Shopping in Thailand

Story by Cameron Cooper

All the Stuff That's Fit to Sell Among its countless other joys and wonders, Thailand is a great place to shop -- particularly in Bangkok where the variety of retail outlets and goods is staggering. Often you'll find some good quality products on sale in department stores for half as much as at home. Likewise, there are bargains in more down-to-earth places -- open market stalls. 

At the corner of First and Third: From Handicrafts to Fine Watches With Thailand's rapid development over the last 25 years or so, (and endured the socio-economic growing pains that accompany such an explosion) an unusual set of circumstances have emerged. While Bangkok is modern with large factories, tall buildings and an extensive freeway system, much of the countryside looks the same as it has for the last 60 years or so. There are wooden houses, people cooking rice over clay charcoal braziers and harvesting rice by hand. 

This polarized economy gives rise to diverse tastes and capabilities. Those at the top of the chain seek out luxury cars, designer clothes and watches, and fine foods, giving rise to countless shops that offer these. As well is a huge number of lower end income people who produce traditional handicrafts in their villages. The government has even launched an economic assistance program to encourage and develop these cottage industries and for the people of Thailand to get back to their cultural roots and purchase these items. This all means the range of goods on sale in Thailand is huge. 

The Same All Over Thailand
The entrepreneurial spirit looms large in Thailand. As tourism has grown, vendors all over the country have taken note of what buyers like. Say the necklace you bought from a northern hill tribe village in Chiang Mai might find their way to the souvenir shops in the southern island of Phuket. This is convenient for the visitor who only visits one region of the country. It also means there has been a bit of homogenisation, and in the end, you have craftspeople all over the country copying each others' designs. Don’t be surprised to find that what you are buying may not be indigenous to the region. 

Bargaining spread eastward from the Middle East centuries ago, so the theory goes. It persists in Thailand in open market places, but unlike in India or the Middle East, the prices start lower and discount less. Unless they've got you pegged for a real greenhorn, most vendors will quote a price about 40% or so higher than what they are willing to settle for. 

The Method:
If you see something you like, ask how much (all vendors know this much English). They will usually produce a calculator and punch in the amount they want (feel free to use the calculator to convert into your own currency if you get confused). Hit clear, punch in your counter offer and hand it back. This goes on for a bit until you either reach a mutually agreeable price or a stalemate. Feel free to walk away at any time. Sometimes this gets you a last lower price, sometimes not, but don't feel you are obgligated to buy just because you started the process. Decide what the item is worth to you and if you can get it at that price, then great. If not, say goodbye and try elsewhere. You might find later that you didn't really have anywhere in your house to put that wooden elephant anyway. 

Important Note: This is not a time for hostility. Sometimes in the course of bargaining, some people get carried away and get a wee bit aggressive with the vendor, which makes them feel like the customer is accusing them of cheating them. This will not bring a lower price or make for a pleasant experience. The best way to get what you want is to smile and make a game of it -- you're in holiday and this is part of the fun you don't get to experience in the West. In fact, if you really want to have a good time, hand back the calculator with a lower offer than your last one, with a big smile on your face. This usually engenders a spirit of goodwill and playfulness and can go a long way to lowering the price -- nothing like laughter to make new friends. 

Because Thailand is such a vibrant free market, and regulatory bodies can't really keep up, you do have to keep your eyes open concerning quality. Many street vendors sell 'knock-off' goods -- fake rolexes, designer clothes copies, that sort of thing. 

Now, you should be aware that this practice is illegal and there have been ongoing clampdowns in several areas. Whether you choose to buy these products or not, be aware that they are (with the possible exception of T-shirts) of substandard quality. Bit pretentious really, buying a fake Rolex that in the end fools nobody. You have to square it with your own conscience (and your own taste). 

If you do choose to break the law and buy knockoffs (and the quality varies enormously), examine the items very closely. Don't be in a hurry and don't be pressured. If the vendor's goods are better quality than average (as they will often claim), they will want you to make a thorough examination. And did we mention that it is illegal? 

