Yesterday afternoon, the Outpost field team cruised through Bangkok’s canals on a long-tail boat. The smoggy, chili- and jasmine-scented alleyways were so muggy I felt as though we were meandering through a giant mouth, and the water offered a welcome respite from the humidity. Our boat—captained by a beaming woman who drove with one hand and texted with the other—shrieked and buzzed, a plume of water spraying onto our wake.
Peering down at us from the banks were gleaming skyscrapers, glittering temples, rickety huts held up by the collective will of their inhabitants—an eclectic jigsaw as intricate and diverse as an I Spy page. Creepers veined like capillaries through concrete walls and laundered pants flapped in grated window boxes, threatening to plunge into the water below come a ballsy zephyr.
A woman in a straw hat and a low-floating canoe brimming with Buddha statues, carved trinkets, accordion fans and chilled beers paddled up to us, brandishing her wares. Our camera crew careened portside to capture this quintessential Asian moment that seems so whimsical to Western eyes.
“This is awesome,” our photographer murmured as he monkeyed over the water to capture the shot—Lena kicked our day-packs starboard to counterbalance his weight.
“Beer? Coca-cola? Beer?” The woman opened her cooler.
“No thanks,” I said.
She eyed the cameras. “Beer?”
It would’ve been rude and exploitative to film and photograph her without purchasing something, so Lena gestured to a bunch of tiny bananas. “How much?”
“Eighty?!” I exclaimed—that would be $3 back in Canada. “Are you—”
Lena elbowed my ribs and I regained my composure. “Thirty baht.”
The woman glared at me as though I was one of the ginormous monitor lizards that prowled Bangkok’s murky canals. “Seventy baht,” she sniffed.
We finally bargained her down to 40, which, on one hand, is astronomical, given you can purchase (admittedly mediocre) street-side pad Thai on Khao San Road for that price—and on the other is fair, as the same bunch would’ve run the equivalent or more back home.
It invited the philosophical backpacker’s question: Is it ever okay to get ripped off?
“If you were bartending and Mark Zuckerberg sat down, wouldn’t you hustle for a big tip?”
Watching a traveller in a $300 backpack argue with a vendor over a 30-cent coconut can be cringe-worthy. Yes, the colour of our skin and sag of our harem pants means all prices are inflated by between 200 and 1,000 percent, depending on the vendor’s chutzpah—and, yes, there’s validity to the traveller’s counterargument that the West is more expensive, so of course we’re comparatively wealthy.
But inflation and exchange rates aside, the reality is that, regardless of how rich or poor we may be by our country’s standards, we have the disposable income to travel around the world, whereas the vendor probably never will. What 30 cents means to the traveller—and I can’t even think of anything worth that little in the West I can use as an example—is leagues beyond what it means to the vendor.
Think of it like this: if you were bartending and Mark Zuckerberg sat down, wouldn’t you hustle for a big tip?
Had we purchased the tiny bananas in a market, they would’ve been far cheaper—yet we would’ve missed out on the experience and footage of transacting on the water, which was, we decided, worth that extra dollar.
And anyway, those bananas tasted damn sweet.