Shopping in Thailand
Thailand has long been known as a bargain hunter's paradise. The floatation of the Baht in 1997 has made it even better in many cases. Here's a list of the kinds of things you can get the best deals on, if you remember to bargain!
Generally speaking, the term "antique" in Thailand refers to goods designed in an old or traditional style. Genuine antiques - things more than 100 years old - require special permission to be taken out of the country. Our advice is to ignore the purported age of an item when negotiating the price, and if the seller insists on an unreasonably high price because of an item's age, ask to see the export permit for the item from the Department of Fine Arts. If the shop-keeper says they will provide a letter saying the piece is a reproduction, then you're advised to leave the shop right away.
As is probably obvious, prices for "antiques" can be outrageous in places that cater to tourists. Don't be afraid to offer half or even a third of the initial asking price, if you think it's high. Don't be afraid to walk away if the merchant isn't coming down enough in their price, it's the quickest way to get them to change their minds!
Bags and Luggage
Handbags, backpacks, wallets, purses, briefcases and suitcases in just about every size and style can be purchased in markets throughout the kingdom for a small fraction of the price you might pay elsewhere. Its quite easy to pick up a good backpack suitable for use as a catch-all / camera bag in your travels for less than US$5.
Leather items can also be found in abundance, especially in tourist areas. Prices are competitive and quality is usually quite good.
Thailand is a major clothing manufacturer and exporter. A wide range of garments are made, from "K-mart specials" to designer goods. Locally made goods will usually be much cheaper than imported name brand items, although not as cheap as the many no-name products available.
When buying clothing designed mainly for the local market, you will need to keep in mind that, although Thai clothing is usually sized according to the US system of 'S' for small, 'M' for medium and so on, these sizes generally run one size smaller than their standard American usage. In other words, if you normally wear medium sized items, you will probably have to purchase large sizes in Thailand.
Men with a waist bigger than 34 will likely have a very hard time finding clothes that fit in most stores. However, you will find a few specialty stores at most shopping malls around the country where you can find casual clothing to fit. Keep an eye out for "Export Shops" or "XL for Men". These are effectively small outlet shops where, curiously, most of the items are made in Cambodia. You may not find much selection, but you will find name brands such as Old Navy, Eddie Baur and Izod.
Thai silk is world famous for its vibrant colors and patterns, not to mention its price. You can purchase silk in the north and northeast where its made, or you can often get it just as cheaply in Bangkok. A visit to one of the "factories" just outside of Chiang Mai is a must, although these are generally showcases for tourists and not real factories.
Tailor shops also abound in just about every tourist area of Thailand. You can have shirts, suits, dresses or whatever you can imagine made to order, and often ready within 24 hours. Be wary of shops touted by taxi drivers, etc. They're almost never very good. Another tip is to avoid places offering deals too good to be true, such as a suit for $25. The work is often slipshod.
Cotton has increased greatly in popularity recently. There are traditional patterns of woven colored thread as well as many variations on the popular "raw" weaves that are useful for jackets and upholstery.
You will find gold shops in every city of the kingdom. Thais, like most Asians, buy gold as a savings mechanism - sort of an alternative to banks. Because of this, the gold sold in gold shops is pure 24 karat solid gold, or at least it's supposed to be. Attempts to sell plated items as solid gold are not unknown, so it's wise to be on your guard.
Pure gold is quite yellow compared to the 18 karat gold that is more common for jewelry in the west. The color alone is not to everyone's taste. Add to that pure gold's inherent softness, which can make pieces difficult to maintain and frequently in need of repair, and you have reason to consider whether or not pure gold jewelry is right for you. While the workmanship of gold items can be quite fine, it accounts for nothing when it's sold. The price of an item is based solely on its weight. The unit of measurement for the sale of gold is the Baht - the same as the currency. One Baht weight of gold is 15 grams, a tiny bit less than half an ounce. Most gold shops will have their buying and selling rates posted outside the shop.
Thailand is a major exporter of gems and gemstones; and in recent years has developed the industry of cutting, finishing and setting stones as well. You'll find jewelry stores in any tourist area, and in Bangkok there are several centers specializing in almost nothing but jewelry. While prices are very competitive, common sense is highly advised. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is. The "resale" value of a stone may be exaggerated. Our advice, as always, is to determine an item's value to you and don't pay more than that. Don't consider an item's purported resale value, age or other factors.
This traditional craft has evolved with the times, although old style goods are still widely available. Some of the nicest Thai items are those with mother of pearl inlaid in the black lacquer. You'll find this technique used in temple doors as well as bowls, boxes and other items for daily use. The modern variations include bright metallic finishes that can make a simple piece the focal point of a room.
Silver and Bronze
You'll find silver shops throughout the kingdom, and several "factories" outside of Chiang Mai where you can find just about anything you can imagine in silver. Most silver jewelry and almost all place settings, frames, trays, etc. are sterling silver, often labeled "925" meaning they are made of 92.5% pure silver. Some jewelry items as well as buttons on traditional style costumes are made with an "old" silver, which is a traditional method yielding a lower silver content. Such items are usually easy to recognize as they lack the luster of sterling, sometimes coming close to pewter in color and finish.
Traditional Thai houses are made of wood, so the Thais have developed wood carving to a high art. You'll find a large number of shops in the north selling furniture as well as decorative items, all hand carved. You needn't worry about getting large items home, as most shops in major tourist centers have facilities to ship items for you.
Thailand Shopping Guide
If you need more "help" to find just the right thing, or at least where to look, then check out this tome from the recognized experts in shopping the world: