Bargaining and bartering is a way of life in Kathmandu and Nepal
If you don’t like to bargain or barter and are planning to visit Nepal then good luck to you. Indeed there are many other places in the world where fixed pricing is not common. Indeed the art of bargaining is a way of life and in Nepal it’s expected.
Walk with a local and watch them shop for vegetables at a market they don’t know. It happens there too. So, no. It’s not just a tourist thing either.
The thing is if you don’t bargain or barter (the latter is for those who really know what they are doing) you will lose out. It’s not just about money either. Without bargaining or at least bartering for an item you are also losing face as many locals will think you are too rich and arrogant – aka stupid.
Here’s how to bargain and barter in Nepal even for those who don’t like to haggle.
Tourists looking for souvenirs are easy prey in a barter country
Know your role: A tourist who has no idea about bargaining or the barter system is going to lose out whether they know it or not. Many will settle on the first price for something and not go any further. They have no idea the price being said is marked up considerably. They take the price at face value.
Or worse yet a tourist might imagine what the item might cost in a store back home.
Thamel in Kathmandu is a prime example of this. See an incense holder. Ask the price. Be told its 500 rupees – fixed price.
So many people are willing to hand over the 500 rupees without going any further. They don’t want to challenge the set price they’ve just been told the item is worth.
What they don’t understand is that this is merely the opening offer.
A few experienced people might have read in a guide book that they should immediately offer half. Only the common result is this is that the vendor shakes their head and places the item back on a shelf.
The customer is left feeling like they insulted the owner. They think they’ve lost their new found treasure. They think the item is gone and they won’t get it back.
Welcome to bargaining in Nepal. The game has only just begun as we’ve yet to also offer a barter.
Looking to save money on souvenirs? Don’t shop in Thamel
Know your location: Thamel is a tourist haven for souvenir shopping. Everything is for sale and everything is marked up. Even the most savvy of travelers knowledgeable in the art of bartering will struggle here. Why? Because demand is high and there are plenty of tourists around.
Thamel is not a good place to practice your bartering skills
If you don’t buy at the right price, no problem, the next tourist will. If not the next then the one after that. Yes, in an over-saturated market the bargaining tourist is often at a distinct disadvantage.
Where can you get good souvenirs in Kathmandu?
This really depends on what you are looking for? Wholesalers are all along the outskirts of Thamel and on into New Road. They supply large quantities of items to Tibet (yes really), Thailand and other foreign markets. It’s a good place to start if you are looking to bulk order 100 or so singing bowls.
But making a contact first rather than knocking on doors is a better option. In Nepal, it’s all about knowing the right man who knows the right man who knows the right man who won’t screw you out of a deal.
For the average person looking for one or two souvenirs to bring home things can be as complicated or as easy as you make it. Here’s the easy way …
The best places to buy tourist items in Kathmandu
You’re not buying everyday items, you’re buying souvenirs: I’m writing about souvenirs like singing bowls, prayer wheels, paintings, statues, masks, incense holders and jewelry here. These are all purposely made for the tourist market not for everyday Nepalese use.
If you don’t have a lot of time then there really is only one area I would suggest you go on your last day of quick souvenir shopping in Kathmandu.
Unexpectedly it’s the huge tourist attraction of Kathmandu Durbar Square. Here there is mini market of souvenir stalls set up by local people. Most of these are set on low tables and blankets laid out on the ground in front of the main tourist ticket office.
Go early in the morning as the first sale of the day is meant to bring luck. This is especially true of older sellers.
Now let’s learn what to do there …
How to bargain for the best souvenir price in Kathmandu like a professional (even if you’ve never done it before)
Practice. Practice. Practice.
1) Start by simply walking up and down here and be greeted by many people who will often randomly blurt a verbal price at you while holding up an item or pointing to it.
Knowing what you want helps. In this case lets say a prayer wheel. Now, show some interest in one.
2) Listen for the price. Then do the same for anything else you want to buy. If no one gives you a price then ask. But don’t look interested. Just pick the item up an inch from its stand or just point to it. Wait for a reply.
3) Got the price. Shake your head and move on. Walk to another seller further away or out of sight of this one.
4) Point to another prayer wheel and ask for the price. If it’s higher act shocked and tell them it’s cheaper at another stall. If they ask how much. Don’t tell them! Stick to your guns and keep asking them for their price. They will either tell you or stay silent. If they go the silent route then start to walk away. Don’t worry they’ll then call a price out to you before you’ve gone too far.
You now have two prices for prayer wheel. Hopefully one will be lower than the other. Either way mentally reduce it by 25%.
5) Third time’s a charm with your next vendor. Point to a prayer wheel and ask how much. Ignore their price. Instead quote the lower price offered by the previous vendors minus that 25%.
6) Stick to your guns and mention first sale of the day. If they agree you have them hooked.
7) Now make a counter offer of wanting to buy more things at that stall at a good price. Stick with that stall or go back to the other two and chat happily now that you know the more realistic price.
Congratulations you’ve just bargained like a pro.
Taking things too far
I’ve seen people take what they’ve learned at bartering in the Middle East and apply it in Nepal and fail miserably. Ditto other parts of the world. While bartering is commonplace in many parts of the world each country has subtle differences that are very important.
Likewise I’ve seen tourists take things too far and beleaguer an old seller into a price far below the cost price. Why did the old man sell? He took the loss because he needed the cash in hand that day to eat.
Don’t push things to the point of ridiculousness. If you feel like you got a good bargain, be happy. Just be sure the vendor is reasonably happy too.
Want to try your hand at bartering? Offer a vendor something you might have of value … maybe it’s a souvenir from your country, a watch etc. It might not cover the full price, but it’s bartering.
Back in the 1970s hippies used to barter for food or guesthouse rooms in exchange for their branded jeans! Today, Nepal has plenty of denim, but maybe you have an item of value that can be used in an exchange for something. Just a tip: don’t expect bartering everywhere. It’s generally done in relaxed terms, almost like a joke these days. Bargaining is the more popular option.
Bargaining for souvenirs in Nepal can be frustrating but rewarding
All of this can be frustrating to someone not used to it. In truth all of the above will only take about ten minutes. Don’t forget bargaining in Nepal is a good sign of respect. If you don’t, trust me when I say you are being seen as a target.
The pleasure of the above method is that the people you are bargaining with know what you are doing. Simply looking for the best price. They do the same thing themselves.
Bargaining (or bartering) like this can reward you with many smiles and lasting memories. Numerous photo opportunities and taken lightly a nice way to leave the country.
Leave at least one day when you travel to Nepal just for souvenir shopping. If you are visiting Bhaktapur they make lot of pottery, carvings, paintings and puppets which will be cheaper than in Kathmandu.
Either way, Nepal is simply one of the best countries in the world for souvenir shopping. Enjoy it!
By the way, if you are looking for more information on the what to buy then check out my post on the the best souvenirs to buy in Kathmandu, Nepal.
This is an additional article about how to bargain and barter in Nepal
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