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.
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.
Bookstores -- You’ll find a number of bookstores offering a wide variety of English-language books. The two chains with the best choice are Asia Books and Kinokuniya. Asia Books is a local chain that specializes in regional titles and some overseas publishers. Its main branch is at 221 Sukhumvit Rd., between sois 15 and 17 (www.asiabooks.com; tel. 02252-7277). Outlets with a large inventory are at the following locations: The Emporium on Sukhumvit at Soi 22, Siam Paragon, on level 2, and CentralWorld, sixth floor.
The eclectic Kinokuniya (www.thailand.kinokuniya.com) has three stores in Bangkok, at The Emporium on Sukhumvit Road Soi 22, at Siam Paragon, and on the sixth floor of the Isetan department store at CentralWorld ([tel] 02255-9834). This is Bangkok’s best bookstore chain.
For secondhand books, try Dasa Books, 714/4 Sukhumvit (near The Emporium, between sois 26 and 28; www.dasabookcafe.com; tel. 02661-2993). It’s a great place to grab a coffee and browse for long-lost titles, or exchange old novels free of charge. If you’re in search of something specific, their stock list is regularly updated and available online.
Fashion -- (See "Tailoring" at the bottom for bespoke clorhing). 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.
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.
Around town, you’ll see several OTOP stores offering locally made Thai goods, handicrafts, food and more in one convenient setting. OTOP (One Tambon One Product) promotes sustainability for local villagers and makes for feel-good souvenir shopping. There is an outlet in the airport for last-minute purchases. A well-curated and high-end shop is OTOP Heritage (www.otopheritage.com) on the fourth floor of Central Embassy (1031 Phloenchit Road).
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 but it can be hard to cut through the noise of what’s real and worth the money. Head to the Jewelry Trade Center (JTC) (www.jewelrytradecenter.com; tel. 02630-1000), on 919/1 Silom Road, for more than 300 retails outlets specializing in jewelry, gems, and diamonds. At the JTC, Tabtim Dreams (www.fb.com/TabtimDreams) has a good reputation. 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.
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.
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; www.jimthompson.com; tel. 02632-8100), or the Thai silk specialists Almeta (20/3, Sukhumvit Soi 23; www.almeta.com; 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.
Tailoring –– Especially along Sukhumvit Road, tailors are as common as tuk-tuks, and it can be confusing to know where to go. The tailors listed here are reliable and have great reputations but if you choose to go somewhere else there are few things to keep in mind. First, remember that you get what you pay for and bundled packages of a suit, two pairs of pants and four shirts for $200 won’t last more than a few wears and are often ill-fitting. Next, schedule fittings. Any reputable tailor worth their weight will insist on two to five sittings; though men’s shirts can often fit perfectly after one. Set aside a week for the whole process. And finally, this is a man’s world and few places in town can expertly cut women’s clothing beyond a boxy ‘90s-era business suit. Prices are entirely dependent on which fabrics are chosen but there is something for every budget and style at the following shops.
- Tailor on Ten (93 Sukhumvit Soi 8; www.tailoronten.com; tel. 084877-1543) runs the most tech-savvy shop in town, and their custom iPad app helps discerning gents visualize the final product. They stock several fine Italian wools, have large fitting rooms, and specialize in modern, slim cuts.
- Empire Tailors (124-126 Sukhumvit Road; www.empiretailors.com; tel. 02251-6762) rises above the fray of cheap suits and fast sewing. Popular with Thai businessmen since 1978, they go the extra mile to make sure cut is just right, taking time for multiple fittings. Beyond the pants, shirts and suits on offer, Empire Tailor expertly crafts tuxedos and overcoats as well.
- Pinky Tailor (888/40 Phloen Chit in the Mahatun Plaza; www.pinkytailor.com; tel. 02252-9680) started in Bangkok in 1980 and has a loyal following of well-dressed ambassadors and businessmen. Pinky’s bookkeeping is old-school but his hand-cut suits are modern. From the buttonhole colors to linings and monogrammed accents, nothing is forgotten.
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.