Over the last decade, the capital of Thailand has grown into the epitome of a modern Asian city. Commerce is fast and furious, the streets choked with traffic and fumes and sky-scrapers have sprung up all over the metropolis. Bangkok is a serious competitor to Hong Kong and Singapore as the ultimate Asian shopping destination, yet beneath it all there remains a ‘Thai-ness’ that is enchanting to travellers, many of whom make this their first port of call.
Bangkok is infamous for its hellish traffic jams, which can bring the city to a complete standstill during the day. While some world cities built mass transit systems underground, Bangkok looked heaven-wards for a solution – with the opening of the Skytrain in late 1999. The railway’s two lines, which together stretch for 14.7 miles along Silom and Sukomvit roads, serve the main business and tourist areas. Skytrain is a cool, calm, quick alternative to sweating it out in the back of a stationary taxi. A single ride costs 30 baht. Alternatively, take a tuk tuk – a sort of motorised rickshaw, which, although not air-conditioned, can weave in and out of traffic more niftly than a taxi or a bus.
Most shops are open seven says a week, from 10am to 8pm, though some may close at 6pm. Those in the city centre may stay open as late as 10pm, and stalls in the night markets of Patpong and Sukhumvit Road trade until the small hours.
The Thai currency is the baht and, although it has stabilised somewhat against the dollar since the economic collapse of 1997, prices are still comparatively cheap. Most malls, department stores and top restaurants now happily accept major credit cards.
How to haggle
Except in shops displaying a ‘fixed price’ sign, haggling is the norm all over Thailand. Where a vendor doesn’t speak English or has a hearing disability, they may tap prices into a calculator and invite you to do the same. There is a real knack to getting the best possible price without loosing your humour or offending the vendor. Begin by asking the price of an item. Whatever they come up with, ask again what their ‘good price’ or ‘Thai price’ is. It should be significantly lower.
Offer about 60 percent of that amount, and inch up with every offer. If you are pleasant and friendly, you should get a ‘last offer’ of somewhere between the two. If you want to buy more than one of an item, you should be able to get a further discount by offering something along the lines of ‘two hundred baht for two’. Try not to start haggling unless you really mean to buy, as it is considered bad form to back off after reaching an agreement. Also bear in mind that street vendors aren’t well off so don’t go overboard. These people need to eat too, even if it means selling for a poor price rather than not at all.
Getting a VAT refund
If you buy goods from shops display a ‘VAT Refund for Tourists’ sign and are a non-Thai who has been in the country for less than 180 days in the last calendar year, you can claim the VAT back at the airport before departure.
Chatuckak Weekend Market
Market culture lies at the heart of the community, and the myriad stalls of Bangkok, which cater to the food and household needs of the locals, offer up intriguing sights and smells to the curious traveller.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is Bangkok’s biggest and best. Also known as JJ’s by the locals, it covers and area equivalent to five football pitches and is made up of more an 8000 stalls. According to a Thai saying, you can buy anything at Chatuchak ‘from a toothpick to a warship’. That may be a slight exaggeration, but there’s certainly no shortage of household furnishings, clothing (new and used), antiques, traditional crafts, exotic foods, herbal remedies, musical instruments and much, much more.
An estimated 200,000 shoppers flock here every Saturday and Sunday, when the market is open form 8am to 6pm. The best way to get to Chatuchak is to take the Skytrain to Morchit. On leaving the station follow the crowds – you can’t miss it!
One word of warning: Bag-slashers and pickpockets are out in force at Chatuchak, especially in the afternoons, when it is very crowded. Carry cash next to your body and wear back-packs on your front.
Patpong Night Market
Patpong is Bangkok’s legendary red-light district. After dusk, the go-go bars are buzzing and even if you’re not expressedly ‘looking for a good time’, this place is a hive of activity. The Night Market at the main draw for the majority of tourists. It occupied the entire length of one of the central Sois (streets).
