Why Pay More? Because You’re a Westerner

Asia, Backpacking & Trekking, Finances & Savings, Laos, Lost Girls RTW Adventure — By on February 3, 2007 at 1:35 am

Once the first seven months on the road passed and our bank balances started growing dangerously anemic, our resident secretary/treasurer Jen B started creating lists, charts and even excel spreadsheets (hey, we’re all computer nerds) to figure out exactly why we were exceeding our $30 per day allowance. Using the info from her daily expense journal, Jen finally figured out that we’d neglected one very critical line item in our round-the-world budget, a little something we’ve dubbed “traveler shrinkage.”

As in retail clothing sales, where companies have to account for items that are damaged, stolen or otherwise unsellable, backpackers should assume that they’ll pay 10-30 percent more for unforeseen expenses related to their status as big, conspicuous foreigners.

Usually the shrinkage is subtle-an extra 15 minutes tacked onto one’s per-hour internet time, a posted price that’s “no longer valid,” a spare beer attached to the bar bill, a long-haul bus driver who requires backpackers to buy snacks at five different rest stops. Sometimes the shrinkage is not-so-subtle, like when a cabbie refuses to use his meter then charges three times the going fare, when a guesthouse takes reservation then switches the original room for something “a little more luxurious.”

I thought I’d grudgingly accepted padded bills, sliding scale prices and bait-and-switch hotel tactics as all part of the travel game, but when I reached Southeast Asia, I was really blown away by drastic difference between “local price” and “tourist price.” Unlike I Peru where I could bargain with a good-natured shopkeeper in the local language or India where the stuff was so rock-bottom cheap that it just seemed cruel to haggle over the last few rupees, in SE Asia, prices for tourists often drastically exceed what locals pay-something that’s aggressively and often humorlessly enforced visually by skin color rather than officially by passport.

I hadn’t realized just how much the cost discrepancy truly bothered me until I had shouting match in the middle of a dusty street. Jen and I had hired a tuk-tuk driver outside the spa we’d just visited to take us about three kilometers back to the center of town in Luang Prubang, Laos. After some haggling over the price-he wanted one US dollar per person and I told him I’d only pay him a buck total-he finally relented and opened the back door of his open-air vehicle so we could get in.

The ride was pleasant enough, and Jen and I happily snapped photos of smiling locals on motorbike as we bumped along towards Main Street. When we hopped out of the back a few minutes later, I handed the guy a buck and he looked at me, and looked down again, acting completely baffled by the money in his hand.

“No, this not enough. You give me Two dollar! One dollar, one dollar,” he said, pointing to Jen and me individually.

“No,” I said trying to sound calm, “I told you before we left that we’d give you a dollar, totally for both of us, and you agreed.”

“NO!! Dollar for you! Dollar for her! Two dollar!! You give me two dollar now!”

I refused to take out more money, telling the man that Jen and I had only paid one dollar for our ride to the spa (on a motorbike with a cool sidecar attachment) and he’d agreed to take us back for the same price.

“You NOT pay one dollar for ride over! You LIE! One dollar is local price! You not a LOCAL! Price for not-local is TWO DOLLAR!!”

I watched as the man in front of me grew redder and redder, throwing a tantrum, and wildly demanding that I give him the other buck or he’d call the police. I’m sure I didn’t help matters when I screamed at him to go ahead, get the police so we could all work it out together. At that point, I was so frustrated that I didn’t care if I ended up in Laos prison a la Brokedown Palace, so long as I didn’t have to pay more simply for being white and Western.

For those of you who may think I acted like an “ugly American” for causing a scene over a such a small amount of cash, or a tightwad because I can certainly afford a $2 cab ride or completely culturally insensitive for challenging this hard working tuk-tuk driver when he probably earns less per year that I did in a few weeks back home, I can absolutely see your point. I even agree with you, in retrospect! But to see where I was coming from at the time, try to imagine the same exact situation happening in the States:

Two women who’ve just arrived in the US from Nigeria hop into taxi and instead of using the meter, agree on a price with the driver. When the girls arrive at their destination and hand over the fare, the cabbie jumps out and forcefully demands that they now give him double the fare, simply because he can tell by their accents and their skin color that they’re not from the United States, and only Americans get the special lower price.

Granted, I understand that most foreigners traveling through Laos are extremely well-off, by local standards, and they can afford to pay more for the same goods and services. But the question is I have is, should they?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the matter…do you feel it’s justified to charge foreigners and locals different prices, especially if the country is underdeveloped or struggling (ie, India, Cambodia, Bolivia)? Should travelers have to pay more for food, transportation, room and board simply because they have the means to do so? If so, why? If not, do you think the governments should do more to enforce standardized pricing?

Post a comment and let me know what you think….

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what ever happened with that tuk-tuk driver in Luang Prubang, I’d say the whole thing ended in a tie. We finally agreed to split the difference: One ride, two girls, $1.50.

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    10 Comments

  • Autumn & Danny says:

    Hi Girls:

    I actually blogged about this same problem that we experienced in S.E. Asia. Tuk Tuk drivers are the worst!

    There is nothing worse than being taken advantage of and we have been by cabbies in Belize, the Carribean, and S.E. Asia to name a few.

