Thailand is well known as a country that offers good shopping. The high quality, wide variety, and low prices of many Thai goods are a major attraction for tourists. Arts and crafts are probably the most tempting buys. These range from inexpensive wicker rice steamers to valuable antiques, and include many typically Thai items such as triangular cushions, colorful hill-tribe artifacts, and finely crafted silver jewelry. Many are available from specialty crafts centers. Thai silk has an international reputation and comes in a huge variety of designs, both traditional and modern. Tailors, partic ularly in Bangkok, can make clothes in silk or any other fabric to high standards for low prices. The country is also known for its rich supply of gems, and the capital is a major gem trading center. With the appearance of huge, luxurious shopping malls in Bangkok alongside vibrant, chaotic markets and street stands, Thailand offers shoppers a mix of the contemporary and the traditional
Most small stores open from about 8am to 8pm or 9pm, while department stores, shopping malls, and tourist shops typically open from 10:30am until 9pm or 10pm in busy areas. Business days are normally Monday to Saturday, but most shops in Bangkok, tourist areas, and resorts also open on Sundays and public holidays. During the Chinese and Thai new years (in February and April) many shops shut for several days. Market hours are usu ally dawn to midafternoon for fresh produce, or late afternoon to midnight or even later for tourist markets.
How to Pay
The Thai baht, linked to the US dollar, has been a stable currency since the mid-1980s. Baht will always be accepted throughout the country (and in Laos). Credit cards can be used in many stores in Bangkok and resorts, and increasingly so in provincial towns. VISA and American Express are probably the most widely accepted, followed by MasterCard. Upscale places usually take all major cards. Be warned, though, that many shops will add on a surcharge of up to five percent if you pay by credit card.
Rights and Refunds
When buying expensive items, ask for a written receipt (bai set) with the shop’s address and tax number. For goods on which you want to reclaim the seven per cent sales tax, shops should fill out a form for you to present to customs at the airport. However, the hassle and handling fees involved mean that this is rarely worth the trouble. If you are arranging to have goods shipped home make sure you confirm all the costs involved with the supplier in advance, including insurance, tax, and shipping charges. Refunds are almost unheard of, but exchange of faulty or poorly fitting non-sale goods from reputable stores should be possible, if sometimes complica ted. In small shops you may succeed through charm.
The trend in cities, especially Bangkok, is toward chain stores with fixed prices and endless discount sales. However, the Thai love of bargaining means you can still often negotiate at small shops, specialty retailers, and, of course, market stands. There are a few tips for successful bargaining. Be aware of the going rate for items so as not to offer embarrassingly low sums. Talking in Thai numbers may restrain the vendor’s initial bid. You can try faking disinterest if the seller’s bids remain high. This is a better policy than enthusiastically bargaining, then deciding not to buy when the vendor agrees on your price.
Department Stores and Malls
International-style department stores are a mainstay of Bangkok shopping. However, Thai market habits die hard, and many stores fill their aisles with bargain stands. The two main Thai chains are Robinson’s, with a branch on Sukhumvit road; and the upscale Central at the Silom Complex, farther down Silom Road, Chidlom, and Lad Phrao. The scale of the change in Thai shopping habits is remarkable. Residents of Bangkok already have countless downtown malls, such as Peninsula Plaza, to choose from, as well as luxury shopping complexes like Emporium, Central World Plaza and Siam Paragon. But the trend is for vast malls out of the center of the city – such as Fashion Island on Ramindra Road. These are the focus for growing suburbs and resemble self-contained, air conditioned towns, selling not only fashion and domestic items, but even houses and cars. They incorporate huge food courts, water parks, movie theaters, concert halls, skating rinks, bowling alleys and entertainment theme parks. Two of the world’s five biggest shopping malls are in outer Bangkok. Seacon Square on Srinakharin Road, southeast of the city, contains a fun fair and stretches for more than 1,100 yds (1 km). The rest of Thailand has yet to experience such excesses, but a few modern malls are now appearing in the larger towns and resorts. Examples include
Markets and Street Vendors
There is a market at the heart of every Thai town. Even the smallest will offer a good range of fresh produce, and the larger markets often sell everything from arts and crafts to fruit and vegetables and household items. The most notable are Chatuchak Market , the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar , the Pattaya Floating Market, and the night market in Chiang Rai. For markets in central Bangkok,. Impromptu roadside stands are also found all over the country. Some sell devotional items such as jasmine rings, and others are good for souvenirs (though many of the goods are of dubious legality). Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Patong in Phuket have many such stands. In Bangkok they are found on Silom and Sukhumvit roads, and in Bang lampu and Patpong districts.
Factories and Craft Centers
Tours of factory outlets and craft centers are popular, particularly in the North and Northeast. No bargaining is required as prices are fixed, but be aware that guides take commissions.
The ancient art of Thai silk weaving was revived by American Jim Thompson after World War II and is now a booming export business. Silk can be plain, patterned, or in the subtle mut mee style made from pre-tie-dyed (ikat) thread. Aside from Thai designs, this heavy, bright, and slightly rough cloth is now imaginatively used for ties, dresses, shirts, skirts, and other Western fashion items, plus cushions, hangings, and sundry ornaments. Many shops will tailor clothes to your measurements, even to your own designs.
