Thailand is a fantastic place to visit and those stories you hear about how friendly Thais are to the extent that their country is being referred to as the land of smiles are all true. The stories you hear about how cheap things can be here are also true, but then you need to understand how things work.
I visited Thailand many times before I finally decided to settle here and my first trip was by far the most expensive. This is not because I chose a more expensive hotel the first time than the second time, rather it was because I was not “Thailand smart”. If you are anything like me, meaning you do not spend your entire vacation inside your resort and only eat at your hotel, but rather venture out and get exposed to the real Thailand, then you quickly learn what something should cost as apposed what you have been paying, how to get from one place to the other cheaper, where to stay, when to stay and also important, what to avoid.
In Thailand there is a farang (foreigner) price for everything and then there is the price the Thais pay. Many people understandably criticize this practice, but it is because it is often misunderstood. Thais know that foreigners are under the impression everything here should be rock bottom cheap, so they expect you to negotiate a lower price to the one they give you. If they give you their best price from the start, you are going to want to negotiate and if they can’t, they think you will go elsewhere and look for a better price and subsequently a sale is lost. Do not confuse this practice when shopping in department stores and most shops though. Here the price you see on an item is the price everyone pays.
When I arrived at Bangkok airport the first time I took the first available taxi into the city and paid the equivalent of 30US$ (900 Thai Baht). This is because the first taxi booth everyone sees when they arrive is the one inside the airport terminal and then do not bother to look further. Walk outside the terminal to where you negotiate a fee as little as 15US$ (450 Thai Baht). The car will not be as new and smart as the one you get from the booth inside, but perfectly fine and will have air conditioning. Even better, faster and cheaper is taking the airport rail link from inside the airport terminal to anywhere you want to go in the city. This is going to cost you 3$ (90 Thai Baht).
Once in Bangkok the transport options are limitless. Everyone who comes to Bangkok will at some point want to be driven around in those famous and colourful three wheel tuk tuks. If you weren’t in a tuk tuk, you weren’t in Bangkok. With these guys you need to negotiate your fee before getting on. No fixed fees or meters exist and what you pay will be between you and the driver. If you ask for the price only when you reach your destination, you are going to have to pay the fee the driver demands. Generally, a tuk tuk should be able to take you anywhere in the city within a 30 minute radius for no more than 3$ (100 Thai Baht).
Something to avoid when using a tuk tuk is to have the driver stop at jewelry shops and tailors offering to make you a suite or dress. Many people coming to Thailand wants to have these clothing items made because it is so cheap to do here. Sometimes you wont even have to ask the tuk tuk driver to take you to such a shop, they will offer to do so and try really hard to convince you to let them. Don’t! You are probably going to end up somewhere paying much more than you should and in the case of jewelry buy something of low quality and again pay more than you should. This is because the tuk tuk driver has a deal with particular such shops and earns a commission when bringing in clients.
If you use a taxi, insist on the meter being turned on otherwise you will pay an inflated price at the end of your journey. However, a good tip to remember is that when it is peak hour traffic, it might be better to negotiate a fixed price with the taxi driver, because in the Bangkok traffic that meter could run for a long time.
Your best option yet where it comes to navigating the city is to use Bangkok’s elevated rail system, aka the sky train and also the subway train network. It is a fraction of the price of taxis and you can get anywhere in the city in air conditioned comfort without the frustration of traffic.
On islands like Phuket travel like the Thais. Here you will also encounter many taxis, but your best mode of transport is the sonthaew. This is a pick-up truck with two benches in the back for seating. Simply hop on and when you reach your destination you ring the bell located against the roof of the canopy. These are the cheapest and probably also safest option.
Shopping in the markets
This is something only Bangkok is famous for, but locations such as Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and everywhere else in Thailand and this is where the negotiating really starts. A good rule of thumb is to start your counter offer at 35% less than the asking price and eventually not pay more than 25% below the asking price. Remember, you might feel vendors are trying to rip you off. This is not it, rather you are expected to negotiate, so negotiate hard, it is all part of the adventure, so see it that way and enjoy it. Something I have picked up over the course of several shopping sprees in the markets is that very often you would be able to get a better deal for clothing or other items later in the day that early in the day. Hit the market one or two hours before closing time. Everyone wants to make a last sale or two before closing and the willingness to negotiate therefore much more apparent.
Food can be a mentionable part of a travel expense, but as someone living here I can tell you that in Thailand food is really cheap. Once again, avoid telling a tuk tuk or taxi driver to take you to any restaurant. On my first visit I ended up paying 4 000 Thai Baht (140 US$) for a meal for my wife and I. I now have that same meal for 20US$. The solution is to simply ask for the price before you order.
Another way to save on food is to eat at the markets and buying directly from street vendors rather than always buying western style fast food or eating in restaurants. Many First time visitors are skeptical about hygiene or the freshness of food when buying off the streets, but take my word for it, if you are going to attract a case of food poisoning it will rather be at a restaurant than at the street markets. Thais live off the food purchased at street vendors as do I and never get sick. Food at street markets do not have time to became bad because it is sold as quickly as it comes in and food is not kept to be sold again the next day.
Time your dates of stay
The price for hotel accommodation in Thailand follow the seasons. High season (mid December to end January) sees the highest prices. The shoulder season, (end January to end March and again from end October to mid December) prices are generally around 25% cheaper. The low season (1 April to 31 October) sees rock bottom prices, often half the price you would pay for accommodation during January for example. At the same time you will often find free night deals where hotels offer a stay 10 and pay only 7 nights special. Some family friendly hotels will also offer a second room for the kids at half the price adults pay. So shop around, free night deals are on the cards every year.
Another type of special offer very common here is the “early bird deal”. Should you book your accommodation for example at least 30 days in advance you often qualify for huge discounts. Very often such special deals are found at online sources like hotelsphuket.travel.
In conclusion, Thailand offers her visitors a lot for their money. Diverse landscapes, interesting attractions, beautiful people and fantastic culture and with all being said it is still one of the cheapest places to visit in terms of accommodation. However, you can also save much on the little things by going informed.
Author: George Conradie