10 rules to stress-free shopping in Asia

10 rules to stress-free shopping in Asia

Asia has great salesmen, so here's how to be a better customer

High quality, low prices, great variety -- Asia is a shopaholic's playground.

But there are times when a pushy souvenir seller or extortionist bar owner will send you into spasms of exasperation. 

That's because you've been doing it wrong. 

If you try to fight Asia's wily vendors, you will lose. They're cleverer than you and they care less about making the sale than you think. There are another 10 tourists waiting just around the corner.

So don't fight. Go with the flow. Join in and enjoy.

Easily done if you follow these 10 rules to trauma-free shopping in Asia. 


1. Be attentive

money image AsiaYou're a cash cow, so expect to be milked.

Money-back guarantees are a Western phenomenon. The chances of getting a refund if your "100-year-old hand-carved chess set" from Thailand has transformed into a plastic replica between the shop and the hotel are Kate Moss in 1990 -- thinner than slim. 

Your threats to go to the Office of Fair Trading will be met with either wide-eyed innocence, a scoffed remark in words you don't understand, or the worst of all: a friendly smile. 

Check your hotel room is to your liking before handing over any cash, and make sure the item you see and want is the one you get. 

2. Negotiate

Haggling in Asia is like diarrhea and hangovers -- it is possible to avoid it, but if you do you're just not getting stuck in. 

And you can do it anywhere. 

Some stores especially in India will have "Set Price" signs dotted around the place. Don't believe them. 

The Laos border official may demand US$30 for a visa when the sign above his head says US$20. Suggest a compromise on US$25.

Even if it doesn't work, it's good practice for next time. Just remember "negotiating" doesn't mean "arguing" (see point 10).

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3. Have fun with fakes

Shopping in Asia-fake goodsGenuine fakes abound.Fake goods have long been a part of the shopping experience in Asia with canny copiers, especially Chinese, offering everything from fake Gucci bags to shanzhai iPhones and even phony fossils

Go with it. If you really do want that luxury Hermes purse, go to a bona fide Hermes store.

Otherwise revel in your "QuickSliver" T-shirt. 

4. Protect your passport 

Many guesthouses will ask for your passport when you check in. Businesses who rent out motorbikes will often ask for your passport as a deposit. 

Most of the time this is perfectly safe. But some Vietnamese hotel owners with extortionist tendencies have been known to keep passports unless the owner pays a huge sum of money for "damages." 

Prevention is better than cure, so offer a deposit in lieu of a passport, telling them your passport is at the Laos/Cambodian/Vietnamese embassy with your visa application. 

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5. Get over yourself

Asian salesman call a spade a spade, and fat people fat.

Shops in Western countries realized long ago that vanity sizing sells clothes. Shop assistants flatter you into a smaller size knowing it will up their conversion rate. 

Shop owners in Asia are more likely to greet you with a toothy smile and a boisterous: “I have big big size just for you!”

Don't be offended. This may be good reason to file for divorce back home, but here it's all business.

Smile, and say, "Big big sizes need small small prices, yes?" (see point 4)

6. Be patient

People in Laos give a very literal meaning to the concept of sleeping on the job. It’s not uncommon to walk into an establishment to find the staff, head on desk, oblivious to your "ahems" and mouse-like "excuse mes". 

It’s fine to wake them up with a little shake, but start the conversation with a bit of small talk. You'll find them much more agreeable and helpful once the sleepiness drains away.

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7. Be chauffeured around

Tuk tuk-shoppingMore pester power than horse power.

Many, especially in India in the summer, are bewildered by the tourist compulsion to walk everywhere rather than be carried in air-conditioned cars or airy auto-rickshaws.

Their puzzlement is understandable when your leisurely stroll is interrupted every two minutes by those very rickshaw drivers. 

Nothing you say will make them understand you actually enjoy walking -- they’ll just keep crawling up to your side dropping the price until you relent. 

You may as well hop in. But explain that you definitely do not want to go to the craft market. Rickshaw drivers often moonlight as "delivery agents" for local businesses.

8. Don't worry about your change

In many places around Southeast Asia you might find the change-giving a little light.

Cambodia operates a dual currency system of Cambodian riel and U.S. dollars and sales clerks will occasionally take advantage of the confused tourist. 

So what? That KHR 500 (US$0.13) is probably worth 100 times more to her than it is to you. Is it really worth the worry? Consider it a tourist tax.

In Asia, even the rip-offs are affordable.

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9. Avoid leading questions

This could be the place Buddha took a skinny dip. You just need to ask.

Many Vietnamese tour operators will tell you anything to make a sale.

If you ask if the tour of Halong Bay takes in Sung Sot cave, the answer you’ll get is yes, whether it’s true or not.

"Is this where Tom Cruise proposed to Nicole Kidman?" -- "Yes."

"Will my love life improve if I go?" -- "Yes."

Better to ask open questions: "Which cave does this tour visit?" 

10. Finally -- just keep your cool 

The importance of saving face should not be underestimated in Southeast Asia. Locals will go to extreme lengths to remain calm and avoid embarrassment, and you should do the same.

You could protest that when you requested a room with a TV you expected to get one that actually worked. Or that your "three-day visa application" should have mentioned those three days would each be a week apart. 

But far better to follow what the locals do -- smile, shrug it off, get on with your day. 

Remember -- just as there's another tourist waiting to be had behind you, there's another hotel/shop/tour operator waiting for your custom.

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