Bangkok pulls in shoppers from all over the world, clamoring to find bargains at the endless streetside stalls or in the new ultrachic, brand-name boutiques. High-quality goods at very reasonable prices are available, if you look hard, but any discussion of shopping in Thailand must be prefaced with a warning about shopping scams. If you encounter problems with any merchants, take their business card and contact the Tourist Police (tel. 0678-6800, or the hot line at 1155), or report the incident to your hotel concierge.
Where To Buy
Shopping is a real adventure in Bangkok. The big markets are a visual onslaught (don't miss the Weekend Market), and there are great upmarket gift and antiques dealers as well as small souvenir stalls scattered about town. Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok is available at bookstores throughout the city for 250B and has detailed insets of places such as Chinatown and the sprawling Weekend Market. Below is a breakdown according to the top shopping areas.
Toward the River -- Charoen Krung (New) Road is full of goodies: antiques stores, jewelry wholesalers, and funky little galleries. Keep your eyes open, and you might stumble on a gem as you browse shop windows, especially at such places as Lek Gallery, at number 1124-1134 (tel. 02639-5871), near Soi 30, which has decorative items and furniture that are downright sexy. The art and antiques shops at the low-rise mall known as River City (tel. 02237-0077), on Charoen Krung Soi 38, have a great selection of porcelain, wood carvings, jewelry, and silk, but some outlets are overpriced (avoid the tailoring shops here, as the low standards of craftsmanship do not warrant the big bucks). If you're in the market for antiques, you need to know your stuff, as rumors warn of many fakes on sale. Close to the Oriental Hotel is OP Place (tel. 02266-0186), featuring a heap of high-end shopping venues, from stores selling expensive designer luggage to jet-setter jewelry stores and amazing antiques, carpets, and fine silver tableware (much of which is Tiffany-like quality). In the same soi as the Oriental Hotel are some of the city's better tailoring shops and, in the Mandarin Oriental itself, look out for exquisite one-off jewelry pieces at Lotus Arts de Vivre, or pop into the branch of Jim Thompson's for great silks.
Sukhumvit Road -- This area is lined with shops from one end to the other, as well as some of Bangkok's biggest shopping malls. For fine silk, stop in at Almeta (20/3 Sukhumvit Soi 23; tel. 02204-1413 or 02258-4227; www.almeta.com), a rival to Jim Thompson's. Celadon House, at 8/3-8/5 Ratchadaphisek Rd. (tel. 02229-5193), near the Asok BTS, carries attractive celadon ceramic.
For men's tailoring, there are many shops along Sukhumvit sois 11 and 19. Most ship your order off to have clothes made in a factory, and quality is iffy, so bargain like mad. Ambassador Fashion (28-28/1 Sukhumvit Soi 19; tel. 02253-2993) has been in the business for years and is near the Asok BTS.
At night, the entire road fills up with night market stalls. Down at Soi 5, you will find endless supplies of wooden toys, crafts, and suitcases. After Soi 11, the pavements get packed with clothes, souvenirs, and surf wear. At Soi 15, there's the excellent Asia Books (tel. 02252-7277); it's close to Robinson's Department Store (tel. 02651-1533), which is the place to shop for quality brands. It has a fair range of midrange luggage, children's wear, ladies' fashions, T-shirts, and brand-name sunglasses, though clothing sizes will not normally extend to oversized European or American sizes.
Silom & Surawong Roads -- This area is packed with shopping malls and vendors -- you'll find any number of jewelry shops, silk retailers, and plenty of touristy tailors, but few places in this area are top-notch. Check out the main store of Jim Thompson's (9 Surawong Rd.; tel. 02632-8100); a factory outlet is 5 minutes away down Surawong Road, as well as at 153 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 93. Silom Complex (tel. 02632-1199), next to Sala Daeng BTS, contains the Central department store (www.central.co.th), which sells well-known brands of casual clothing such as Giordano and Esprit. On the second floor of Central, there's a Marks & Spencer store from the U.K., selling food and clothing -- it's a great stop if you can't find any local fashions that fit or if you need things such as thermal underwear for your return trip. Right across the road from Silom Complex is the 24-hour British pharmacy Boots (tel. 02233-0571), which you should visit for such things as European prescription drugs and contact lens cleaner. Watson's (no phone), a similar Hong Kong-based pharmacy, is just at the entrance to Silom Complex.
The Patpong Night Market, which runs between Silom and Surawong roads, sells mostly counterfeit goods.
What To Buy
Antiques -- Buying antiques to take out of Thailand is tricky. Authentic antiques are more than 200 years old (they must date from the beginning of the Chakri dynasty in Bangkok), but these days most items are good reproductions that have been professionally "distressed" -- even the Certificate of Authenticity can be a forgery. If you do find something real, remember that the Thai government has an interest in keeping authentic antiquities and sacred items in the country, and will require special permission for export.
By law, Buddha images are prohibited from export, except for religious or educational purposes; even in these instances, you'll still have to obtain permission from the Department of Fine Arts to remove them from Thailand. This rule is little enforced, though, and the focus is more on antique Buddhas than those you'll find in tourist markets.
