I needed a ride to the Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery for my meditation retreat. Just the day before, the woman who ran the guest house I was staying at, Boot*, had given me a motorbike tour of Mae Hong Son province. While I enjoyed the day, I knew I had been ripped off, but I had been too tired and unwilling to attempt to negotiate a better price when I arranged the trip.
So when she offered me a ride to the monastery, I was determined not to let her get the best of me again. I bargained harder than I ever have before, and I finally got her down to 450 baht ($14) from 900 baht ($28). I absolutely hate haggling, but I was still proud of my “achievement” (I was still probably paying too much).
I waited around for a while for Boot to finish up some errands and gas up the bike. As I sat outside my room, I watched Boot’s husband, Noy*, shuffle around the guest house. I had met Noy when I checked in, but he struck me as surly and unfriendly though his English was much better than his wife’s.
During our moto tour the day before, I had learned that Boot was ethnically Shan (one of the ethnic minority groups of northern Thailand), and Noy is Korean. They had a shy 9-year-old daughter, Veeoh*, who Boot and I picked up from school after the tour. That evening, Noy had asked me to kick-start his motorbike for him. I was too worried about knocking the bike completely over to wonder why he couldn’t do it himself. Now emboldened by my imminent departure and successful bargaining, I decided to find out his story.
“What happened to your leg?”
“Motorbike accident, one year ago.”
It turns out Noy had gotten into a motorbike accident that nearly killed him. He ended up having his spleen removed, surgery on his right knee / leg, and his right ankle is damaged such that it hurts to walk anywhere. To this day, it is still really swollen and deformed. He told me how he used to love walking through the mountains for hours and hours, but now he couldn’t even walk up a hill. He said he was holding onto hope that he could one day walk normally again.
“Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”
He just shrugged and smiled a little, “I’m alive.”
“Boot and Veeoh must have been so scared.”
He nodded solemnly. “I was in hospital for three months. Boot and Veeoh always there.”
It was right around then that my heart shattered. I had just been so proud of negotiating $14 away from this family, and for what? In the grand scheme of things, $14 doesn’t mean much to me — at home, I could easily spend that on a happy hour drinks with friends one evening and not think twice about it. But for Boot and Noy and Veeoh, $14 could go a long ways to helping the family recover from his accident and injury.
This scenario has played out so many times in our travels. We are wealthy by most measures throughout much of Southeast Asia, and so if we get ripped off for a few dollars here and there, what’s the big deal? That dollar is probably doing more to improve this family’s life than it could do to improve my own. I can afford to spare a dollar, and that dollar can change the course of this person’s life.
But at the same time, why should I foot the bill for these peoples’ misfortune? Just because I have money, should I feel obligated to help? Why should I get ripped off just because of where my passport was issued? Why should I reinforce the idea that all travelers / foreigners can and should pay a higher price? Who knows where that dollar is actually going! I need to save as much money as I can for myself and my own future.
I think this is part of why I hate haggling so much. There are too many feelings involved: my western guilt at having been born into such an easy life, my pride in getting a good deal / not getting ripped off, my Asian obsession with penny-pinching, my hope that I can leave this world a better place even in the most minute of ways. I guess the hard part is not knowing what impact your actions will have, good or bad. You just have to do your best and hope.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t haggle or bargain; I still do it now to the best of my (very limited) abilities. It’s actually foolish not to attempt to negotiate a good price. But I also try to keep in mind that the other side has a story, too, and if I don’t get the price I want, it’s not the end of the world.
As we pulled away from the guest house, I waved at Noy with newfound understanding and empathy. That little 10-minute conversation with him completely changed my perspective, and I felt like I could call him a friend now. I had so many things I wanted to say to him and to wish him good luck, but all I managed to squeak out was, “Good-bye!”
He smiled and waved back, “Good-bye! Come back soon!”
I silently rode on the back of Boot’s bike to the monastery close to tears and feeling like a horrible human being. After a while, she stopped at the side of the road to point out some flowers, “Lisa, look! Suay ngaam!” Beautiful.
*Names changed because… well, I don’t know Thai. But these are phonetically close.