While the Swiss are famous for their watches and the Italians for designer suits, the Thais are renowned for their copycat culture. They are pass masters at mimicking expensive merchandise, and Patpong Night Market is the place to come for clothes, bags, watches, DVDs and other designer knock offs. Fakes are often so good it’s hard to tell the difference – except, of course, in the prices, which are cheap and negotiable.
It is actually illegal to buy fakes in Thailand, so you should be aware that they may be seized as trademark violations by zealous customs officials on your way home. What’s more, if you do choose to buy a fake you’re forfeiting your consumer rights and if it goes wrong or falls to bits there’s no way you’re going to get a refund.
Sukhumvit Road is an increasingly popular alternative to famous Koh Sahn Road for cheap accommodation and lively night-life. The Ministry of Sound recently opened a nightclub here, and there are great restaurants and bars in the area.
The Skytrain runs along the length of Sukhumvit Road and some of the best malls and department stores in Bangkok are just a station or two apart. For those who are ready to shun air-conditioned comfort in the pursuit of bargains, the stalls which line the sides of the street sell a wide selection of Thai made merchandise. You probably won’t find much here that you couldn’t get in Patpong or Chatuchak, but they stay open late so you can cram in a bit of shopping on your way back to the hotel of an evening.
Thailand Grand Sale
Throughout June and July each year, Bangkok hosts a special shopping event aimed at attracting tourists with amazingly low prices on Thai-made merchandise. The Thai Grand Sale is jointly organised by TAT and Visa International, and as many as 750 retail shops, department stores, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions participate, each offering discounts of between 10 and 80%.
Look out for the distinctive red ‘Thailand Grand Sale’ sticker on the window. If you shop at more than one participating outlet throughout your trip you can collect reward points and receive a greater discount on your next purchase.
Visit the Thailand Grand Sale website
The River City complex might look like just another modern mall, but the third and fours floors are the hub of Bangkok’s trade in all things old and beautiful.
The glass-fronted galleries are well-lit to show off the detail of the pieces they house – be they original antiques or tasteful reproductions. Antiques from all over Asia find their way here, and the most venerated being century’s old, gold-covered images of Buddha.
Don’t be fooled by the calm, non-crowded ambience of River City. It may seem devoid of the shopping hoards, but this is a specialist market and 80% of shoppers make a purchase – more than enough to keep the businesses housed here afloat.
River City Shopping Complex
23 Trok Rongnamkaeng
Asian Galleries is a well-established antiques company which has been located within the River City Shopping Complex for more than fifteen years. There are actually two Asian Galleries shops, run by the brothers Chongthanavanit: on the fourth floor there are exquisite original antiques while on the third a good selection of reproductions, expertly crafted in company’s own workshop. Those with a penchant for interior design need no longer re-mortgage their house just to deck it out – only an expert will be unable to tell the real thing and a reproduction.
Suite 342 River City, 3rd Floor
23 Yota Road
Tel: 66 2 237 0077 ext 342
Fax: 66 2 237 2644
Mail to: asian *at* asianet.co.th
Cherie Aung-Khin is a Myanmar-born antiques expert. Her budding interest in antiques brought her to Bangkok 20 years ago, where she worked as an assistant in an antiques shop before founding her very own, four-storey Elephant House.
The Elephant House is now one of the best established antiques shops in Thailand. One-time Vice President of the Antique Association in Bangkok, Cherie has an encyclopaedic knowledge of South East Asian art.
The antiques market has seen something of a decline in recent years, partly because more and more people are prepared to pay top dollar for shoddy antiques and even poor copies. This has not deterred Cherie. Despite never having been trained in design, she draws influence from the antiques she encounters each day and pieces she sees in museums around the world. Her own stylish range of lacquer and rattan furniture is manufactures in her factory in Myanmar and shipped all over the world.
The Elephant House
286/69-71 Soi pattana
Tel: +66 2 233 6973 / 6974 / 6281
Fax: +66 2 631 4690 1
Email: elephant *at* ksc15.th.com
Central Chidlom Department Store
You may think you’ve come to Thailand to escape the same old department store merchandise you can find back home, but believe me, after a few minutes haggling in a hot and humid market you’ll be clamouring for the air conditioning.