    Its just bad karma on thier end … so to keep karma on our side, despite a few shouting matches, we usually pay … the karma gods win out in the end.

    Autumn of http://www.autumnanddannyworldtravel.blogspot.com

  • Dellie says:

    Loved the cool travelin’ piggy- bank dude…
    While the locals may appreciate the lower prices,visiting foreigners will most likely feel taken advantage of… What can you do-argue your way around the world? If this is the worst injustice you experience on your travels-well, I guess just suck up and pay the small difference. It may not be fair, but the human equality you were born to and are accustomed to is the privledge and right of every American IN AMERICA. Not elsewhere. That’s what makes the USA a wonderful place to live. Racial, Ethnic and Sexual Equality. Even for a taxi fare.

  • Miss Britt says:

    No. The prices should be the same.

    Because it’s not just about discrimination based on “race” or “color” – but it’s discrimination based on ignorance and intimidationg, assuming that most tourists won’t know any better or be willing to get into a shouting match with a local.

    Good for you for standing up for fiery American women! 😉

  • Jonathan says:

    I’ve been in Thailand a little over two years now, and I come and go on the “farang tax” issue. Back when I was making NYC money, it didn’t bother me at all: the inflated price was still way below what I was willing to pay, so I thought of it simply as a bit of charity. Now that I live here, I can still feel that way at times – I am not about to bargain with the ancient grandma who suddenly doubles her prices — but I now measure prices by the local currency rather than the exchange rate, so the inflated prices actually register as expensive. I do get ripped off less now, though, as I will voice my refusal in (very bad) Thai which tends to have a salutary effect on the negotiations.

  • montchan says:

    I grew up in Africa, India and Hong Kong (I’m white though) and I absolutely REFUSE to pay the “white person’s” price. It was an issue in Cape Verde last year, and it will be in April when we go there again.

    And have you been called “racist” yet for refusing to pay the “farang” price? ugh… the memories…

  • iphigeniaj says:

    i am posting long after the fact, but here is my two cents worth–

    in my travels, i approach the inflated foreign price from “a mile in their shoes” perspective. if i were them, and i were doing business with rich foreigners (because, really, that’s what we are…even the $5/day travelers) i would try to get all that i could. local prices are just that; they are calibrated to the local economy and what the average laotian, etc. can afford. i can afford more. now, that isn’t to say i gladly fork over 2 and 3 times the normal price. however, when the 50 cent tuk-tuk ride is quoted at 65 cents, i don’t quibble. i smuggly pat myself on the back for being a good socialist. i think most of us do that.

    the real problems comes not from the foreign “tax”, but from being cheated just because we are foreign–the hotel room switch, the “misunderstood” agreed upon price, the hidden conditions to bus tickets, etc. if it is an after the fact price switch, i refuse to pay unless doing so puts me at risk. i agreed to a price and that is the price i am going to pay. if it is something like a room switch or extra conditions to transportation, i weigh my present state–am i tired? do i feel like searching for something else? have i been ripped off lately and am still smarting from it? my answer usually determines whether or not i cave. even when i have been swindled, i can only get so upset, because “mile in their shoes.”

  • nosman says:

    Just now reading through all your blogs…great stuff.

    The “mile in their shoes” sounds great, in theory.
    But reality is much different.

    We experienced these issues time and time again, haggling with Tuk-Tuk drivers during our travels in Southeast Asia – much more in Thailand than Laos or Vietnam, however.

    The trick is to get two or more cabbies competing against each other, thereby creating a price war.
    More times than not, you’ll get a fair deal, and perhaps even enjoy the process.

    Props to the Lost Girls for not taking the easy way out and handing over another buck.

    It’s not about the money, it’s the principle.

    -J

  • wanderlust says:

    During my travels abroad and particularly in SE Asia, I was also frequently subject to the always aggravating “tourist price” as an American woman. However, I think your comparison to the Nigerian women being charged extra in the US is not a comparable situation. Perhaps a Brit visiting India might be more appropriate. Given certain factors such as the US bombing the crap out of Laos in the 1970s through covert CIA operations during the Vietnam War, I feel that it’s a small price to pay for American backpackers to shell out a few extra cents or a dollar for the inflated price. It may not be “fair,” but as extensive world travelers I’m sure you realize that nothing in this world is.

  • Bethany says:

    wow…reading this takes me back to some similar ugly experiences I had in the same area a couple of years back. i can agree with both sides – the “karma” perspective and the “principle” perspective. I think everyone has to deal with it in their own way. Ultimately, it comes down to what you are constantly learning about yourself and who you want to be, through your travels. for me, the experiences I had with being ripped off and the frustration with the language barriers showed me how easily i can fly off the handle and do or say things i regret – by not being the bigger person, as it were. since my journey was all about finding balance and being present, i got to the place where i just recognized that my anger over these things was ruining MY experience. i couldn’t change how the person i was interacting with acted, but i could change my own reaction. i also think one of the reasons this experience is so hard to deal with is because it starkly contrasts to the kind and giving nature of most of the locals i interacted with in other contexts, and it is difficult to reconcile that. just some thoughts…

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