver, the retail price is going to be prescribed by one crucial factor: the going rate for precious metals.
If the vendor refuses to slash the price for you, keep in mind that they aren’t trying to fleece you; they are trying to make sure their profit margin is somewhere in the region of “above zero” or “not negative.” Precious stones have more wriggle room.
5. Prices, scaling, and currency
Most tourists don’t bat an eyelash paying full price for a cup of Starbucks, which in Thailand is enough to buy a good meal for one at a good restaurant.
It’s probably worth considering what you are about to buy is really worth and how much more you’d get out of it than a cup of Starbucks or a scoop of Hagen-Daz. Many vendors rely on selling their goods to get by, and they certainly can’t afford a glass of coffee that costs almost as much as some of their pricier wares.
After a certain point, haggling only saves you maybe half a USD while making the vendor’s life just that little bit harder, possibly thinning their next meal. You don’t have to care, of course, but it’s something to think about, right?
As with any other kind of etiquette, common sense is the main guiding force behind the art of haggling in Thailand. Have fun shopping!