These shops are in a category by themselves. It is impossible to walk down a major street in Bangkok without passing several tailor shops, with a man out front (usually of Indian origins) trying to persuade you that you need two or three new suits. 

Some of the prices seem too good to be true, and they are, in a way. For one thing, the low prices you see on the board outside are usually for a quality of material that you simply wouldn't be caught dead wearing. Also, the man measuring you is not actually a tailor, he is a broker -- the orders are filled by "sweat shops" nearby, so the quality is not as personalised as you may have been led to believe. So is it worth buying a suit? It can be, but you have to keep your eyes open. 

Here are a few tips:

-- Give the polyester a miss and go for higher quality material from the outset. Try the flame test on a small sample of the material; if it's 100% wool or cotton, it will burn, not melt. If it melts, it's either synthetic or a synthetic blend. 

-- Once you have chosen your material, insist on taking a small sample with you so that when you return you can check to see they haven't substituted a cheaper fabric. 

-- Don't go for the 24-hour turnaround. Give yourself and the tailor plenty of time. Come back for a second fitting to make fine adjustments in your suit. 

-- Put down as small a deposit as you can bargain so there is a good incentive for the tailor to make you happy before receiving full payment. 

-- When you do collect your clothes, examine the jacket closely - these are the hardest items to make so that they hang nicely (trousers are easy). If it doesn't make you look good, politely but firmly insist on further alterations. 

Bangkok offers the widest range of shopping options in the country, from market stalls to air-conditioned mega-malls as big as the ones at home. 

Many people are surprised at the sheer scope of malls in Bangkok, but in their current form they have been here for decades and are a popular place for Thais to spend their weekends -- you'll see whole families browsing around in air-con comfort. Some of them even have amusement parks or zoos to add to the shopping experience. 

You can find pretty much anything you'll find at malls back home, and in many cases, the prices will be lower. Most have a main large store with other shops as part of a shopping complex. All accept major credit cards. Opening hours are usually until 9pm on weekdays and 10pm on weekends, including Sundays. There is usually a fully-fledged mall within a few minute's walk of any major hotel. In fact, you can pick just about any spot in the city of Bangkok. 

One thing to note is that you are serviced a bit differently from the west. When you look at an item, a salesperson will appear out of nowhere and begin following you around. This is normal in Thailand -- just like the people hover around putting ice into your drink at Thai restaurants, they are there to assist you. Try not to be annoyed and just ignore the person until you want something. 

When you do choose a purchase, you usually don't take it to a counter yourself, but hand it with the charge card or cash to the person who has been trailing you for the last half hour. You can either follow them to the counter, or stay where you are -- they always come back with the right change and your neatly bagged item. 

A couple of noteworthy malls near the Siam Skytrain Stop

Mah Boon Khrong
Also known as MBK, this massive shopping complex consists of the Tokyu department store and more than 1,000 specialised shops -- most of them owner operated -- with stuff ranging from mobile phones, electronic gadgetry, local designer clothing, endless quality knockoffs, old and new camera gear (the best place in the city to get your cameras repaired or to pick up rare equipment) and countless other consumer delights. The complex also houses movie theatres, a bowling alley, and as with most of Bangkok loads of places to eat. At the smaller stalls, be prepared to bargain. 

Siam Square 
This is Bangkok's pre-mall shopping haven and nearly forty years on, remains popular, especially among young and trendy Thai teens. It is outdoors, a sort of shopping village, consisting of about a dozen narrow streets (some of them pedestrianised) and lined with small shops and restaurants. Many of these are name-brand boutiques (usually with better prices than you would pay at home) and independent clothing and curio designers. This is probably the trendiest spot in town to shop if you want to pick up cutting-edge stuff from America, Europe and Japan. 

