When it comes to the popularity of Southeast Asian backpacker trail, there are really two major reasons why the region rates so highly with westerners – and they’re as diametrically opposed as the left and right brain.
On one hand, Southeast Asia has some of the most glorious vistas in the world. The cultures are unique, the people are warm and welcoming, and the scenery is phenomenal. It really is a special place that is worth taking time to come and appreciate.
On the other hand, Southeast Asia is easy on the wallet. You can snag a bed in a hostel for roughly the same price as a Starbucks latte, eat an entire day’s worth food for the same as you’d spend on the value menu after a night out drinking, and beer can sometimes be cheaper than bottled water or Coca-Cola. There is a lot to love about how far your dollar stretches in this region.
Money, however, is also at the root of one of Southeast Asia’s least attractive features – having to haggle.
I’ve never been one to negotiate on price. I tend to get that attribute from my dad. I’d prefer if people stopped screwing around, playing some sort of game, and just give me a fair price for whatever they’re selling. I’m not even looking for the cheapest or lowest price – just a fair price. I’m willing to pay a tiny bit more if someone makes my experience a pleasant one, if I’m treated well, and if I like who I’m dealing with. In Southeast Asia, paying a fair price weighs even more heavily on my conscience because I know that what might not be a lot of money to me might be a huge amount to the person I’m dealing with.
There have been times when I feel like I haven’t paid nearly enough. When I was in Kuala Lumpur, A.D. – who runs the phenomenal Zenon Barbershop – spent nearly an hour working on cleaning up my high-and-tight and beard. He was meticulous in his work. It is the best cut I’ve had since leaving Canada. And all he charged me was RM30 (C$10). I know that back home, I know that A.D. could charge four to five times that amount and he’d still be on the low end of the price scale for the quality of work he does. I walked away so happy with my fresh cut, but feeling like he deserved more for his work.
But there are times when you encounter entrepreneurial souls who feel westerners are an unlocked ATM.
When I was in Langkawi, I had a guy try rent me a beach chair for RM40 (C$12), when I knew the going price (after walking down the beach the day before) was RM10 (C$3). I wasn’t going to negotiate, I just wasn’t going to give him my business. I walked down the sand a little further and rented a pair of chairs from a lady for RM20 (C$6). I really didn’t need the second chair, but it was a slow day for her. I’m sure she appreciated the extra cash and I didn’t mind having a place to put my belongings as I relaxed on the beach. We didn’t have to haggle – it was a fair deal. It wasn’t the cheapest pair of chairs on the beach, but I felt good about the transaction.
The need to haggle has also created what I would call unnecessary adversarial encounters.
Arriving in Hanoi, I needed to take a taxi from the airport to my hostel in the city’s old quarter. I showed the cabbie my map, and he quoted me a price of 400,000 VND (C$24). I saw he had a meter in the taxi, and wasn’t prepared to play the fixed-price game again after getting burned in Saigon, paying double the value for a taxi ride from the airport to my hostel there. I insisted on him turning on the meter, and despite being quite flustered by my insistence, he did so anyway.
When we arrived at the hostel in Hanoi, wouldn’t you know it… the price on the meter (including the toll for leaving the airport) was 370,000 VND (C$22.50). I felt like a horrible person. He was trying to give me a fair estimate of the cost to get to my hostel, yet I thought he was trying to take me for a ride. I gave him the cash, he gave me my change, and I hung my head in shame a little as I went in to the hostel. Was it worth the awkwardness of insisting on the meter to save barely enough to buy a hamburger at McDonald’s?
But as bad as I feel about my interaction with the cabbie, I also feel somewhat absolved about the whole situation when I think about the state of haggling in general across Southeast Asia. It’s hard to shake a sense of instilled distrust (from travel books, travel blogs, and fellow backpackers) that the price you’re being quoted isn’t a fair price.
I’m not looking for the lowest price, but a fair one. Negotiating every single penny leaving your wallet just seems like a crap way to visit a place, and a terrible way to treat the people you’re doing business with. I know that haggling won’t ever go away. It’s my responsibility to know what a fair price for something ought to be, and I should have the balls to walk away when someone is trying to screw me. But it would make these east-meets-west encounters a lot less uncomfortable if haggling wasn’t part of the relationship.
Southeast Asia is a beautiful part of the world with warm, welcoming people and phenomenal reasons to visit. I just hope that as westerners, how fat it leaves our wallets isn’t the primary thing driving our passion for it.