College Connect: Bargaining in Thailand

Posted By David Wilhite on Thursday October 5, 2017

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.

“Ok, 950.”

“600.”

“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.”

“800.”

“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.

“700.”

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.

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