Bangkok has a good reputation for shopping, particularly for antiques, gems, contemporary interior design and fashions, where the range and quality are streets ahead of other Thai cities. Silk and handicrafts are good buys too, though shopping for these in Chiang Mai has many advantages. As always, watch out for fakes: cut glass masquerading as precious stones, old, damaged goods being passed off as antiques, counterfeit designer clothes and accessories, pirated CDs and DVDs, even mocked-up international driver’s licences (though Thai travel agents and other organizations aren’t that easily fooled). Bangkok also has the best English-language bookshops in the country. Downtown is full of smart, multi-storey shopping plazas like Siam Centre, Siam Paragon and Central World on Thanon Rama I and Emporium on Thanon Sukhumvit, which is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s fashion stores, as well as designer lifestyle goods and bookshops. The plazas tend to be pleasantly air-conditioned and thronging with trendy young Thais, but don’t hold much interest for tourists unless you happen to be looking for a new outfit. Shopping centres, department stores and tourist-oriented shops in the city keep late hours, opening daily at 10 or 11am and closing at about 9pm; many small, upmarket boutiques, for example along Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Silom, close on Sundays, one or two even on Saturdays. Monday is meant to be no-street-vendor day throughout Bangkok, a chance for the pavements to get cleaned and for pedestrians to finally see where they’re going, but plenty of stalls manage to flout the rule.
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Shopping for everyday stuff
You’re most likely to find useful everyday items in one of the city’s numerous department stores: seven-storey Central Chidlom on Thanon Ploenchit (daily 10am–10pm), which boasts handy services like watch-, garment- and shoe-repair booths as well as a huge product selection (including large sizes), is probably the city’s best. For children’s stuff, Central Chidlom also has a branch of Mothercare, as do the Emporium and Siam Paragon shopping centres. Meanwhile, the British chain of pharmacies, Boots the Chemist, has scores of branches across the city, including on Thanon Khao San, in Siam Paragon, in Central World, in Emporium and a late-night branch at the Thanon Suriwong end of Patpong 1.
The best place to buy anything to do with mobile phones is the scores of small booths on the third floor of Mah Boon Krong (MBK) Shopping Centre at the Rama I/Phrayathai intersection. For computer hardware and genuine and pirated software, as well as digital cameras, Panthip Plaza, at 604/3 Thanon Phetchaburi, is the best place; it’s slightly off the main shopping routes, but handy for Khlong Saen Saeb boat stop Tha Pratunam, or a longer walk from BTS Ratchathevi. Mac-heads are catered for here, including authorized resellers, and there are dozens of repair and secondhand booths, especially towards the back of the shopping centre and on the upper floors.
Having clothes tailor-made
Bangkok can be an excellent place to get tailor-made suits, dresses, shirts and trousers at a fraction of the price you’d pay in the West. Tailors here can copy a sample brought from home and will also work from any photographs you can provide; most also carry a good selection of catalogues. The bad news is that many tourist-oriented tailors aren’t terribly good, often attempting to get away with poor work and shoddy materials (and sometimes trying to delay delivery until just before you leave the city, so that you don’t have time to complain). However, with a little effort and thought, both men and women can get some fantastic clothes made to measure.
Choosing a tailor can be tricky, and unless you’re particularly knowledgeable about material, shopping around won’t necessarily tell you much. However, don’t make a decision wholly on prices quoted – picking a tailor simply because they’re the cheapest usually leads to poor work, and cheap suits don’t last. Special deals offering two suits, two shirts, two ties and a kimono for US$99 should be left well alone. Above all, ignore recommendations by anyone with a vested interest in bringing your custom to a particular shop.
Prices vary widely depending on material and the tailor’s skill. As a very rough guide, for labour alone expect to pay B5000–6000 for a two-piece suit, though some tailors will charge rather more (check whether or not the price you’re quoted includes the lining). For middling material, expect to pay about B3000–5000, or anything up to B20,000 for top-class cloth. With the exception of silk, local materials are frequently of poor quality and for suits in particular you’re far better off using English or Italian cloth. Most tailors stock both imported and local fabrics, but bringing your own from home can work out significantly cheaper.
Give yourself as much time as possible. For suits, insist on two fittings. Most good tailors require around three days for a suit (some require ten days or more), although a few have enough staff to produce good work in a day or two. The more detail you can give the tailor the better. As well as deciding on the obvious features such as single- or double-breasted and number of buttons, think about the width of lapels, style of trousers, whether you want the jacket with vents or not, and so forth. Specifying factors like this will make all the difference to whether you’re happy with your suit, so it’s worth discussing them with the tailor; a good tailor should be able to give good advice. Finally, don’t be afraid to be an awkward customer until you’re completely happy with the finished product – after all, the whole point of getting clothes tailor-made is to get exactly what you want.
Gem scams are so common in Bangkok that TAT has published a brochure about it and there are several websites on the subject, including the very informative w2bangkok.com/2bangkok-scams-sapphire.html, which describes typical scams in detail. Never buy anything through a tout or from any shop recommended by a “government official”/“student”/“businessperson”/tuk-tuk driver who just happens to engage you in conversation on the street, and note that there are no government jewellery shops, despite any information you may be given to the contrary, and no special government promotions or sales on gems.
The basic scam is to charge a lot more than what the gem is worth based on its carat weight – at the very least, get it tested on the spot, ask for a written guarantee and receipt. Don’t even consider buying gems in bulk to sell at a supposedly vast profit elsewhere: many a gullible traveller has invested thousands of dollars on a handful of worthless multicoloured stones, believing the vendor’s reassurance that the goods will fetch at least a hundred percent more when resold at home.
If you’re determined to buy precious stones, check that the shop is a member of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association, by visiting their website which has a directory of members (wthaigemjewelry.or.th). To be doubly sure, you may want to seek out shops that also belong to the TGJTA’s Jewel Fest Club (wjewelfest.com), which guarantees quality and will offer refunds; see their website for a directory of members.