How to navigate devilish dual pricing in Thailand

thailand, foreigners, hawkers

Used to the foreigner influx, local traders have, naturally, cottoned on to the spending habits of these holidaymakers. Source: Shutterstock

DUAL PRICING is a bone of contention among travelers, expats and locals. Not many are aware of such a practice, or that it takes place at almost every tourist attraction in Thailand.

Some of those who are, however, say it is frustrating and even unfair to have to fork out double – sometimes more – the amount that locals pay.

However, there are reasons for it and of course, ways you can avoid it, as we learned from several travelers. So if you’re ever in Thailand or plan to head there, we invite you to learn from their experiences below and decide for yourself if it’s something you disagree with.

Thailand is among the top five most visited destinations in Asia. Every year, millions of travelers seek out the wildest beach parties to dance under the moonlight, with unregulated beer and cheap food and accommodation. Last year, the kingdom saw a record 35 million in international arrivals, a number the government expects will grow to 45 million by 2020.

Used to the foreigner influx, local traders have, naturally, cottoned on to the spending habits of these holidaymakers. And they’re not afraid to take advantage.

Chanel Bellchambers, 22, a British backpacker and Thailand explorer told Travel Wire Asia:

“…within two days of being in Bangkok I felt that we were being slightly ripped off.”

To find out more, Bellchambers spoke to a British man who, from his 10 years of living in the Thai capital, had wised up to the practice and knew of ways to get around it.

“It takes time, but you must gain their respect. He told us to negotiate, and learn some of the lingo,” she said.

Of course, learning a brand new language is probably easier said than done, and a simple three-to-four-day vacation shouldn’t have to entail that much research.

Richard Barrow, a British expat currently living in Thailand, has a simpler technique.

In a recent post on his Thai Travel News & Events blog, he wrote: “…never order food at any restaurant where they don’t show the prices. This is, in fact, illegal.”

“The vendor, in this case, could face a fine of up to THB140,000 (US$4,500) or up to seven years in prison. So, you are in the right when you ask for the price first,” he added.

But even when restaurants do display their prices, they are often written in Thai, which is tricky to decipher if you don’t know the language. For foreigners, said Barrow, some food shops would offer them menus written completely in English.

“I know what you are thinking, that is very kind of them. And quite often it is just that. But every now and then, there is an ulterior motive,” he said.

“The prices on the English menu are sometimes double of what it is on the Thai menu.”

So if you notice a local being offered a different menu to order off, either ask for that one or simply leave; as the chances are you’re about to pay double for the same food and service.

A state-sanctioned practice?

On top of partygoers and foodies, Thailand also attracts many cultural-inquisitors wanting to delve into the rich history of the Buddhist nation, its incredible architecture, and meet some majestic animals from the jungle.

It is also these state-run attractions, such as national parks and temples which stipulate higher entry fees for foreigners.

This, of course, begs the question: is dual pricing legal in Thailand?

A reader of Barrow’s blog says it isn’t illegal.

“Double pricing is bad. It is unfair. In some countries it is illegal. In Thailand it is not. It is practiced by government institutions and by private businesses.

“I have complained about it on many occasions. I am sad when some expats try to defend this unfair policy.”

An incident this month that went viral on social media seemed to confirm this. A Thai woman claimed she was made to pay THB150 (US$4.70) for a local food dish at a market in Pratunam because the vendor thought she was a Chinese tourist.

Reporters even visited the Neon Market later to find out what happened, and when asked for details, the vendor admitted to charging the woman a price meant for “farangs” (the Thai word for Westerners). The story sparked a firestorm of protests from both locals and expats alike, with many Thais insisting that all customers be made to pay the same price.

“Foreigners are people too,” said one local quoted on Coconuts Bangkok.

In response to the uproar, the Kingdom’s Commerce Ministry reportedly said it would investigate the matter and that if the vendor were to be found guilty of overcharging, she would face up to seven years’ jail time and/or a fine of up to THB100,000 (US$3,200).

So is it illegal then? The rules on that seem murky. The practice does, however, seem to go against the spirit of the Thai Constitution. Article 27 states:

“All persons are equal before the law, and shall have rights and liberties and be protected equally under the law.”

This covers discrimination against a person based on race and ethnicity, however, as the nation is under military rule, the Constitution is often a grey area.

For a good cause?

That aside, it is often hard to avoid dual pricing because if you refuse, the next willing tourist will just pay the inflated price, and while it will leave a small hole in their pocket, they’ll have the experience you missed out on.

The situation is a catch-22, to say the least, however, there are some places that you may want to avoid altogether.

For example, Siam Ocean World and Madame Tussauds extort foreigners for THB850 (US$26), compared to the THB350 (US$10.25) locals have to pay. The wax works will mostly be celebrities who foreigners wouldn’t recognize, and why pay for a basement aquarium when you could go diving for cheaper in The Gulf of Thailand?

Some travelers and expats are also beyond arguing about the price, as one traveler explains on Barrow’s blog:

“I feel bad haggling. I made as much in an hour as Thais make in a week. Plus, I don’t want to haggle over US$1 (THB30). Thais work all day, 6-7 days a week to be able to live in a room.”

It’s a view that many travelers share. And for some locals, the extra money paid by foreigners goes towards maintenance and back to support their community.

“I feel as though we are so sheltered and have no idea what lies underneath these people and their lives, they live so differently to us, the cost that got us to Thailand may be their life savings,” Bellchambers said.

She said when she visited a local village selling food, handmade jewelry and gifts, prices were raised the moment tourists came by.

“… because WE HAVE MONEY, of course, we do! And this means they can then provide education, books, and stationery for schools, first aid… all they need.”

Although there is no record of where the extra money ends up, some travelers are adamant it’s not used for upkeep.

So how can you get around paying an inflated price?

“Of course, be cheeky and barter with these people but in a respectful way and think of how much time and effort they put in to being there and selling every single day, 365 days a year, for the millions of tourists, and will only get a percentage of what you’re giving them,” Bellchambers said.

Alternatively, just do a bit of research and find out which heritage sites, national parks, and attractions you want to go to. Also, have a fixed price for transport in your head to avoid being ripped off.

“With Thailand, the ones that get you are the taxis,” Hugo Illingworth, a British sailing instructor living in Thailand told Travel Wire Asia.

“The motorbike taxis always seem to quote higher prices to westerners and the same goes for car taxis in the center.”

So get quick at math, work out the conversion rate to your usual currency, and if you’re quoted US$230 for a three-minute journey, walk away.