I hate haggling.
My guidebook, personal experience and common sense tell me it’s perfectly OK in Southeast Asia, but I still hate it. Here in Thailand, haggling is not just acceptable, it’s the proper way to do business. So why did knocking $2 off a $8 T-shirt the other day leave me with an intense feeling of guilt rather than satisfaction?
The average minimum wage for a day’s work in Thailand is between $5 and $6, depending on the province (according to this blog). Food, clothes and lodging cost a fraction of what they do at home. Spending a few extra dollars won’t affect me much but may mean a lot to a small shop owner. On the other hand, vendors are trying to rip me off any chance they get, so why not stand up for myself a little bit? No seller would be agreeing to my price if they weren’t going to make a profit.
I looked up what travel bloggers have to say about this and found a helpful post that features a panel discussion with good arguments for and against haggling.
Even with my dislike for haggling, I will always negotiate for cab fare and services for tourists, such as motorbike rentals. After all, I grew up in Kazakhstan, where only idiots don’t try to knock down the price of an umetered taxi.
I will not negotiate for street food. If my portion of fried rice sets me back an extra 50 cents, I won’t take offense. It’s just business.
This past week went by quickly on Koh Phangan, a small island in the gulf of Thailand.
We lived in a tiny wooden bungalow facing the ocean, maybe 40 feet from the water. The resort, called Mai Pen Rai Bungalows, is located on a remote beach at the end of a treacherous dirt road through the jungle. Electricity comes from a generator and there is no hot water.
Our rustic villa cost us $20 a night. It came complete with a mosquito net over the big, comfy bed and a hammock on the deck. This made me think of how little we really need to be happy.
The only less-than-perfect thing was the weather. The sky was covered with low clouds on several days and the wind was causing coconuts from the nearby palm tree to fall on the roof of our bungalow. The waves were big, too.
On Christmas morning, I walked out of my hut and saw the waves splashing at my feet. It was as if someone carried the bungalow closer to the edge of the water while I was sleeping. The waves were too big for anyone to swim that day. The strip of sand where we were sunbathing the day before was gone. I kept imagining a really big wave crashing down on our little bungalow. Of course, nothing of that sort happened. We spent the afternoon watching the big waves, mesmerized.
Hi! Thanks for reading. I will be traveling through lots of different places in Thailand and writing about them, so stay tuned.
If you only have a couple of weeks, I would spend some time on one of the islands and a few days in Bangkok for culture and sightseeing. You’ll probably need to fly through Bangkok anyway.
Koh Phangan has lovely beaches and a cool vibe. If you want to see different beaches and ride around on a motorbike, Mai Pen Rai may not be the best choice because it’s hard (and expensive) to get to. We visited Haad Salad and Haad Mae Haed on the west side of the island and liked both beaches.
Krabi Province in Southern Thailand draws tourists from all over the world. Most visitors stop in the provincial capitol, Krabi Town, before moving on to one of the numerous beaches and islands in the area.
We were in town only for a day. In the evening, we strolled through the busy night market. Aside from a handful of gawking Western tourists, the market was full of local folks enjoying a night out on the town.
Prices at this market turned out to be fixed, so there was no need for bargaining (sigh of relief). Even so, everything was cheaper than the asking price in the tourist shops lining every street in the center of Krabi.
We set out to sample some of the unusual treats sold here in abundance. Whenever we saw a food we didn’t recognize, we asked what it was. If it didn’t sound too bad, we tried it.
This strategy brought us to try fried grasshoppers and unidentified white worms. We stood in front of that food stall for a long time, unsure if we could stomach the fare. Some children ran up to the stall and practically begged their mother to buy them some fried insects. After that, we got a small baggy of assorted insects, seasoned with sauce and salt.
The grasshoppers reminded me of sunflower seeds. The worms tasted something like pine nuts. Not the strangest-tasting food I’ve tried, by a long shot. If anyone reading this knows what the white worms are, please tell me.
After getting our dose of protein, we tried some delicious squid kebab, a tiny, crispy crepe filled with crème and topped with a bit of shaved egg yolk, and guava slices dipped in some sort of syrup.
The most beautiful beach in Krabi is Phra Nang: A strip of fine, white sand with a front-and-center view of the limestone cliffs that make Krabi so irresistible. The beach is shallow, especially at low tide, but that means you can get close to the camel-shaped rock. The water is deeper on the east side of the beach. You can float on your back at the mouth of the Phra Nang Cave, looking up at the stalactites. They look so fragile that it’s a little scary: What if the rocks awaken from their centuries-long stillness and fall?