Founded in 1957, the Chidlom branch of Central is the oldest and largest department store in Thailand. Its 7 floors are laden with all the useful items, clothes and household goods you would expect, but they’ll be a good deal cheaper than back home. Don’t miss the Thai-made products on the 6th floor, where there are beautiful, high quality souvenirs from all over the country.
Central Chidlom participates in a number of promotions throughout the year, including the Thailand Grand Sale in June and July. Whatever time of year you visit, you can be sure to save 5% if you sign up for the Central Visitor Card.
The best way to get to Central Chidlom is to take the Skytrain to Chidlom station and follow the signs directly to the 3rd Floor.
1027 Ploenchit Road
Tel: +66 2 2655 7777
Fax: +66 2 2655 7855
Opening hours: 10.00 a.m. – 9.30 p.m. daily
Thai crafts and Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Centre, Bang Sai
Thailand is well known for its craft traditions, which date back centuries. Different items are maede in different parts of the country – such as Nielloware and batik printing form the south, silk and cotton weaving and intricate fan painting from the north and clay pottery from the north east.
As with most capital cities, crafts from all over the country converge on Bangkok. But for the biggest variety and a chance to see craftspeople at work, its well worth making the 45 minute trip out of Bangkok to the Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Centre at Bang Sai, near the ancient capital Ayutthaya.
Founded by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in 1976, the Centre is like a school-cum-village, which ensures that age-old craft techniques are passed down to the next generations, whilst, at the same time, allowing rural Thais to earn some extra income after the harvest has been bought in. Several hundred able-bodied and disabled students are in residence at any one time, and there is a total of 28 different crafts they can learn here.
While visitors are welcome to wander into the classrooms, the best way to get a complete picture of Thai crafts is at the Craft Village. Peaceful, serene and set around an artificial lake, the village is made up of clusters of houses in the architectural style of a specific region. While the upstairs have exhibitions of local living, craftsmen practice their native crafts on the ground floor or cook up flavoursome dishes from their homeland for passers by to try.
You can buy all the crafts made at Bang Sai in the on-site shop, as well as in Chitrala shops in all the major towns. The craftsmen receive a fee for their work and all profits go to the ongoing development of the project.
Bangsai Arts and Crafts Centre of H.M. Queen Sirikit of Thailand
Bang Sai, Ayutthaya 13290, Thailand
Tel: (+66 35) 366666-7 Fax: (+66 35) 366668
E-Mail : bangsai *at* wnet.net.th
Accommodation, books & Travel
Bel-Aire Princess Hotel
Bel-Aire Princess is a comfortable 4-star hotel located on Sukhumvit Road, Soi 5. Just a short walk from Nana Skytrain station it is within easy reach of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping highlights. It has a pool, fitness centre, bar and restaurant so you can wind down after a hard days sightseeing away form the hubbub of Bangok.
Qantas Airways operates direct daily flights to Bangkok from Sydney, London, Rome and Helsinki.
For more information on Qantas schedules and their frequent flyer programme
J & J Tourist Taxi
One way to get to know Bangkok is to travel around town with J&J Tourist Taxi. While your stuck in the infernal traffic, your friendly, English-speaking driver will act as your guide, telling you a little about the main sight to see and well as offering handy information about travel in Thailand. They will recommend places to go depending on your interests and will even put together custom itineraries to help you get the best out of your stay in Bangkok.
J & J Tourist Taxi
Book online or tel: 01 846 2014.
The Treasures and Pleasures of Thailand
by Ron and Caryl Rae Krannich (Pub. Impact Publications, 2000)
A brilliant handbook for anyone intending to do some serious shopping in Bangkok. Written by real-life travelling shopaholics, this book reveals the scams, brings bargains to light and sends you packing to shopping Nirvana.