Prime your credit card and shine your baht – shopping is serious business in Bangkok. Hardly a street corner in this city is free from a vendor, hawker or impromptu stall, and it doesn't stop there: Bangkok is also home to one of the world's largest outdoor markets, not to mention some of Southeast Asia's largest malls.
Real Thai antiques are rare, costly and reserved primarily for serious collectors. Everything else is designed to look old and most shopkeepers are happy to admit it. Reputable antique dealers will issue an authentication certificate. Officially, a licence from the Office of the National Museum is required to export religious images and fragments, but really only high-profile antiques are scrutinised.
It’s worth noting that trading in bona fide antiquities might not be either ethical or, in your country, legal. For more on this issue and the campaign to preserve Southeast Asia’s cultural heritage, see Heritage Watch (www.heritagewatchinternational.org).
One of the most ubiquitous aspects of shopping in Bangkok, and a drawcard for many visitors, is fake merchandise. Counterfeit clothes, watches and bags line sections of Th Sukhumvit and Th Silom, while there are entire malls dedicated to copied DVDs, music CDs and software. Fake IDs are available up and down Th Khao San, and there are even fake Lonely Planet guides – old editions made over with a new cover and ‘publication date’ to be resold (often before we've written the next edition!). Fakes are so prominent in Bangkok that there’s even a Museum of Counterfeit Goods, where all the counterfeit booty that has been collected by law firm Tilleke & Gibbins over the years is on display.
The brashness with which fake goods are peddled in Bangkok gives the impression that black-market goods are fair game, which is and isn’t true. Technically, knock-offs are illegal and periodic crackdowns by the Thai police have led to the closure of shops and the arrest of vendors. The shops typically open again after a few months, however, and the purchasers of fake merchandise are rarely the target of such crackdowns.
The tenacity of Bangkok’s counterfeit goods trade is largely due to the fact that tourists aren’t the only ones buying the stuff. A poll conducted by Bangkok University’s research centre found that 80% of the 1104 people polled in Bangkok admitted to having purchased counterfeit goods (only 48% said they felt guilty for having bought fakes).
It’s worth pointing out that some companies, including even a few luxury brands, argue that counterfeit goods can be regarded as a net positive. They claim that a preponderance of fake items inspires brand awareness and fosters a demand for ‘real’ luxury items while also acting as a useful gauge of what’s hot. But the argument against fake goods points out that the industry supports organised crime and potentially exploitative and abusive labour conditions, circumvents taxes and takes jobs away from legitimate companies.
If the legal or moral repercussions aren’t enough to convince you, keep in mind that in general, with fake stuff, you’re getting exactly what you pay for. Consider yourself lucky if, after arriving home, the Von Dutch badge on your new hat hasn’t peeled off within a week and your ‘Rolex’ is still ticking after the first rain.
Markets & Malls
Although the tourist brochures tend to tout the upmarket malls, Bangkok still lags slightly behind Singapore and Hong Kong in this arena, and the open-air markets are where the best deals and most original items are to be found.
Many tourists arrive in Bangkok with the notion of getting clothes custom-tailored at a bargain price. While this is entirely possible, there are a few things to be aware of. Prices are almost always lower than what you’d pay at home, but common scams such as commission-hungry túk-túk (pronounced đúk đúk) drivers, shoddy work and inferior fabrics make bespoke tailoring in Bangkok a potentially disappointing investment.
The golden rule of custom tailoring is that you get what you pay for. If you sign up for a suit, two pants, two shirts and a tie, with a silk sarong thrown in, for just US$199 (a very popular offer in Bangkok), chances are it will look and fit like a sub-US$200 wardrobe. Although an offer may seem great on the surface, the price may fluctuate significantly depending on the fabric you choose. Supplying your own fabric won’t necessarily reduce the price by much, but it should ensure you get exactly the look you’re after.
Have a good idea of what you want before walking into a shop. If it’s a suit you’re after, should it be single- or double-breasted? How many buttons? What style trousers? Of course, if you have no idea, the tailor will be more than happy to advise. Alternatively, bring a favourite garment from home and have it copied.
Set aside a week to get clothes tailored. Shirts and trousers can often be turned around in 48 hours or less with only one fitting, but no matter what a tailor may tell you, it takes more than one and often more than two fittings to create a good suit. Most reliable tailors will ask for two to five sittings. Any tailor who can sew your order in less than 24 hours should be treated with caution.
A 7% Value Added Tax (VAT) applies to most purchases in Thailand, but if you spend enough and get the paperwork, the kindly Revenue Department will refund it at the airport when you leave. To qualify to receive a refund, you must not be a Thai citizen, part of an airline air crew or have spent more than 180 days in Thailand during the previous year. Your purchase must have been made at an approved shop; look for the blue-and-white VAT Refund sticker. Minimum purchases must add up to 2000B per shop in a single day and to at least 5000B total for the whole trip. Before you leave the shop, get a VAT Refund form and tax invoice. Most major malls in Bangkok will direct you to a dedicated VAT Refund desk, which will organise the appropriate paperwork (it takes about five minutes). Note that you won’t get a refund on VAT paid in hotels or restaurants.
At the airport, your purchases must be declared at the customs desk in the departure hall, which will give you the appropriate stamp; you can then check them in. Smaller items (such as watches and jewellery) should be carried on your person, as they will need to be reinspected once you’ve passed immigration. You actually get your money at a VAT Refund Tourist Office; at Suvarnabhumi International Airport these are located on Level 4 in both the east and west wings. For how-to info, go to http://vrtweb.rd.go.th/index.php/en/.
Need To Know
At Bangkok's markets and at a handful of its malls, you'll have to bargain for most, if not all, items. In general, if you see a price tag, it means that the price is fixed and bargaining isn't an option.
Most family-run shops are open from 10am to 7pm daily. Malls are open 10am to 10pm approximately. Street markets are either daytime (9am to 5pm) or night-time (7pm to midnight). Note that city ordinance forbids streetside vendors from cluttering the pavements on Mondays, but they are present every other day.
Thais are generally so friendly and laid-back that some visitors are lulled into a false sense of security. While your personal safety is rarely at risk in Thailand, you may be unwittingly charmed out of the contents of your wallet or fall prey to a scam.
Gems & Jewellery
Countless tourists are sucked into the prolific and well-rehearsed gem scam in which they are taken to a shop by a helpful stranger and tricked into buying bulk gems that can supposedly be resold in their home country for 100% profit. The expert con artists (part of a well-organised cartel) seem trustworthy and convince tourists that they need a citizen of the country to circumvent tricky customs regulations. Unsurprisingly, the gem world doesn’t work like that and what most tourists end up with are worthless pieces of glass. By the time you sort all this out, the shop has closed and changed names and the police can do little to help.
Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok (www.nancychandler.net) tracks all sorts of small, out-of-the-way shopping venues and markets, and dissects the innards of the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The colourful map is sold in bookshops throughout the city.