Bangkok is the commercial centre of Thailand and has by far the greatest range of shopping options in the country. Whether it’s souvenirs and handicrafts you’re after, or perhaps fine Thai silk, a perfectly tailored suit, or some of Asia’s best quality gems and jewellery, all can be found in abundance in Bangkok.
Bangkok isn’t all about shopping for premium goods, though, there are also a large number of markets and street stalls that sell imitation designer goods, clothing and music at knock-down prices. These bustling sites also offer products of a more legitimate variety, and can be great for honing your haggling skills to source some real bargains.
You can shop virtually 24 hours a day in Bangkok, as the city has many night markets, some of which are located near popular bar and restaurant strips. Visitors can even fit in a spot of post-dinner shopping before they move on to Bangkok’s evening entertainment establishments.
To help you pick your way through the seemingly endless array of options, here’s a glossary of shopping in Bangkok and where to find goods:
Thai antiques are steeped in a colourful and rich history, as well as being beautiful to look at and often valuable. Bangkok is a great place to pick up some of these treasures, particularly the River City Complex by the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel and at Gaysorn. Paul’s Antiques, located on Sukhumvit Soi 13 (Nana BTS station) is also recommended. Most of the items available are Buddhist art style, and most of what you see is reproductions. They look just like the real deal, but are much more affordable. True antique hunters should seek our reputable antique dealers.
Although there are bookshops all over Bangkok, many sell Thai publications only. If you want to find English language books and magazines, head for Siam Discovery Centre or Siam Paragon, where branches of Asia Books and Kinokuniya can be found. Both of these places are close to Siam Skytrain Station. Another branch of Asia Books can be found in the Emporium Centre on Sukhumwit Road, or you could try the Landmark Hotel on Sukhumvit Road. There are also numerous second-hand bookshops located in most tourist areas, especially along Khao San Road. You can trade-in old books here, but don’t expect to get much cash for them. Although the books aren’t particularly cheap, the range is good.
Bangkok is a great place for stocking up on film, memory cards and batteries. Convenience stores on every street sell these types of items, but if you want to get some more serious equipment, you’re best off heading to Pantip Plaza or Fortune Town, where you’ll be spoilt for choice. There are also specialist camera shops, such as Bask, and others in MBK Mall at Siam Square. Prices are good but not as cheap as in other places in Asia, such as Singapore. Digital cameras are all the rage in Thailand and every department store or electronics retailer has a good selection, which are likely to be cheaper than in Europe or the US.
CDS & DVDs
Although Thailand is well known for turning a blind eye to vendors selling copied CDs and DVDs, this is changing due, in part, to a high-profile campaign in late 2009 to stamp out the practice and pirated software. Although we don’t condone the practice, you will probably still notice street side stalls in tourist areas selling CDs and DVDs (often out of a catalogue, meaning they are copied). Khao San Road is one notorious area, but expect these stalls to be conspicuously absent if a police raid has recently taken place. However, step into a legitimate music shop and you’ll discover international artists and titles on sale at local prices (CD US$5; DVDs $8), though the selection is very mainstream and limited.
You will soon become familiar with the many slogan’d t-shirts that seem to be the vogue among tourists in Bangkok, often bearing an amusing phrase or a company logo either in Thai script or doctored to make a statement of some kind. These can be found everywhere, along with football shirts and other cheap souvenir-type clothing items. