You might find the whole process excruciatingly painful, an unpleasant trial to endure, or something you just want to avoid at all costs. It might be an integral part of your overseas experience, a normal aspect of your everyday life, or even a challenge you relish. But regardless of whether you love or loathe the cut-and-thrust of haggling you will undoubtedly have found yourself negotiating with someone over the price of a product or service at some point.
You may have learned the good-natured, argumentative and aggressive West African haggle, spending hours patiently criticising the product you are considering buying, (even down to each and every tomato in your kilo) in order to ensure a fair price.
Or you’ve possibly spent an age carefully scribbling and wiping out numbers into the dust on the roof of a taxi in Ethiopia, or diligently tapped away on the calculators of numerous store holders in Thailand, the numbers in both cases slowly oscillating around a final mutually accepted price.
I imagine you’ll have mastered the well-timed and wholly expected walk away manoeuvre; and perhaps carried out the time consuming polite and cautious negotiations of East Africa that require you to converse for about an hour, in Swahili, about the welfare of the stallholder and their family, and their friends, and their family’s friends, and their animals before even beginning to think about discussing a purchase.
You might even have found yourself exiting a souk in Marrakech, a belly full of sweet tea and a Bedouin birthing blanket under your arm wondering whether you’d really got a “bottom bottom price”, and how you’d ended up buying a carpet when all you’d nipped out for was a packet of cigarettes.
Whatever your level of experience, when you are haggling in Myanmar much of that learning has to be forgotten, your hard earned expertise is redundant because negotiating here is a whole different ball game, it is a delicate business, and one that needs careful consideration and execution.
Although haggling is accepted here, it isn’t always expected and often isn’t necessary; it is certainly far less common than in other Asian countries. The key to understanding haggling in Myanmar is that it is vitally important to make sure that nobody looses ‘face’ during the transaction. Good haggling should ensure that nobody is upset or compromised by the process. Haggling here is all about respect.
Before diving into price negotiations like a bull at a gate, you should really ask yourself, “Do I even need to haggle over this?” If you are purchasing only a few items from a market trader it may be that there really is no need to split-hairs over a few kyats. Are you just haggling out of habit?
Away from the touristy places, you will find that prices are pretty much set anyway, and, if you are foreigner, in the food markets you generally won’t find that much of a mark up. However if you are shopping at Bogyoke Aung San market you’ll definitely be expected to haggle, though you’ll rarely get the price down any more than about ten per cent.
If you think that the price you’ve been quoted for an item may be a little on the high side, instead of leaping headlong into the haggling arena, do some research. Check out the price at other stalls before assuming the price you’ve been offered is artificially high; you might find the item cheaper elsewhere and negate the need to negotiate at all.
If you shop regularly in the same market you’ll be able to build up a relationship with the traders that ensures that you won’t be taken for a ride over price. Often in lieu of a discount you may find a “present” is gifted to you, this might be something like an extra onion, or perhaps a slightly generous measure of rice. A little Myanmar language goes a long way, and getting to know the people you meet in the market will definitely work in your favour.
Generally speaking it is considered bad form to try to haggle early in the morning, or if you are the first customer to a stall. If you manage to persuade the stallholder to drop the price of their first sale of the day it will be considered a bad omen for the rest of their day’s trade. You’ll often see the vendors tapping their merchandise with your money at the end of the transaction to bring themselves good fortune. If the price they got was less than satisfactory then they won’t be so confident about their luck for the rest of the day. However on the other hand if a stall holder is keen to pack up for lunch, or looking to get away at the end of the days trading, you may find that they will be more inclined to encourage a sale by arranging a slight discount.
If you do enter into a haggling situation then a protracted wrestle over numbers might satisfy your need for a bargain, but won’t show you in a good light, and is considered rude and embarrassing for all involved. A successful haggle is one in which everyone gets a price they are happy with, and avoids embarrassment or upset. If you really think the price is too high, and you can’t come to a quick agreement then you should make a choice, either to make do, or do without. Getting into an argument is not an option.
You’ll often be able to negotiate over the price of a taxi, and with a careful approach and a reasonable expectation you may be able to reduce the price by 500 – 1000 kyat, but probably not much more. It might be a better option to find another taxi if you really can’t accept the price offered, especially if you are travelling a familiar route and you have a firm expectation of what to pay. If a taxi driver is offering you a silly quote it could be for all manner of reasons, it might even be that they are not sure of the cost and distance and are having a rough stab at a price, so go easy on them. Your quibbling leverage is also very much dependant on the number of available taxis; if you are staggering out of a club at 2am and the quoted price is double what you paid to get there it might just be because the driver knows your options are limited. Sometimes you just have to bite your lip and accept the price you are offered.
Haggling should be light hearted, fun and most of all polite. Be realistic and reasonable about your expectations, and remember that although the discount you are working towards might be a tiny fraction of your daily income, it could be a huge slab for someone else.
A version of this article was published in MY Yangon – May 2015