Bartering for something utterly superfluous would have to rate as one of the most exciting prospects about a holiday to Bangkok. The city’s brimming with every possible shopping experience in existence: from sparkling malls to dusty and crazy stalls, shops and markets. Indeed, popping out for ‘a spot of retail therapy’ in Bangkok is akin to saying you’ll go for ‘a refreshing dip’ at Niagara Falls. You may be in for a little more adventure than you initially envisage.
All things considered, however, it should be noted that among the ocean of bargains and offers in Bangkok, you’re going to come across a hell of a lot of crap. Sure, sarongs and flip flops are cheap, yet they’re also bound to last you a little longer than a week and, as colorful and enticing as Thai knick-knacks are when displayed profusely on every street and alleyway, most of the stuff you’ll blow your baht on will likely end up in a draw or as a dust collector.
Be a clever shopper when in Bangkok and ensure that you not only bring home some superbly fab souvenirs…but also a little piece of the country’s essence, culture and history.
How to barter for a good deal
Bartering is an integral part of the local culture and a ‘game’ you’ll be expected to play when you visit Bangkok. Choose not to, for whatever reason, and your actions could actually cause unwanted consequences, not only for those tourists who’ll follow in your footsteps, but also the economy at large. Overpaying can cause business owners to become greedy and stubborn, eventually causing their business and that of their neighbors to decrease immensely. It makes shopkeepers aggressive and unwilling to negotiate, in the hope that some other generous (or stupid) tourist will eventually come along and pay an inflated price.
The first rule of thumb, when wanting to buy something that isn’t sold at a 7-11 (no bartering there we beg of you), is that no matter how cheap something is, expect it to be overpriced at first offer, usually by as much as 50%. Halve the price and negotiate up inch by inch.
The worst-kept secret EVER…revealed: the ‘pretend walk-away technique’ may have been fine 10 years ago, but considering every woman and her chihuahua has been using it since, this is the one act which you may find totally useless in Bangkok. Yes, there are a lot of vendors in Bangkok, but there are also many more shoppers, so only walk away if you are well and truly ready to never see that beloved souvenir again. The days when shop keepers used to chase tourists down the street shouting cheaper prices at them are a thing of the past: nowadays, it’s the shop-keeper who’s much more likely to walk away from you!
Best things to bring home
Tailor-made clothing is one of the most popular souvenirs people wish to bring home from Bangkok, yet we’ve seen our fair share of utterly shocking deals and clothes, emerging from the plethora of ‘professional’ tailors in the city. From the badly fitting and atrociously sewn to the exorbitantly priced garb, having anything hand-made in the City of Angels can quickly turn out to be a little trip to hell and back.
By and large, avoid any tailor which promises a 24 hour turnover, offers instant 50% discount, does not offer multiple fittings or who uses aggressive and loud techniques to lure you into their shops. Great reputable tailors should be out the back sewing, not trying to vie for your attention in the middle of the street. Business suits, skirts and shirts should take no less than three fittings to complete (the first to measure, the rest to perfect) and your tailor should be flexible and friendly, without being too agreeable. If someone tells you that every item looks just soooo beautiful on you, it may be time to look for a more reliable, and honest, tailor.
Ask for personal recommendations from fellow travelers and remember that, as always, you do get what you pay for. Try to suss out your desired tailor before you even arrive (hail the internet) and plan to visit on your first day to avoid disappointment, especially if staying in Bangkok for only a few days. Bring along something to copy or at the very least a picture of what you desire. You’ll find a wide range of fabric in Bangkok, from Egyptian cotton to Italian wool and the ubiquitous and utterly stunning Thai silk.
Thai silk is actually one of the most iconic souvenirs you can buy in Bangkok, whether you return home with it fitted around a pillow or as a skirt or blouse. Luscious, versatile and totally unique, anything made in Thai silk is instantly recognizable, as both colors and patterns are not found in any other silk.
Jim Thompson is by far the most famous Thai silk purveyor in Bangkok although his prices are admittedly very steep, even when considering the ‘you get what you pay for’ axiom. We all love good quality, granted, but not everyone need offer the sale of a kidney to afford a silk dress, surely?
Yet being stuck with half a roll of fake silk bought from dodgy side-street stand is certainly not fun either. So, what to do…
A round of window-shopping in fancy hotel shop arcades should give you a good idea of the current price per square meter of silk, aside introducing you to the feel of different kinds available. These shops may (again) not be the cheapest in Bangkok but most are certainly cheaper than Thompson and still assured of a quality purchase if you prefer to buy them here instead.
Check out Queen’s Silk on the ground floor of the Ruamchitt Plaza Hotel in Sukhumvit to get a good idea of what to expect. Once you’re confident you can tell the difference between silk and rayon…head to the markets!
Scouring Bangkok’s Chatuchak Markets for great Thai silk is an absolute hoot and will ensure you not spend an absolute fortune on a splendid piece of fabric, just because the shop owner has a steep rent bill at the end of the month.
When meandering your way through Bangkok’s markets you may just need to close an eye (or even both) at the sight of frail-looking puppies on sale. Our western sensitivities towards animal care seem a bit lost on the local populace…
You’ll undoubtedly fall in love with Thai cuisine the moment you step off the plane and will start to suffer withdrawal symptoms at the mere thought of leaving this delectable city. But suffer no more! Treat the symptoms before they take hold and don’t forget to fill your suitcase with a mountain of authentic Thai curry paste sachets. Unless your home country boasts a healthy Asian population, it’s possible you won’t find these little gems anywhere else.
Used as a base for a multitude of sauces, simply fry the paste and add either coconut milk or stock depending on your chosen dish. Head to large supermarkets like Carrefour or Tesco, where you’ll find vacuumed packed packs which don’t need to be refrigerated and are allowed to be imported even in countries, like Australia and New Zealand, with very strict import laws. Whatever you do, don’t wait till the last minute hoping to pick up some last-minute curry paste packs at the airport; you’ll be charged five-fold.
While you’re scouring the aisles of the supermarket, you may also want to check out the cosmetics and body products on sale. What you’ll find here is an extensive choice of incredibly fragrant, organic and locally made lotions and potions which make imported spa products blush with blandness. Using locally sourced ingredients like lemongrass, frangipani and coconut, these exotic (and affordable!) body and face creams, masks and oils make for brilliant and always appreciated gifts.
Bangkok bunnies, Integer Club via Flickr
Bartering in Bangkok, Gian Cayetano via Flickr
Thai silk on show, Wiki
Chatuchak markets, Jeff Leigh via Flickr
Red Curry Paste Ingredients, Robert Rybnikar via Flickr