Pra Nang only has a couple of very expensive resorts. Two other beaches, Railay West and Railay East, are a short walk away and have some cheaper accommodation. The most luxurious resorts in Krabi also are located on Railay West. The only distraction here and on Phra Nang is the endless hum of the longtail boats shuttling tourists back and forth all day.
Backpackers need not worry, however. West of Railay West is Ton Sai Bay, accessible by boat or a short hike (without packs). That’s where we stayed. Apparently, the limestone cliffs offer some of the best rock climbing in the world, so climbers converge here. Food, kayak rentals and climbing lessons are cheaper here than on the other beaches. The beach itself is hardly impressive.
We kayaked around the bay, which is peppered with small limestone islands. We also took a rock-climbing course for beginners. It was our first time. With gear and several hours of climbing, it cost us just over $25 per person. Climbing those cliff faces at sunset was an exhilarating experience.
Bangkok used to be known as Venice of the East because of the numerous canals cutting through the city.
When the streets are clogged with traffic (as they almost always are), people can count on ferry boats to get them where they need to go through this network of canals.
Here, below street level, Bangkok is no longer glamorous.
As the boat moves toward the heart of the city, luxury hotels and magnificent temples along the Chao Phraya River give way to dilapidated shacks lining the sides of the canal. The smell tells you that the canal is basically an open sewer, so you try not to get splashed.
You, the tourist, think the flimsy mold-eaten structures must be abandoned. They have to be. But the laundry drying on clotheslines tells you otherwise.
This, too, is a community.
Shirtless men watch their fishing rods, not glancing at the passing boat. Potted plants and Thai flags decorate faded wooden decks and Buddhist images peek out from windows. A mother and child wave hello and smile, as if to say: “hey, it’s not all bad here.”
You know it’s probably not all bad here. It’s just very, very different from the part of the city with expensive hotels, fancy restaurants and an excellent subway system.
If I had to pick my favorite site in Thailand, it would be the Buddha’s face in a tree at Wat Maha That in Ayutthaya. No one knows when and how it got there. It’s a magical place.
We spent a week in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand popular with Western tourists and expats for its rich history, culture and warm hospitality.
We got to really explore the city thanks to a detailed map by Nancy Chandler, an American living in Bangkok. The map is available at any of the city’s bookstores.
One thing that jumped out at me was this: With a bit of research, it’s really easy to support a good cause in Chiang Mai. That is not usually the case elsewhere in Thailand. And I’m not talking about volunteering for a month in a remote village. In Chiang Mai, where you eat and buy souvenirs matters. Here is my list:
1. School for the Blind offers massages Monday through Friday during the school year. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it here. Ask a local for the address or look it up online.
2. Lila Massage, which has several locations in the old town, trains and employs former inmates of the women’s prison. Top-notch massage and professional service.
3. The women’s prison also has a cafe run by inmates. We stumbled upon it when looking for a place to grab a bite.
4. At the Healing Family Foundation, people with disabilities weave cotton for scarves, purses and T-shirt designs. Off Nha Wat Kate, near Regina restaurant. Look it up before visiting to make sure they’ve got people in the workshop.
5. Other places that carry crafts by artists with disabilities are the House of Potentiality, on Moon Muang Soi 6, and the McKean Rehabilitation Institute, located near Wian Kum Kan. However, be warned that the institute is hard to find. We couldn’t locate it after riding our scooter around the area for a while. Better ask for directions first.
6. If you are looking for hilltribe crafts and textiles, you can buy them directly from the hilltribe people at the Hmong market, near Warorot Market and on Bumrung Rat, near Cakes and Crumbs restaurant. And definitely look up the Hiltribe Products Promotion Center.
7. For elephant lovers, the impressive nonprofit Elephant Nature Park and the government-run Elephant Conservation Center are ethical choices.
Your dollar, pound or euro goes far in Thailand. It will go much further if spent on a good cause.
I may never be able to take a months-long trip again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to Asia. Here are five of my favorite destinations that would be great for a short trip:
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Enjoy the famous northern Thai cuisine and hospitality, visit beautiful Buddhist temples and go trekking in the lush forests.
Rajastan, India: Visit magnificent forts and palaces, stay at a Haveli (a historic mansion converted into a hotel), learn about life in the desert.
Georgetown, Pulau Penang, Malaysia: See colonial architecture, explore Strait Chinese heritage and try some of the best food in Malaysia.
Hoi An, Vietnam: Stroll through the streets lined with well-preserved colonial buildings, try the delectable Vietnamese cuisine at one of the riverside cafes and visit the ruins of an ancient Cham civilization.
Siem Riep, Cambodia: Discover Angkor Wat and other temples of the Khmer Empire, see a traditional dance performance, swap stories with fellow travelers at one of the funky bars.