By Gabriel Sandler
“Two paintings for 1200 baht”
“I can’t do 1200, you have to go lower than that.”
In a small art booth in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as it rained outside and my friends wandered away down the market street, I decided to stay and haggle. This is how I started. I wanted two paintings: one blue and black, an ethereal river town at night, the other black and orange and yellow, silhouetting a fisherman in a small boat, floating in front of a tree line. It was July 2012, I was 18 on a cultural immersion/community service trip. I wanted souvenirs.
“It’s 1200 for two, this is a fair price.”
“I told you I can’t do 1200, help me out. I want the paintings, they’re great, but that’s too much.
“Ok, maybe 1000.”
The vendor, a lean man in a loose-fitting shirt, probably close to my age, looked agitated but eager to sell. Getting him to drop the price first, I figured, would trigger a momentum of discounts against his better judgement. If haggling is a staring contest, he blinked before I did.
“I don’t know.”
“1000 is fair, you’re an American, you can afford 1000.”
A lot of the vendors made this point, and I had a default response.
“I’m an American but I’m a student, I don’t have a lot of money, I don’t have that much cash. You can do better than 1000.”
Then, a backhanded compliment.
“I really want these paintings, but I can’t stay long, I’ll leave without them.”
My dad taught me this trick, most useful against car salesmen. To get a good price, he told me, be willing to walk away.
“No, can’t do 600, that’s too low.”
“Why? I’m trying.”
“It’s too low.”
“650 then, that’s better.”
I don’t mind budging from a lowball offer. At this point, I thought creating a back-and-forth would loosen everyone up.
“You pay 900 for two, I dropped from 1200.”
“I’ll pay 700.”
“I can pay 700. If you can’t do 700, I have to go, I have to meet my friends.”
Staying without my friends was a little reckless, but I love haggling. Vendors overvalue and I try to bring value down. 1200 to 700 Thai Baht is only $36 to $21, but it’s exciting to negotiate. No matter where I travel, everyone knows numbers and everyone speaks money.
“If you want 700, I have to call the artist, can’t do 700 without her permission.”
“Alright, call the artist.”
He pulled out a small flip phone, dialed and turned away from me. I heard him speaking quickly in Thai, quicker than Thai already sounded to me.
“Tell her I really like the paintings.”
He turned back to me.
“Can you do 750?”
I set my price and I stuck to my price.
“I can do 700.”
Back to the phone, he spoke quietly, as if I could eaves drop. A minute passed, then he hung up. Turning back toward me, he grabbed some tissue paper, wrapped each painting individually, then together, then put them both in a plastic bag.
I gave the village scene to a good friend, but I kept the fisherman illuminated by sunset colors. It hangs in my mom’s office in our Scottsdale home, a prize and a memory, where I can see it every day.