Siem Reap Markets a Hard Bargain

posted by Pete McDonald

Siem Reap has two tourist-friendly markets, the Old Market and the Night Market. Both have relatively similar prices and involve a lot of standing, sweating, bargaining and saying “no, thank you.”

Before this trip, I didn’t have much experience with these third-world markets – the kind of places where the word “market” originated, where there are no retail prices, only suggestions, and where every urge imaginable, material or physical, can be satisfied.

In the Old Market, raw, plucked chickens sit dead, ready for sale. Fish without heads bleed in rows on plywood tables. Bowls of salted and peppered crickets and ants sit out to entice passersby. Hundreds of shops in both markets all sell the same things – t-shirts and other clothing, jewelry, paintings, and small souvenirs.

The selection from shop to shop is so strictly defined and limited, that I find myself wondering why one person hasn’t branched out and begun to sell something else. There has to be a market for other goods, but I guess the locals have figured out exactly what tourists will buy. As each tourist peruses the shops, vendors accost him or her to no end.

“Buy something sir?” they say. “I make good price.” They don’t care what I buy, as long as I buy from them.

“No, thank you,” I say, “I’m just looking.” But they don’t believe me. The fact that I’m in the market at all means I could make a purchase at any moment. Because everybody sells identical goods, vendors must work hard to win over each customer. They tend to immediately offer a discount.

“How much is this?” I asked one woman, pointing to a carved opium pipe made from a boar tusk.

“Fifteen dollar. But for you, I make good price! I not have customer today so I sell to you for cheap. Ten dollar!”

But how cheap is cheap? What is truly a good price? Tourists are shopping in a new country where money is valued differently, materials are priced differently, and vendors often take advantage of people who aren’t familiar with what they purchase. This presents an odd dilemma. While considering a t-shirt at a dirt-cheap price – by American standards – of two dollars, tourists don’t know whether to take it and run or ask for an even better price of one dollar.

After their first offer, vendors sometimes take offense to low counter-offers, but the bottom line is, they want to make a sale. Last week, for example, I saw a teenage boy selling Polo shirts by Ralph Lauren. Gold mine, I thought. I can definitely work myself a deal here.

“How much are those Polos?” I asked.

“Eight dollar. But for you I give discount. Night time price!”

“Hmmm, eight dollars. That’s really good actually. Can I try one on?”

Polos in America can run anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars or more, retail price. I knew I would be making a purchase, but I wasn’t done yet. After making sure the shirts fit me, I pressed on.

“Okay, I want to get two. For ten dollars.”

“Uhhh!” the guy said in astonishment. I clearly offended him, but my logic was sound. I figured I could have talked him down from eight to five dollars for one, so why not ten for two? I had no idea how much the shirt cost to make or how much the vendor had paid to the manufacturer to begin with. I began to question what exactly I was doing.

As a western tourist in a third-world country, the money game is an interesting moral issue. Souvenir and clothing prices are dirt cheap by western standards, but normal to the locals. So who am I to bargain? I’m the one traveling the world on funds from a university scholarship, my own parents and my personal savings account. At my age, most Cambodian men are working full-time jobs and are lucky to have ever left the country at all. If anything, tourists should be paying the vendors more than they ask. After all, they certainly need the money more than we do.

But at that moment, I was on the verge of an incredible deal. I forgot about morals. “Okay, how about twelve,” I said.

“No, fourteen. I still make small profit. Please!” he said. He could see I was still reluctant. “Okay fine,” he said. “Thirteen for you, because you cute.”

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