Almost all the reputable antiques stores in Bangkok are along the endless Charoen Krung (New) Road (centered along the section on either side of the post office), but many of these are shamelessly priced for wealthier tourists, and most items are Chinese, not Thai. River City and OP Place are both convenient places to hunt for art and antiques, as you can hit several stores within an hour, but neither quality nor authenticity is guaranteed.
Department Stores & Shopping Plazas -- Bangkok's downtown looks more and more like urban Tokyo these days. The size and opulence of Bangkok's many malls and shopping areas are often a shock to those who imagine Bangkok to be an exotic, impoverished destination. Sipping cappuccino at a Starbucks overlooking a busy city street may not be what you've come to Asia to find, but to many it is a comfort (especially after long trips in more rugged parts of the kingdom). The truth is that malls are focused as much on today's consumer-obsessed Thai youth as anywhere else you'll visit; these hallowed halls of materialism are (sadly) much closer to the pulse of the nation than the many temples foreign visitors are keen to experience. Malls are where most wealthy Thais hang out, meet friends, dine, and shop. Below are some more highlights:
- CentralWorld (tel. 02635-1111), on the corner of Rama I and Rachadamri roads, is a great place to buy slightly funkier upmarket brands and cool gadgets, as well as to visit some of the city's slickest Internet cafes. It contains Zen and Isetan stores and is crowned with a fab food hall and, of course, a bevy of cinemas. Open daily 10am to 9pm. The Chit Lom and Siam BTS stations are both nearby.
- Emporium (tel. 02269-1000) stands proudly on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 24. Bangkok's first luxury shopping mall, this old-timer still offers the top designer outlets from Gucci to Prada and Sony to Walt Disney (there are cinemas on the top floor). The food court on the top floor covers just about any craving. Open daily 10am to 10pm. It's connected to Phrom Phong BTS.
- Erawan (next to Grand Hyatt Erawan, at the corner of Ratchadamri and Rama I rds.; tel. 02250-7777) is a swanky, mercantile mecca that's truly glamorous but never crowded. Such brands as Coach rub shoulders with such fashion stores as Club 21 and the city's top watch shops. Drop in on Urban Kitchen, with a basement area that features a range of foodie shops and diners. The top floor is dedicated to an alternative health center, offering treatments such as colonic irrigation. Open daily 10am to 10pm. Take the Chit Lom BTS here.
- Mah Boon Krong, or MBK (tel. 02217-9111), lies at the intersection of Rama 1 and Phayathai. This massive megamall, in fact, is a mass of small shops, fast-food joints, and tiny vendors -- try to imagine a cross between a street market and a shopping mall. The Tokyu Department Store is within the mall, and it attracts teenagers and tourists due to its bargain-priced local fashions, accessories, and gadgets, along with its huge array of tourist souvenirs on the lower floor. Cinemas are at the top. Open daily 9am to 9pm. Take the BTS to the National Stadium.
- Panthip Plaza (tel] 02254-9797), on Phetchaburi Road, is an older, rather scruffy mall that's dedicated to all things electronic. Among the shoddy bootleg software, there are stacks of innovative gadgets, as well as shops selling secondhand or new and affordable computers, mobile phones, or components for either. Not much English is spoken, but it may not matter if you are into IT and can speak fluent Nerdish. Open daily 10am to 8pm. It's a 10-minute walk from Ratchathewi BTS.
- Siam Paragon (tel. 02690-1000), on Rama I Road, is one of those glitzy malls that just goes on and on. Downstairs is Siam Ocean World, where kids can watch the sharks swim; above are floors of brand-name stores such as Hermès, MNG, Zara, and Shanghai Tang. The mall also has an entire floor of fun eateries, as well as a top-class food hall, a department store, and even a gymnasium. Open daily 10am to 10pm. There's direct access via Siam BTS.
Fashion & Tailoring -- Bangkok has some small, independent designers of its own, who create Thai-influenced fashions that look good back home. Nagara, Kloset, Fly Now, Grey by Greyhound, and Anurak are all well-established local labels producing great ready-to-wear items for men and women. It's certainly not Parisian haute couture, but the designs are fresh and original, and prices will be a fraction of those in designer boutiques back home. If you want really unique clothes or accessories, have a trawl around Siam Square for the latest Thai styles -- but don't expect European sizes!
If you want to check out the more cutting-edge, contemporary Thai design scene, Thong Lor (Sukhumvit Soi 55) has a great array of yuppified boutiques catering to younger, well-heeled Thais. Such places as J Avenue (Thong Lor Soi 15), a small, trendy mall, and the yummy Greyhound Café (www.greyhoundcafe.co.th) there attracts Thailand's yuppies on weekends.