It is a popular hangout for Thai teens. In any case, it is a great place for a bit of people watching. The place also has loads of ice creams parlours, fast food, Thai treats, a Hard Rock Cafe and three old-style movie theatres -- much more pleasant and grand than modern ciniplexes. A good way to satisfy your consumer desires and take in a little modern-day Thai culture. 

Siam Center and Siam Discovery 
Across the road from Siam Square, and in some ways an extension of it, this air-conditioned mall has scores of shops in the upper end fashion, including clothes and other trendy youth pursuits like rollerblading and other sporting shops. Alongside this are electronics shops, (genuine) watches, sunglasses, furniture, music shops, and most other things you'd expect to find -- most of it top drawer stuff. Be sure to cross the pedestrian bridge to the attached Siam Discovery Center, a six floor building with a different shopping theme on each floor plus plenty of western and Thai restaurants. 

Siam Paragon 
Occupying more than 20 acres of land, Siam Paragon is one of the biggest and most elegant shopping centers in Asia. Dubbed as "the Pride of Bangkok", it is the largest upscale shopping mall in Thailand. Historically, the shopping mall is located on the former site of the Siam Intercontinental Hotel whose lease ended in 2002. Open in late 2005, it features a vast range of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, luxury car showrooms, an opera house, a supermarket and an aquarium. 

Bangkok's Open Markets:

Khaosan Road, Banglamphu
Backpacker central has a lot of market-style stalls selling all sorts from beaded necklaces to wooden elephants, to weapons that would frighten a Ninja. In spite of this being the budget traveller's haven, the prices are not necessarily the cheapest in town. Trok Mayom, a small alleyway running parallel to Khaosan is a great place for custom leather crafts for a personalised wallet embossed with your name, or saddlebags for your Harley back home, or anything else your fertile imagination can dream up. 

Chatuchak Weekend Market This massive market, at the end of the northern Skytrain line of Morchit Station, has everything you ever imagined. The creativity of the whole country is distilled here. Leatherwork, lamps, curios, sculptures, furniture, Japanese action figurines - name it and you'll find it here. Such is its fame that you have to bargain hard to get a good price. 

Chatuchak is only open on Saturday and Sunday (many of the vendors have regular jobs during the week), it can get pretty hot and crowded here, so pace yourself and don't expect to cover the whole place. To make the most of it, pick up a copy of the Nancy Chandler Shopping Map to Bangkok, which lists off all the sections of the market and what you can expect to find there. 

Suan Lum Night Bazaar
This market is similar to Chatuchak (see above), but with less variety as it is still quite new. Nonetheless, it has a wide range of stuff, is conveniently located near the Sala Daeng Skytrain Station, and has a more open and comfortable design, plus a big beer and food garden with entertainment. Opens in the late afternoon, and closes at about 11 pm. 

Tucked in on the main road of the city's most famous red-light district, this market has mostly handicrafts and knockoffs in the way of t-shirts, watches, binoculars (not that you need them on this road), luggage, DVDs and more. A novel place to shop and very popular with tourists, but the vendors pitch their prices very high here, so bargain hard -- though the vendors are pretty hard to bend here. If you can't get what you want, clear the way for some other mug -- there are plenty behind you. 

Sukhumvit Road
Along the main hotel strip of Sukhumvit Road from soi 11 to soi 21 are countless street stalls (more sparse in the daytime). On sale here are similar items to Patpong (see above), and the prices tend to be a bit more reasonable. A good place to get T-shirts with funny slogans on them. 

Around the intersections of Siphon Han and Phahurat roads in Chinatown you'll find a bizarre range of shopping opportunities. It's a joy to poke around in the daytime and see what you can find. Guns, musical equipment, bicycle shops, and just about anything else that can be sold appear in groups of three to ten shops carrying the same items, ensuring you can get the best price going. Nearby are of course loads of Chinese restaurants (most with excellent and cheap seafood). A great way to spend an idle day of discovery.