Most silk comes from the Northeast and the North, but some is woven in and around Bangkok. For range and quality, Surawong Road in Bangkok is reliable, particularly Jim Thompson’s, as well as Shinawatra on Sukhumvit Road. Chiang Mai’s San Kamphaeng Road is renowned for its silk, the most famous producer being T. Shinawatra Thai Silk.
The Thai Silk Fair is held annually in Khon Kaen in late November or early December, when the town is packed with vendors and their bolts of cloth. If you miss the fair, Prathamakant sells a superb selection of silk all year round Clothes Thai tailors can make suits and dresses to order for low prices. Resist the rip-off 24-hour package deals including a “free gift.” You get better service by seriously assessing the designs, fabric, and cut, and insisting on one or two intermediate fittings. In Bangkok, countless Chinese and Indian tailors advertise in tourist magazines and outside their shops along Sukhumvit, Charoen Krung, and Khao San Roads. Designs are usually copied, often with considerable skill, from magazines or catalogues of famous brands such as Armani and Hugo Boss. The quality of workmanship can vary considerably. Ask around for recommendations.
Other popular items of Thai clothing include baggy fishermen’s pants; batik sarongs (especially in the South, such as at Ko Yo, Songkhla); vests and trousers made from hill-tribe fabrics; Thai silk and other Northeastern fabrics.
Arts and Crafts
Most Thai handicrafts are produced in the North and Northeast, and Chiang Mai is undoubtedly where visitors will find the widest choice of goods. The vibrant, diverse Night Bazaar sells everything from lacquerware to teak furniture, and you will need several hours if you want to peruse the often overpriced shops on San Kamphaeng Road (Highway 1006).
Prathamakant in Khon Kaen stocks a fine selection of Northeastern items such as the colorful triangular pillows.
Ayutthaya is a good source of crafts and antiques, particularly around Wat Phra Si Sanphet and on Si Sanphet Road, where you can find unique stone carvings at Kim Jeng. Nearby Bang Sai Folk Arts and Crafts Center is the focus of Queen Sirikit’s SUPPORT Foundation, which enables villagers to make a living from preserving their traditions The fine pieces they produce are also sold at the dozen Chitrlada shops around Thailand. High-quality ethnic crafts are available from boutiques in most top hotels, Silom Village, River City, and the less expensive Narai Phand department store in Bangkok. The open-air Patong OTOP Shopping Paradise in Phuket has lots to choose from.
The costumes and artifacts of the hill tribes make fas cinating anthropological souvenirs. Items might include Akha coin head dresses, Lahu geometric blankets and cushion covers, Hmong redruffled black jackets, brightly colored Lisu tunics, wooden cattle bells, almond-shaped bamboo boxes, wooden boxes with carvings, and woven rattan.
Some of the best outlets in Chiang Mai are the Hill Tribe Products Foundation, Thai Tribal Crafts, and the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. The Chiang Rai Handicraft Center also has a large range. In Bangkok, the best selection is found at Chatuchak Market. Buying from the shop at Cabbages and Condoms will ensure that your money goes to the tribes
Wood, Bamboo, and Rattan
Bamboo, rattan, and wooden items are very cheap and can be shipped home. Carved wooden friezes, screens, headboards, doors, and lintels are readily available. Chiang Mai is the best source – Ceramics Delicate Bencharong pottery was historically made in China and sent to Thailand to be decorated with intricate floral patterns using five colors. Today the entire process occurs in Thailand. You can buy complete dinner services in Bencharong, and myriad designs, including the more typical spherical pots. In Bangkok, Chatuchak Market is cheaper and offers a wider choice than the downtown shops.is good for rattan/bamboo. Woodcarving is a specialty of Mae Tha and Ban Luk near Lampang, as well as the Bo Hang district of Chiang Mai. Hang Dong and Saraphi, south of Chiang Mai, are known for their intricate basketware. Be aware that if you buy wooden items, you may be contributing to Thailand’s already disastrous deforestation problem.
Delicate Bencharong pottery was historically made in China and sent to Thailand to be decorated with intricate floral patterns using five colors. Today the entire process occurs in Thailand. You can buy complete dinner services in Bencharong, and myriad designs, including the more typical spherical pots. In Bangkok, Chatuchak Market is cheaper and offers a wider choice than the downtown shops.The heavy celadon pottery style is distinguished by its etched designs under a thick, translucent green, blue, or brown glaze with a cracked patina. It’s best bought direct from the potteries in Chiang Mai, where the top producer is Mengrai Kilns, but is also available in Bangkok from Thai Celadon House and many craft shops including those on Silom and Charoen Krung roads.
Lampang is notable for its fine blue and white ceramics, produced by companies such as Indra Ceramics.
