There are a lot of good bargains awaiting you in Thailand if you have the space to carry them back. Always haggle to get the best price, except in department stores.
Fabric is possibly the best all-round buy in Thailand. Thai silk is considered the best in the world and can be purchased cheaply in the northeast where it is made or, more easily, in Bangkok. Excellent and reasonably priced tailor shops can make your choice of fabric into almost any pattern. A silk suit should cost around 2,500 to 4,000 Baht.
Cottons are also a good deal - common items like the phaakhamaa, which is reputed to have over a hundred uses in Thailand and the phaasin, the slightly larger female equivalent, make great tablecloths and curtains. Good ready-made cotton shirts are available, such as the maw hawm or Thai work shirt and the kuay haeng (Chinese-style shirt).
In recent years, cotton weaving has become very popular in the northeast and there are fabulous finds in Nong Khai, Roi Et, Khon Kaen and Maha Sarakham. The mawn khwan, a hard, triangle-shaped pillow made in the northeast, makes a good souvenir and comes in many sizes. The northeast is also famous for its mat-mii cloth, thick cotton fabric woven from tie-dyed threads.
Fairly nice batik (pa-re) is available in the south in patterns that are more similar to batik found in Malaysia than in Indonesia.
Thai shoulder bags are generally quite well made. The yaam comes in many varieties, some woven by hill tribes, others by Thai cottage industry. The best are made by the Lahu hill-tribes, whom the Thais call 'Musoe'. The weaving is more skilful and the bags tend to last longer than those made by other tribes. For an extra large size yaam, the Karen-made bag is a good choice - easy to find in the Mae Hong Son area.
Overall, Chiang Mai has the best selection of standard shoulder bags, but Bangkok has the best prices - try the Indian district, Pahurat, for these as well as anything else made of cloth. Roi Et and Maha Sarakham in the northeast are also good hunting grounds for locally made shoulder bags. Prices range from 45 Baht for a cheaply made bag to 100 Baht for something special.
Real antiques cannot be taken out of Thailand without a permit from the Department of Fine Arts. No Buddha image, new or old, may be exported without permission - refer to Fine Arts again, or, in some cases, the Department of Religious Affairs, under the Ministry of Education. Too many private collectors smuggling and hoarding Siamese art (Buddha images in particular) around the world have led to strict controls. See Customs for more information on the export of art objects and antiques.
Chinese and Thai antiques are sold in Chinatown in an area called Wang Burapha - the streets with Chinese 'gates' over the entrance. Some antiques (and many fakes) are sold at the Weekend Market, Chatuchak Park. Objects for sale in the tourist antique shops are fantastically overpriced, as can be expected.
Thailand is one of the world's largest exporters of gems and ornaments, rivalled only by India and Sri Lanka. The biggest importers of Thai jewellery are the US, Japan and Switzerland. One of the results of the remarkable growth of the gem industry - in Thailand the gem trade has increased nearly 10% every year for the last decade - is that the prices are rising rapidly.
If you know what you are doing you can make some really good buys in both unset gems and finished jewellery. Gold ornaments are sold at a good rate, as labour costs are low. The best bargains in gems are jade, rubies and sapphires. Buy from reputable dealers only, unless you're a gemologist. Be wary of special 'deals' that are one-day only or which set you up as a 'courier' in which you're promised big money. Many travellers end up losing big. Shop around and don't be hasty.
The biggest gem centres are Kanchanaburi, Mae Sot and Chanthaburi - these areas are where the Bangkok dealers go to buy their stones. The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (tel. 0 2233 8388), 4th Floor Rama Jewelry Building, 987 Silom Road, Bangkok, offers short-term courses in gemology as well as tours of gem mines for those interested.
Interesting embroidery, clothing, bags and jewellery from the north can be bought in Bangkok at Narayan Phand, Lan Luang Road, at the Queen's Hill crafts Foundation, in the Sapatum Palace compound behind the Siam Centre, and at various tourist shops around town.
The International School of Bangkok, on Soi Ruam Chai (Soi 15) off Sukhumvit Road, has regular hill-tribe craft sales, often featuring good selections, and the prices are good. These are usually held once a month but check with the school to find out the latest schedule.
In Chiang Mai there are shops selling handicrafts all along Thapae Road and there is a shop sponsored by missionaries near Prince Royal College. There is a branch of the Queen's Hill crafts Foundation in Chiang Rai. It is worthwhile to shop around for the best prices and bargain. The all-round best buys on northern hill-tribe crafts are at the Chiang Mai night bazaar.
Thailand produces some good Burmese-style lacquer ware and sells some of the Burmese stuff itself, along the northern Burmese border. Try Mae Sot, Mae Sariang and Mae Sal for the best buys.
In Bangkok, Chiang Mai and all the various tourist centres, there is black market street trade in fake designer goods; particularly Lacoste (crocodile) and Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Rolex, Dunhill and Cartier watches. No one pretends they're the real things, at least not the vendors themselves. The European manufacturers are applying heavy pressure to the Asian governments involved to get this stuff off the street so it may not be around much longer.
Pre-recorded cassette tapes are another slightly illegal bargain in Thailand. The tapes are 'pirated', that is, no royalties are paid to the copyright owners. Average price is 30 to 35 Baht per cassette. Word has it that these will soon disappear from the streets, too, under pressure from the US music industry.
Bangkok is famous the world over for its street markets - Pratunam, Chatuchak Park, Khlong Toey, Sampheng (Chinatown), Banglamphu and many more - where you'll find things you never imagined you wanted but once you see can't do without. Even if you don't want to spend any money, they're great places to wander around.
For top-end shopping, the two main centres in Bangkok are the area around the Oriental Hotel off Charoen Krung (New) Road and the relatively new River City shopping complex on the river next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel. Thailand's two big department store chains, Robinson and Central, have several branches in Bangkok as well as in the larger towns.
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