One of the most crucial aspects of travelling in Asia is understanding that the economy in nearly every country here is often exceptionally different to those in more ‘western’ countries. While it is obvious that everything here is much cheaper than in our countries, there are many more aspects that you will need to learn if you are going to come out of here with any money left in your pockets!
(Please note, any mention of dollars will be in USD)
'Oh goodie, another tourist.'
This is the exact thought that crosses the mind of any stall owner as soon as you slow down to glance at their wares. What you have to remember is that in many Asian countries the vendors will be incredibly poor and thus will try and take advantage of anyone who looks like they might have some excess money floating around their wallet.
There are two things you can take away from this: firstly, vendors will often act with complete and utter contempt for you and will try to rip you off as much as they think they will be able to get away with - and secondly that these people are often incredibly poor and it is important to remember that the main reason that they are taking advantage of you is because they want to feed their family.
A balance between you getting a good price and them making a profit is always a nice sale, both parties being happy is the best outcome from a sale.
What is it worth?
And what a question that is! How does one figure out how much you should actually pay for something? What is crucial to understand is that while things are cheaper here, they are often a LOT cheaper than you think they are. There are a few tricks that you can use to figure this out.
The one third rule
When you inevitably get ushered into someone’s store and find an interest in something they will size you up. They will whip out their little calculator and stare at you for a moment, trying to determine how much they will be able to rip you off before typing a number in and shoving it into your face. As a general rule, if you are pasty white with nice clothes and jewellery (aka a tourist to them) the price that they give will most likely be 3 times what they would be willing to have you pay. So a third of that is a good starting point for the coming barter!
One of many
Despite what they will insist, street merchants will very rarely have anything ‘hand-made’ or unique. Chances are you will find five stalls right around the corner selling the exact same thing at varying prices. As the best way to start off a barter is for you to set the anchor point (more about this in the ‘Bartering’ chapter) it is always best for you to know approximately how much something is worth before you go into a barter. Using the one third rule, approach a stall and ask how much the item is, with this knowledge, third it and offer that to the next stall with the item and you will most likely get closer to the actual price of it.
Getting a feel for it
If you are staying in a country for even a few weeks you will get a good hold on what things are worth. It will come with experience and you will learn very quickly from mistakes, and we have made quite a few of those (more on that in our ‘Scams’ section). You will be able to spot who is being genuine and who is trying to rip you off and you will be able to guesstimate approximately what items are worth without needing to ask, it just takes practice.
The little things in life
As a general rule, any small service or street food should not be worth more than $1. I once got tried to get convinced that getting my shoes cleaned was worth 950,000 VND (about $40) and that a 15 minute taxi ride was worth 1,000,000 VND. As a general rule, don’t let street vendors selling small food-stuffs and little services charge you more than a dollar or two.
For your sake I hope that you are not white
It is a sad fact but Asians in poorer countries have a very warped idea of ‘westerners’ and seem to believe that any white person is absolutely loaded. If you do happen to be white, they will charge more than they would for a fellow Asian. If at all possible bring an Asian companion to bartering scenarios, otherwise, just bear in mind that even a ‘cheap’ street meal is probably being sold at half the price to others. Try your best to offer them money before they can quote you a price, it is easy to scout out a place and wait for a local to buy something and sneakily check how much they pay. Otherwise you can just suck it up and pay a little bit extra knowing that you are feeding a poor old grandma, you model citizen.
Keep a light purse
As a final note, it is a good idea to keep your cash stashed nicely away in the bank or hotel reception and carry only what you think you will need for the day, pick-pockets are a real threat in this area, it is much easier to lose a few cards and a few notes than your entire bank account’s worth! If you are ever mugged this way you can simply hand over your wallet and be on your way without much fuss, fighting back is a good way to get yourself stabbed or worse, this is a much easier alternative and you can take solace in the fact that they will be disappointed to get home and realise they only got a few dollars out of you.