Lacquerware is a Northern Thai specialty. It usually has floral, flame, or portrait designs in black and gold on bamboo and wood. More common is the Burmese style of red ocher on bamboo and rattan with pictorial scenes or floral designs. Traditional items include boxes for food and jewelry. Lacquerware is plentiful in the craft shops of Chiang Mai and Bangkok
Nielloware and Pewterware
Nielloware, the intricate pro cess of silver (or, more rarely, gold) inlay in a black metal amalgam in floral and flame patterns, makes for beautiful items like cufflinks, pill boxes, and jewelry. Some of the finest is from Nakhon Si Thammarat. Southern Thailand has significant tin deposits, so pewterware has become a major craft. Typical items include tankards, plates, vases, and boxes. Department stores in Bangkok and stores in Phuket town stock good selections.
The weaving of kalaga tapes tries involves metallic and multicolored threads, beads, patches, and sequins sewn onto a padded black background. It is a 200-year-old Burmese art but has only now been revived, so antique examples are rare and very expensive. The ubiquitous modern embroideries are often gaudy and sloppily made, but the more carefully constructed (and more expensive) simple traditional designs can make attractive cushions, hangings, bags, and even caps. Towns near to the Burmese border such as Mae Sot and Mae Sai are usually the best sources
Musical Instruments, Masks and Puppets
Musical instruments including khaens (Northeastern “pan pipes”), piphat ensemble gongs, and drums make impressive souvenirs. They are available at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar and at Silom Village, Narayanaphand, Chatuchak, and Nakorn Kasem markets in Bangkok. These places are also good sources of khon masks and theatrical items such as intricate hoon krabok puppets and nang taloong and nang yai shadow puppets.
In the South, Nakhon Si Thammarat is the place for shadow puppets. They can be bought from the Shadow Puppet Theater, and, if you phone in advance, the master puppet-maker will show you how the puppets are made
The delicacy and charm of Thai antiques are so appealing to shoppers that the few antiques remaining in the country are very expensive, fakes, or illegally obtained. Thailand is, in fact, one of the principal outlets for antiques from all over Southeast Asia. Some shops resemble mu seums, jumbled with tapestries, statues, cabinets, bells, puppets, ceramics, baskets, lacquerware, and temple artifacts. They’re enchanting even if you’re not buying. Bargains are rare, although prices are lower than in Hong Kong or Singapore. Chiang Mai’s Tha Phae and Loi Khro Roads are a bit cheaper than the main sources in Bangkok: Charoen Krung Road, River City, Chatuchak Market, and in Chinatown at Wang Burapha and Nakorn Kasem Market. There are antique auctions at River City on the first Saturday of each month. The excellent copies available are a cheaper, more culturally responsible alternative. Recommended shops include Amaravadee Antiques and Borisoothi Antiques in Chiang Mai, and Bangkok’s The Fine Arts and NeOld.
Export permits are required for antiques and all Buddha images from the Fine Arts Department via the National Museum and take at least a week to obtain Not surprisingly, given that so much of their cultural heritage has left the country, Thai customs officers are vigilant in enforcing this regulation.
Thai jewelry tends to be large and expressive, often with superb detailing. The country has a long history of silverwork, particularly in the North and Northeast and among the hill tribes. The Wualai Road shops in Chiang Mai offer a good selection.
Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and Lao-style belts are typical in employing silver thread and filigree detail, often incorporating silver beads and large, plate-like pendants. Contemporary and international styles are increasingly preferred in cities and resorts. More affordable modern costume jewelry sells well in Siam Square and Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, where you can buy inex pensive ethnic wares and jewelry created from such diverse materials as nuts, seeds, shells, and beans.
Some of Thailand’s best jewelry is found in Bangkok’s Peninsula Plaza shopping mall as well as hotels such as the Dusit Thani. Some shops will work to your own specifications, notably Uthai’s Gems in Bangkok and Shiraz in Chiang Mai. Richard Brown designs personalized Vedic astrological jewelry at Astral Gemstone Talismans.Gold is a popular, age-old form of portable wealth, and the most common type is the very yellow, Chinese-style gold. There are Chinese-owned gold shops in most sizable towns. Be warned that amulets are notclassed as jewelry and the trade in these sacred items is widely disapproved of, not least by the Buddhist authorities who believe it exploits and encourages superstition. You need a licence to export them.
Bangkok is possibly the world’s biggest gem-trading center. The local stones are rubies, red and blue spinels, orange and white zircons, and yellow and blue sapphires. Markets operate around Chanthaburi, Kanchanaburi, Mae Sai, and in Mae Sot on the Burmese border, where gems are cheaper than in Bangkok. However, you’ll need an expert eye to pick out the bargains and should be wary of illegally smuggled gems. Phuket is Thailand’s only good source of high-quality pearls; the reputable Pearl of Phuket is worth a visit.
Gem scams are notorious in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so run a mile if someone friendly says it’s a public holiday so there’s a government suspension of tax. Countless people have fallen for this ruse before being coaxed into parting with large sums of money by clever salesmanship and even, sometimes, drugged drinks.
It is possible to learn gemology and have stones authenticated and graded (but not valued) at the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok.