Here’s my guide to Bangkok’s best shopping, by category:
Oh my, let me see. Antiques in Thailand are fake, very expensive and/or illegal to export. The best places for serious stuff (and reputable dealers) are River City Mall and OP Place. Auctions are held regularly at River City. There is an antiques section of the Chatuchak Market, but frankly, it’s filled with fakes.
BATH & BEAUTY
There are a number of Boots in Bangkok although not nearly as many as in the UK. I use this particular Boots because it is across the street from the InterContinental Hotel and near Erawan and the Center of my Shopping Universe. They do sell the skin cream everyone is crazy about (Boots No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum) as well as their own line of locally made spa products. I love the scent of jasmine and discovered a local line named Sabai-Arom which reminds me of nights in the souks of North Africa. It’s available in hand and body lotions, bath gel and more.
Harnn & Thann, Siam Paragon, Central World Plaza and others; Skytrain: Chidlom for Central World Plaza; Siam for Siam Paragon
This range of spa and well-being products made from rice oils is now sold around the world and in this snazzy boutique. The products are excellent, even if you have to pay about $3 for a small, oval bar of soap and $20 for a gift kit of products in rattan. Travel sizes are sold from the airport branches for $3 each. The oriental shampoo is a big hit in my shower.
AsiaBooks, Ploenchit Road among others; Skytrain: Chidlom
This is a chain of bookstores with a branch in every major trading area. They are bright and easy to use; books are in various languages—there’s a good selection of guides and tomes about Thailand. This is a good place to go if you want to grab a map or a guidebook. There’s a branch in almost every mall and department store in town.
What becomes an opium dealer most? Government programs that move growers away from poppies and into the arts. Doi Tung is a foundation in Chiang Rai that has re-patriated (so to speak) opium growers into craftsmen and has opened a network of stores. The wares are often of rough woven, northern hill tribe nubby slubby style, but are totally stunning, like what you’d expect to buy at a crafts fair. Prices begin at $10; jackets are about $140. Their motto is ‘from the hands of the hills’ which I find very cute and smart and clever and even a little ironic since these are the same hands that once used these same hills for the poppy trade.
Narai Phand, Skytrain: Chidlom
Essentially, this is some sort of co-op that is like a department store with a healthy dose of TT (tourist trap) thrown in. It sells Thai crafts and even has a jewelry (as in serious jewelry) department. While the main thrust of the crafts department store is basic—think Friendship Stores goes Thai—there are also many of the items you’ll find at the weekend market, without the headaches. It’s even air conditioned. This is a good place to buy silk elephants and souvenirs.
Thai Home Industries, 35 Soi Burapha (Oriental Lane), Charoen Krung Rd. Skytrain: Saphan Taksin
You’ll find good quality temple bells, cutlery (bronze and stainless steel), and baskets here. This is the kind of place I like: dumpy. But I confess it was not very impressive when I visited. In fact, it was dark, a little smelly and somewhat creepy. But if you are staying at the Oriental Hotel or exploring the shopping district around there, you will pass automatically and might want to stop in.
Central, 1027 Ploenchit Road; Skytrain: Chidlom
This is basically the Macy’s of town, with the notion of serving both the local community and tourists. They do VAT refunds; there are various services for foreigners and you can get there easily on the skytrain. The store is large, about 70,000 square feet and is totally inclusive; there’s even a good supermarket. Open 10am-9:30pm
Emporium, 622 Sukhumvit Road; Skytrain: Phrom Phong
Excellent department store with many European designers, often sizes to fit western bodies, a supermarket, a good crafts department, nice cafes and a Neiman-Marcus kind of environment. Can easily be one-stop shopping, although there is nothing funky or Thai or foreign about it. Open 10-am-9pm.
Paragon, Siam Paragon Mall; Skytrain: Siam
This department store (which is the anchor store to the famed Siam Paragon Mall) may look ho-hum as you approach it in the mall, but it is better than Bloomingdales and a lot of fun thrown in. I am particularly fond of the crafts department and the adjacent office and school supplies. The fourth floor has a very good homestyle selection; I bought a set of flatware with faux bamboo handles that is the envy of all my dinner guests in California.
Playground, Soi Sukhumvit 55; Skytrain: Thong Lor
Playground! Is a specialty store, a department store or a concept store—three full floors of stuff to insure you know that you are cool. It is not in my Center of the Shopping Universe but is worth seeing, especially academically. The largest magazine selection in town is here; you can eat or just stare at everyone while you shop for novelty items and gifts. Yes there’s a Starbucks and of course you can bring your iPad. Fashion meets art meets gallery space meets furniture and design showroom. You might not buy a thing, but your vision of Thailand will be forever changed.
This store is in an area called Thonglor where there are other hot stores,restaurants, clubs and innovative goings on. Nearby is H1, a similar concept store but more oriented toward home and design.
I’m not big on fake merchandise but for heaven’s sake, if you are going to do it—get a decent fake. I have not seen impressive fakes—better than what you find on the streets of any big US city, or similar quality but not good enough to pass. My advice: forget it.
If you want to find out for yourself, head to the night market at the edge of the Sex District, Patpong. There are some so-so Birkin style bags in nice enough stores in Silom Village and River City. I like Hong Kong for these, but you can look.
As an author with copyright pride, I have trouble suggesting that you buy illegal DVD’s. On the other hand, as a consumer and Global Shopper, I know you need to know. Especially since the crack-down in China, DVDs from Thailand are easier to buy and export—provided you don’t buy too many. The going rate is 100baht (about $3) per DVD. The new release movies will have been recorded from inside a movie theatre and not of the best quality. You may even see some heads from the audience, but you will not smell the popcorn. DVD’s are in Thai and English. Subtitles are in anglo-gibberish.
I have never been the kind of person who related to or understood people who collect animals, be they frogs or horses or, well, elephants. Then I made my first trip to Bangkok and can only say, it’s one of those things that touches you inside your soul—you have to be there to become obsessed with elephants. Elephants exist in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology—the elephant head Ganesha is the god of arts and learning. If you read John Burdett, you will learn that elephants in Bangkok must wear tail-lights in traffic at night. (Could I make this up?)
You will find elephants in all sorts of merchandise, from fridge magnets to plush toys to notecards and decorations on fabrics and clothes. I am most fond of the small sized, colored silk elephants, sold everywhere in a multitude of colors. Prices on these elephants vary enormously depending on the going rate in the TT of your choice; I have found the least expensive are sold at the airport. Jim Thompson sells a plush toy elephant that I use as a travel pillow and give as a baby gift.
JEWELRY & GEM STONES
Bangkok is famous for good buys in jewelry and while there are a large number of jewelry stores and showrooms, I had a frightening experience which has convinced me that you do not want to buy important jewelry in Bangkok unless you really know what you are doing or who you are buying from. There’s a much better buy in inexpensive jewelry and ethnic pieces.
At The Peninsula one day, a friend fell in love with a diamond and sapphire ring that she knew she could not live without. The asking price was $1500 which she did not think unfair; it was just too much to spend. She mentioned to the then-GM of the hotel that she was in love with the ring and the GM urged her to bargain like a madwoman. This is surprising as who would think one could do this in a fancy store, let alone in a fancy hotel. Bottom line: the ring is hers. Cost: $750.
Lotus Arts de Vivre, assorted locations
This is a small jewelry and accessories firm that follows the Vedura School of design and makes everything from rolling pearl rings to jeweled bangles to fancy handbags. Each piece is truly a work of art. Think ebony bangles with pave diamond frog heads. Considering what it is, the prices are not that bad—things get going around $1,000 and go up, up and away.
The Kabul brothers own several shops, all located within a couple of blocks on Charoen Krung road just off the soi leading to the Oriental Hotel. I first visited on the recommendation of the head chef at the Pen (he had a stunning necklace made for his wife) and have been going back for years. The Kabuls sell loose and strung beads just waiting to be made into jewelry and also have ready-made necklaces which can be yours for about $10 - $40 apiece. You can design your own, and of course, the more you buy, the better the price.
Anita Silk, Siam Paragon, 4th Floor; skytrain Siam, and Silom Road, just outside of Silom Village
This store specializes in upmarket silk smalls – accessories – and silk by the bolt. Their best item is the silk flower pin, but there are all sorts of zip bags for the handbag and assorted gift items, table top and decorative touches. Items are $10-50.
Jim Thompson, 9 Surawong Road
Jim Thompson is responsible for reviving the silk industry in Thailand and has created what became a design empire. Indeed, what makes Jim Thompson work is that the basic silks are re-created in a fashion vein and have become a lifestyle brand. Note that many items can be bought from other sources without the Thompson logo for less money. Most items are so unique that they are worth the big bucks, or the moderate bucks depending on your choices. There’s everything from the usual silk suspects—ties, elephants, scarves—to home style, note cards, handbags and totes. The average price for a tote is $100-125.
There are a handful of stores dotted around Bangkok, there are even two stores in some malls—usually divided between home and regular. The best store by far is the flagship on Surawong Road which has several floors of stuff plus a nice café. The outlet store which used to be down the street from the flagship just closed, and all merchandise was transferred to the larger outlet store on Sukhumvit Soi 93. If you’re looking for upholstery fabric, don’t miss this! I bought 18 meters (almost 20 yards) of dense chenille for $320. The sales team wrapped and taped it up in a sturdy box to checked as a piece of luggage on my return EVA flight. That fabric will cover two chairs in my home, and would be priced close to $2000 in the designer showrooms in San Francisco.
Insider’s tip: Jim Thompson’s house is a museum with a tour, gardens, café, book store and small store. The store here is OK, but nothing to write home about. You can get to the house by skytrain (National Stadium station) or walk from the Siam station, although this is a walk frought with lousy concrete and sickly sidewalks.
MALLS & MARKETS
Asiatique On the Chao Praya River; Take the free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin skytrain pier
For many years, Bangkok had a fabulous night market called Suan Lum, located near Lumphini Park. It was possibly the best night market anywhere in the world but alas, good things come to an end and it was torn down to make way for condos and other necessary buildings.
The new Asiatique, which has been billed as a replacement “only better” doesn’t even compete in my eye. There may be a few vendors who made the move, but for the most part, Asiatique is a very commercial enterprise catering to the teen, tween and twenty-crowd. The stalls sell inexpensive clothing and accessories in Barbie-doll sizes and the music in the restaurants is so loud, you can’t hear your pizza sizzle. Don’t stop by on my account (unless you want to ride the gigantic ferris wheel).
Central World Plaza, Ratchadamri Road; Skytrain: Chidlom
This is my favorite mall and I am not much of a mall person. I come here almost once a day when I’m in town. There are tiny boutique stalls of up and coming designers, there’s a good Jim Thompson, there are assorted western stores and brands and even a row of local health and beauty brands. There’s a branch of Marks & Spencer if you need western fit; also a new Yacco Maricard boutique, a Japanese designer whom I adore.
Chatuchak; Skytrain: Mo Chit
Mix 35 acres of stalls with a throng of 250,000 people and you get this weekend only market that sells, well, everything. There is an organization to the market; you can buy a map that tells you where everything is (better yet – ask your hotel concierge for one). Essentially the market is overwhelming: hot, crowded and very confusing. Still, where can you buy 10 squeaky toys for your dog for $3? Who cares if you can’t find the antiques area?
MBK ( Mah Boon Krong), 444 Phayathai Road at Rama I; Skytrain: Siam
My mother said that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it, but my mother did not write guidebooks. Although MBK is a famous mall-stall sort of shopping space that gets a lot of ink, I think it is disgusting and hate that you might waste precious time here. But okay, you came for information. This mall/market is geared toward kids and teens and is for people who like mobs of people, KFC and phones that bleep in the night.
Pantip Plaza; Skytrain Ratchadamri
The local computer and electronics market right off Sukhumvit and convenient to much. Geeks go wild here. You can buy everything; let’s not talk about illegal DVDs.
River City; Skytrain: none nearby
Mall that specializes in upscale antiques stores and some art galleries. This is on the river (duh) and near the Sheraton.
Siam Paragon, 991 Rama I Road; Skytrain: Siam
Fancy mall with tons of western brands and really upmarket names, such as Armani and Louis Vuitton. Several of the luxury hotels have cafes here; the food court is one of the wonders of the world. The fourth floor is devoted to Thai entrepreneurs. This is a must-see, must-do part of the mall. At the far side of the complex is a multiplex movie theatre. The anchoring department store is named Paragon and it is very good. Note that if you hate to shop (ha), there is Siam Ocean World, which is actually quite spectacular. Hours: Mon-Sun 10am-10pm; ground floor restaurants open until 11pm.
Silom Village; 286 Silom Road; Skytrain: Surasak
This tiny mall village is a mix of cute shops, some sources for fake designer handbags, antiques, silks and souvenirs. There’s also a good nail salon where you can get a midday mani/pedi special deal for 400 baht (about $13)
Okay so you remember Jim Thompson, all the silk worms and the fact that Thailand is famous for its silks, right? Silk worms eat mulberry leaves. Therefore there is a large craft industry in mulberry papers and paper goods; don’t miss the large selection at assorted stalls in Chatachak Market. The paper is also available in a cute boutique in Silom Village and at Paragon Department Store.
Glow little silk worm glimmer, glimmer…I don’t want to bore you with the fifth grade version of how silk got from the worm to the bathrobe, but please understand that all silk is not created equally. Thai silk is known as a thicker and often nubbier silk, often best demonstrated in plaids or sheens created from a different warp and weft. Although tensile strength is one of the properties of silk, silk from Vietnam is decidedly thinner, less strong and less long-lasting (also less expensive) than Thai silk. You can easily spot the difference. (Most Vietnam silks have a jacquard pattern in them and feel light and thin to the touch; they fray easily.)
The most famous purveyor of silk is, of course, Jim Thompson – which is also one of the most expensive sources in town. Almeta is considered an insider’s source-- the product is custom woven to your specifications; Sukhumvit Soi 23. For silk accessories including Chanel-like camellia flower pins, check out Anita Silk in the Siam Paragon mall, 4th Fl, or on Silom Road.
My experience in the search for local tailors to recommend was ugly, and this adventure, plus the fact that I have the world’s best tailor in Hong Kong, has lead this section to be brief. Note that the tourist and rip-off tailor I was sent to was suggested by the shopping service of one of the world’s most famous hotels…uuuurrrgh.
Cotton House, OP Place; Skytrain: Saphan Taksin
This is the only tailor I have personally tested. I got this source from a neighbor in California and had a wonderful experience—a truly stunning navy linen blazer was mine for the price of two fittings and $100. This tailoring house specializes in women’s clothing, which is much harder to make than men’s. It’s equally difficult to fit a western body. There is a good tailor for men next door.