Tailors may be widespread in popular malls such as River City and in Sukhumvit Road's Soi 11 and 19, but remember, this is not Hong Kong and -- as all the concierges of major hotels repeatedly attest -- Thailand's back-street tailors aren't perfect. Men's shirts normally pose no serious problems, but ambitious ladies' wear can be a disaster when designs skills are limited and fabric quality is poor. Paying a knockdown price often leads to shoddy workmanship and cloth; don't risk the roughly 3,500B you'll have to pay when it all goes wrong. The rule of thumb is, expect to pay 60% of prices in Europe or the U.S. for something decent, and always schedule at least two fittings, with an English speaker present. Only very few places, such as World Group (tel. 02238-3344), in Soi Oriental (off Charoen Krung Rd.), can cope with precise cutting or copying of garments. You will pay a high price for their expertise, though -- around 15,000 to 30,000B.
Gifts, Crafts & Souvenirs -- Street vendors throughout the city are a good source of affordable and fun souvenirs (though they are currently banned on Mon, for street cleaning). The best stalls are along Sukhumvit Road, beginning at Soi 4, and on Khao San Road. Little of the stuff sold there is unique, but the prices are great, and many people stock up on gifts such as mango wood bowls, chopsticks, candles, incense, or small decorative lamps made of mulberry paper or coconut shells. Impressive brass, bronze, and pewter items, as well as fine celadon (green ceramic ware), are all available in many outlets on Sukhumvit and Charoen Krung (New) roads.
Up on Sukhumvit Road, the Emporium boasts a dazzling range of beautiful crafts and textiles on its penultimate floor. Mah Boon Krang (MBK) has a lower ground floor, stuffed with very reasonably priced gifts and handicrafts, carvings, and castings. The North Thailand-based charity Mae Fah Luang has a boutique in Suan Lum Night Market, selling upmarket textiles and home decor items. If you are already on your way home, fear not -- it also has duty-free boutiques located at Suvarnabhumi International Airport and a few of the larger provincial airports, such as Chiang Mai's.
Jewelry -- Sapphires, rubies, garnets, turquoise, and zircons are mined in Thailand, and nearly every other stone you can think of is imported and cut here. Thai artisans are among the most skillful in the world; work in gold and silver is generally of high quality at very good value. If you're interested in a custom setting, bring a photo or drawing of what you'd like and prepare to discuss your ideas at length.
You'll find gemstone, silver, and gold stores in every part of town. Head to the Silom Galleria (tel. 02630-0944) mall, on Silom Soi 19, for over 100 outlets specializing in jewelry, art, and antiques. Around Charoen Krung (New) Road, you'll find the wholesalers of gorgeous semiprecious stones. Gold is sold in Chinatown; try the lower end of Silom and Khao San roads for silver in bulk. The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (6th Floor, Jewelry Trade Center; 919/1 Silom Rd.; tel. 02267-4315; www.aigsthailand.com) is useful for verifying the quality of cut stones (although it's not an appraiser) and also runs courses in gem identification and jewelry design. The TAT and the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association have created an organization called the Jewel Fest Club (www.jewelfest.com). Check out their website to find which shops are members of this reputable organization.
Market Goods -- Visiting Bangkok's many markets is as much a cultural experience as it is a consumer experience; goods come in from all corners of the kingdom, and bargaining is a fast and furious experience. Smaller markets with fewer tourists are great for wandering. Try these: Bangrak Wet Market, behind the Shangri-La Hotel, is an early-morning gourmet's delight. Pratunam Market, at the intersection of Phetchaburi and Ratchaprarop roads, is a big wholesale center, with a vast array of inexpensive clothing. Pak Klong Talad, near Saphan Phut (Memorial Bridge), on the fringes of Chinatown, is home to Bangkok's cut-flower market, with huge bouquets of cut flowers passing through here all day and all night. Most tourist markets are generally open daily from 6-11pm; exceptions are noted below.
A word of warning: Cheap goods flood many markets in Thailand, and Bangkok is no exception. Most market stalls, such as those in Patpong, are filled with stalls of brand-name handbags, sneakers, and watches, all of which are fake. Though some tourists revel in getting cheap brand-name items for a few bucks, doing so can result in dire consequences.
Silk -- There are numerous silk outlets throughout the city, from shopping malls to the lobbies of international hotels. Synthetics are frequently sold as silk; if you're in doubt about a particular piece, select a thread and burn it -- silk should smell like singed hair. Sometimes only the warp (lengthwise threads) is synthetic, because it is more uniform and easier to work with. For some of the city's priciest silk, try such outlets as Jim Thompson's (9 Surawong Rd., near Silom; tel. 02632-8100), or the Thai silk specialists Almeta (20/3, Sukhumvit Soi 23; tel. 02204-1413 or 02258-4227). They can even offer "silk a la carte," whereby silk is woven to the customer's desired weight and dyed to a particular shade. Products include silk wall coverings, silk fashions, bed linen, and casual wear.
One of the best outlets for cottons from all over the world, as well as chiffons and silks, is the Cynosure, which was about to move into new premises at the time of this update. Check out their website (www.cynosurebangkok.com), for new contact details. Their products include ornate brocades, linens, and rainbow-hued satins, as well as top-class Chantilly laces, along with sequined and beaded fabrics. Expect to pay top price for what, in effect, is the cream of the crop.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.