Keep the Change!

Holidays in Thailand can be relatively cheap for foreign tourists. Many things from food to hotel accommodation are a lot cheaper than what you would get on a holiday in a Western country. Which is just as well, as after flying all the way to Thailand on expensive airlines, most holiday makers don’t have much money left over. They are basically coming to Thailand because their tourist dollars go a bit further. Sometimes I think it would go a bit further if they don’t walk around acting like they are rich tourists. It gives the Thais the wrong impression that all foreigners are rich. After all, if you can afford to buy a plane ticket then you must be loaded.

I have taken groups of tourists to go and eat at a restaurant or walk through a market. I wince every time they declare loudly how cheap everything is. Shopping in Thailand is based on the haggling system and the last thing that you should do is announce to the word, before your first bid, that the asking price is so ridiculously cheap! You need to keep it cool. Buying in a market is an art form. A game that even rich Thais love to play. Don’t flaunt your wealth. When they give you the first price then put on your poker face and counter with an offer that is less than half. But, be prepared to pay that price if they say “yes” straight away. Though personally I hate it when they say that so quickly.

In Thailand you seemingly have to haggle for many things. Even tuk tuk rides on the three-wheeled motorized taxis. However, if you are in a department store or a supermarket with an electronic till, then obviously you cannot haggle. If there is a bar code on the product then it is more difficult, though not impossible, for them to lower the price. At the shopping malls like Panthip Plaza, they will often give you good prices for electronic equipment such as computers and cameras. However, if I then ask them for a proper receipt, they then say that they will have to add 7% to the bill for VAT. For me to buy in the name of my company, I need to show a proper receipt.

When I used to backpack a lot, I was always a bit nervous when entering a new country for the first time. I not only had to get my tongue around a new language, but I also had to get used to a new currency and, more important, the value of that money. When you first get off the boat or plane, the vultures waiting for you know full well that you are a newbie. They will often take advantage of your uncertainty. They will try and trick you that a thousand units of that currency isn’t a lot of money. I quickly learned that I needed to do my homework before entering the next country. This usually involved finding a person going the opposite way and asking them how much a bottle or can of Coke is on average. I then used that as my baseline.

By the time I arrived in Thailand, I was a seasoned traveller, having already spent half a year in China, Pakistan and India. But, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ever tricked to pay more. I remember going to a small shop in Kanchanaburi. The owner charged me 20 baht for a bottle of water that should have only cost 7 baht. She seemed such a sweet old lady that I trusted her. When I found out the real price at another shop it left me with a feeling of distaste and a bad feeling about people of Kanchanaburi. But really, this kind of thing happens all over the way. And we, as tourists, are mainly to blame.

I think we have all been guilty of the syndrome of saying “keep the change”. When a meal at a roadside vendor was so good but so cheap we feel embarrassed to ask for the change. Or when someone gave us really good service that we want to pay them a little extra. However, this then contributes to their impression that all foreign tourists are like walking ATM machines. A good source of easy money. I think a lot of people agree with me that Thai people are the most honest, sincere and kindest people on the planet earth. Their hospitality is also next to none. However, many of them change for the worse after prolonged contact with foreign tourists. If a Thai person in a major tourist town comes up to you to ask if you need help, the chances are high that he is a scam artist. It is so sad that smiles that they show aren’t the real “Siamese Smile”.

Although Thailand now has more scammers, and also tourist attractions that sneakily charge 150% more for foreigners, we do now have a new weapon in our arsenal. Many people complain about this new change as they are putting the mom and pop stores out of business. But personally, I applaud the invasion of the 7-Eleven and Family Mart on every corner. And also the hypermarkets such as Tesco Lotus and Big C. At last we have a place where the chances are higher that we won’t get cheated. If you go to 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of water then it will cost you 7 baht the same as everyone else. If you want to buy a can of Coke then that will cost you 14 baht. No arguments. No scams. Well, maybe one scam. In tourist areas, some of the guys behind the counter will not give you your full change on purpose.

I am not saying that all Thais in tourist areas are out to scam or trick you. There are still a lot of honest people out there. It is these people that I like to help out and reward if I can. After all, we want to encourage their honesty. Though, at the same time, not “damaging” them. Sometimes, when I go to a tourist place like the Grand Palace, I act like a tourist and ask vendors how much a bottle of water costs or a plate of curry. Even if I ask in English, I quite often get told a fair price. The temptation is then to give her a 20 baht note for the bottle of water and tell her to keep the change. Sometimes they don’t want to accept. However, I usually insist and tell them in Thai that they have an honest and true heart.

I have sometimes done the same for a samlor or tuk tuk driver. If they gave me a fair price straight away, or I managed to bargain it down to a lower price, I then often give them more than what they asked for, once we reached the destination. I don’t like hassle as much as the next man, and I think this should be rewarded. I was once asked by a tuk tuk driver why so many foreigners walk around town instead of taking a ride in a taxi. I told him that there are two reasons. Firstly, foreigners like walking around as recreation. It is part of the fun of exploring a new city. However, the main reason I personally avoid going on a tuk tuk is because they have a bad reputation of cheating foreigners. I don’t like the hassle of trying to bargain the price down and then not knowing whether the final price was fair or not. In Bangkok, it is often cheaper to go in an air-conditioned taxi as the meter starts at only 35 baht. The tuk tuk drivers can suffer the fate that they brought on themselves.

To be honest with you, I haven’t really decided on the best way to reward good service. I want to help them but I don’t want to contribute to the development of more greedy and selfish people. Thailand is already getting a bad reputation for cheating foreign tourists with the scam artists and the two tier price system at tourist attractions. The question comes down to when to tip and how much to give. I say tip as I think these people should be rewarded just as much as restaurant staff. The basic rule after a meal is to leave loose change or about 10% of the bill. I have seen some tourists give a 100 baht banknote for a 25 baht meal and told them to keep the change. After all, that is not much more than $3 and is still a fair price for them for a meal. However, you must remember that many people only earn $4 for a full days work. Minimum wage is about 180 baht per day. Many earn less. So, think carefully before giving someone the equivalent of a day’s wage for ten minutes of work.

Once, a Thai person asked me for more money after I had paid her the agreed amount for rowing me around a floating market. She gave me some sob story about how hard her life was. She asked me for 200 baht more. Not a lot of money, but if she did that to everyone that day then she would earn an extra 1,000 baht at least. In my mind, she is no different to the beggars on the street. Many countries have a policy of telling their citizens and tourists not to give money to beggars. This is because they can actually earn a lot more by sitting there than someone can working in a factory. If that beggar does so well, then there is no incentive to find a job. Though, of course, in Thailand things are not quite that simple. Most beggars are part of gangs and many are not even Thai. If you see a mother with a child, then the chances are high that it isn’t hers and that it was stolen.

I think my general rule is only to give extra when it is unexpected and only if the service was good. I also like to say in Thai that they have a good heart. If you cannot speak Thai then there is an alternative. Put some banknotes in a sealed envelope with a card inside saying in Thai “I am rewarding you for your sincerity and honesty”. I do it that way if I want to give more than I know they would accept. Honest Thai people are uncomfortable receiving more money than they deserve even if they need it. So putting it in a sealed envelope which they will only open once you have left is the best option. But, if you really want to help by giving something back after your holiday in Thailand then consider donating to a charity. Like many people, I sponsor a couple of Thai students. Mine are in the south of Thailand. A reputable charity to do this through is the Student Education Trust. You can visit their website at

If you need help writing a card in Thai, or you want some advice about good and reliable charities in Thailand, then please post your questions on our Forums. This is the number one family-friendly community in Thailand.

9 responses to “Keep the Change!