Thailand. It’s the definitive backpacker locale – just as much a party purgatory as a bargain paradise, an exotic sideshow and assault on the senses.
On a 24-hour basis, the road-wide rave is omnipresent, with suggestions of drugs and licentiousness, bribery and scandal occupying every street corner. A montage of multicultural merrymaking, young explorers from London, Tokyo, Switzerland and Australia make up a tableau of anonymous street wanderers in search of the best quality pirated DVDs, the cheapest ‘Chanel’ charlatans and the most toxic alcoholic beverages.
For the most part, the scene is innocent enough. Indeed, those steady cries of ‘very cheap price for you!’ that ricochet through the air are typically quite accurate (at least by any western department store standards).
So, by all means, get into a tuk tuk, try a sweet banana pancake, indulge in a cocktail and chat to the locals. Just remember: while the vendor may be smiling, a scam is typically on the menu.
So, how does that old saying go? Be alert not alarmed (oh goodness, we really don’t mean to sound like national security there!)
To help you out, we’ve put together some top tips on how to barter, book a hostel in Thailand, master the tuk tuk and avoid those dreaded tourist traps lurking on every street corner.
How to Barter
Oh, the art form of bartering! It’s the bane of many a travellers’ existence – that telltale activity which effortlessly distinguishes the naïve backpacker newbies from those less civil veterans who have been jaded by experience.
First up, do not (repeat: not) go anywhere with a bulging wallet. Put the exact amount of cash you are willing to spend on any single item in your pocket. If you let a shop owner see that you have money to burn, they will expect you to do just that. In their shop. On as few items as possible.
When the seller asks if they can help you, respond with ‘gee baht?’ – that’s ‘how much?’ in Thai (because of course you speak Thai, you seasoned veteran haggler you). Whatever price they offer, step back and look at the item doubtfully. Don’t complain, just appear uninterested.
At this point, the seller will generally ask how much you want to pay for it. Look like you’re thinking for a minute, then offer 25% of what they asked for. Ultimately, plan to pay around half of the price (this can vary, being slightly higher in big indoor markets but lower in the villages).
If you’re having trouble getting the price down, flash a few notes around then try walking away from the stall. The seller will often follow you into the street.
Finally, remember you don’t necessarily have to get the cheapest price possible. While the Thai locals may bargain a better deal, you’ll find the majority of them are earning less than €6 a day.
Getting a Tuk Tuk or Taxi
Tuk tuk: The ubiquitous Thailand tuk tuk is certainly a unique transport experience, being a good option for travelling over short distances (anything longer than 30 minutes and you’ll start to get pretty uncomfortable!) Remember to bargain a set price with the driver before you hop onboard, keeping in mind that the initial fee stated will be well over the going rate.
Taxi: Do not bargain or haggle with taxi drivers in Thailand. Rather, open the door, tell the driver your destination and wait until he starts the meter. If he refuses to do so, get out of the cab at the first opportunity (or, if you’re feeling rebellious, merely lean over and switch it on for yourself!) Taxi rides within central Bangkok will rarely cost more than 100 baht, while the average price from the airport should be around 350 baht (that’s 200-250 on the meter plus 50 airport surcharge and 70 in highway tolls).
Due to a relatively low cost of living, you will find that the average price of hostels in Thailand tends to be very low. Regardless, in order to get the best deal, it is essential to do your research and book a room in advance, particularly so if you’re travelling during the November-February high season.
Try to avoid any hotel or hostel that doesn’t promote itself online. While these may be incredibly cheap (sometimes less than €4 a night!), they can also be incredibly dirty, crowded and all too willing to rip you off. Keeping this in mind, your best bet is to check out a range of traveller reviews before making a booking. If you’re staying in Bangkok, for example, the Lub D Bangkok is a popular budget option ideally located in Siam Square. Rooms are available from only €8.21 per night.
Other Tourist Traps and Scams
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the ‘Grand Palace is closed today!’ It’s not. Nor are any of the other temples they inform you have remarkably shut down. This is actually a common tourist scam used by tuk tuk drivers before they kindly offer to take you on a tour elsewhere…for a price of course.
Do not listen to anyone who invites you into a jewellery store. They will often try to force you into a sale on a gem that is worth a fraction of the price. Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Ask where to go shopping at your hostel. Unlike tuk tuk drivers and street vendors, they will generally not get a commission and will hence be more objective when directing you to the best places.
Know when His Majesty the King’s birthday is! Scammers will often try to take advantage by claiming it’s the King’s birthday in an effort to direct you to a certain area, stall or event. Just for the record, the present monarch was born on 5 December 1927.