to and fro

Saibaidee from Laos,

Overheard at a middle-of-the-range guesthouse in Luang Prabang, Northern Laos: An Australian tourist is negotiating/bargaining four nights’ accommodation for him and his two friends: “So that’s four nights for four hundred thousand kip, OK?” Response from manager: “Yes”. The traveller has just negotiated a saving for him and his mates of 80 000 kip, which exchanges for about 10 AUD – about $3.33 each.

dependence on tourism

These sorts of scenes are replicated in a lot of places in Laos these days. The low prices for food and accommodation draw many western tourists: some for the cheap holiday and some for the chance to altruistically engage in some inadvertent wealth redistribution. (The former probably outnumber the latter, but who can tell?) Laos has hitched its sails to the investments possible after tourists spend their money here so they are beholden to the tourists for their future prosperity. It places some of them in a weakened bargaining position. Naturally, some are acutely aware of this and are resigned to the unpalatable fact.)


I’ve always had a problem with bargaining in such circumstances. This is the livelihood of the recipient we are talking about; a fairly modest livelihood at best. To engage in a game of to-and-fro is to confirm the power imbalance between the two parties, I would have thought. Does the bargainer feel some implicit superiority in the transaction? The Japanese – now very mobile international tourists – are known for not bargaining and automatically paying the asking price. Why do others grasp the opportunity with glee when they visit third world countries? Maybe it’s because westerners come from an achievement culture, in which they are imbued with the need to measure every aspect of their existence by the number of successes they have.

In the bargaining negotiation, such people congratulate themselves on beating down their opponent from $12 to $10 (equivalent), not paying any heed to the fact that $2 to the local is worth infinitely more than their $2 they save. Such noisome travellers then proceed to dine out on their self-congratulatory tales – I know from tedious experience – as if the minuscule saving is the highlight of their travels.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a regional centre on the confluence of the Nam Kahn and the Mekong River in northern Laos. It’s a town with a lot of charm and a positive future, judging by the new buildings going up. There’s a mixture of 18th century and 21st, benefiting from the surge of tourism that’s hitting Laos recently. As well as monks in saffron robes and markets of local produce, there’s a band of young girls (from 13 years down) selling small handicrafts on half boxes. They’re just like the Dickensian matchstick girls, only nowhere near as pathetic.

These beautiful little souls have sparkle and a jaunty patter. I bought a wristband from Mee who told me, “I have to sell to have money for to go to s-chool”. (Parents need 120 000 kip per child to attend school for one year at primary level.) Another little girl, Mew, spotted my wristband, and realising that she’d been gazumped, demanded, “How much you pay?” I ended up buying something from Mew as well. What sort of morality is being practised by the affluent westerner who bargains such a vendor down from (equivalent) $4 to $3? One Australian dollar could do so much for these people yet wouldn’t be missed by a gallivanting tourist. Why is this fact lost on so many?

“the most tranquil in Asia”

The night market in Luang Prabang is described by The Lonely Planet as the most tranquil in Asia. Most of the vendors are women. They set up every evening under portable gazebos on the main street. We are led to believe that these women work during the daylight hours at creating the handicrafts – of very high quality and meticulous workmanship – so that they might offer them for sale in the evenings. Many of the women are accompanied by babies crawling around their stalls. They’re all fairly poor. They certainly don’t have much leisure time!

There is no hard sell in the Luang Prabang market. Where is the morality in bargaining such people down to save a dollar or two? My impulse is to spend freely and spread my money around. (This is of course why I don’t have much of it! Yes, admission from the dock, with the Alfred E. Neuman defence.)

I know that bargaining is a sport for some but for the people on the receiving end, it’s a living. There are other questions to complicate the issue but I find the practice repugnant, especially when the savings are so minuscule. I’m interested to know what others think.

from Luang Prabang

Kat Kory

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