While I wrote this post in Myanmar, the internet was too slow to post, so sorry for the delay!
I am more than half -way through my South East Asia trip and having an absolute blast. So far, it has been a month in Thailand, two weeks in Cambodia, and am two weeks into the Myanmar leg of the trip as I write. A common ‘obstacle’ or reality is that in these countries, no matter what, foreigners can expect to pay more (sometimes considerably so) than a local would to do the same things. One particular tourist I met, upon finding out the he had grossly overpaid for food in Vietnam brushed it off by saying: “Well, I expect to pay the foreigner price anyways, so that’s okay.”
To be honest, I like that guy’s attitude. In many ways, I try not to let it bother me by thinking that is “just the way things are.” Lately though, I have been wondering: Is it fair? As tourists (local and foreign), should we not pay the same price for the same goods and services? As easy as it would be to make a stand one way or the other, I think the question is a lot harder to answer if you really think about it.
One of the most amazing things about living in Korea was the hospitality. You can say what you want about how polite the Japanese are (hell, I praise them more than most), or how often the Thai people smile, but I bet very few have experienced paying LESS than a local would or getting extra perks as a foreigner in any country not named Korea. Yes, the reverse “foreigner-price” does exist and as bizarre as this sounds to the every day traveler, isn’t this what happens when you visit a friend? Do they not offer you a free meal or show you around because you visited? I know it is not the same, and it is a bit hypocritical for me to complain about the ‘foreigner price’ when I gladly took the ‘foreigner discount,’ but think about it for a sec.
With that in mind, there is a flip side. Visiting places like Angkor ($20-$60 tickets) is very VERY expensive and in a country like Cambodia, completely unaffordable for everyone except the richest of locals. Does it make sense to make a huge part of your people’s history inaccessible to everyone, but foreigners who were lucky enough to be born in a richer part of the globe? For this reason, many cultural sites in SE Asia are free or incredibly cheap for locals while costing quite a bit for outsiders. I think I can live with this one.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. To foreigners, food, drinks, goods, and services can start at ridiculous prices and if you are not good at bargaining, prepare to have your wallet drained. I know some would say, “Well, they have the money to spend, I won’t shed a tear.” But, where do you draw the line? What happens when you only have so much supply, and a foreigner is willing to pay more for it? Not helping the locals much there are we? Here is a real life example of what happened to us.
While in Cambodia, Sidney got really sick and needed to go see a doctor. We read online about a great and cheap clinic costing no more than $5 for a consultation and a dollar for every blood work test. “He speaks English and there is no wait time” the reviews raved. However, the final ‘praise’ made me suspicious. Foreigners who had visited this doctor claimed that even if Cambodians were waiting first, foreigners would get preference and skip the line. Great for us, but something was fishy.
Sure enough, we got in, straight to the doctor, skipped two Cambodians and were off to do the blood work. Everything was fast and easy and the doctor was great. However, as I was paying, I overheard a conversation a foreigner was having with a young Cambodian girl in her 20s who was just skipped. She didn’t know why this happened and the foreigner she was talking to was outraged and encouraged her to protest. We were on our way out and don’t know what happened, but I did manage to get a good glance at the ‘books’ where the nurse wrote the payments.
Whenever there was a foreigner name, $5. A Cambodian patient, 8000 riel, equivalent to $2. I can’t read Khmer, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that this was going on, but I know what I saw. While I was grateful that Sidney got the care she needed and would gladly pay extra for better and faster care, it was not an option to wait and pay less. For the Cambodians, it was economically not viable to pay their way up to the front of the line either.
This got me thinking about food too. Are we really helping the everyday local by paying more for food, or are we just making rich an already well off business owner. After all, don’t tell me the average Cambodian owns a restaurant or that a restaurant owner can barely make ends meet. The same goes for shop keepers and anyone else who tries to overcharge a foreigner.
With these things in mind, I have come to the following conclusions: I feel that as far as cultural or historical sites are concerned, given the economic disparities, it is okay to have a different price. However, for things like food, drinks, accommodation, and services, I don’t feel it is fair to pay an inflated price simply for being foreign. It creates an atmosphere of unfairness that does not benefit the whole of the host country and leaves a bitter taste in the visitor’s mouth. It does not help the average local and actually does the opposite by furthering the gap between the haves and the have nots.
I am curious what everyone else thinks though. My beliefs are not set in stone and would gladly welcome any other points of view or attempts to change my mind. Do you think the ‘foreigner price’ is fair?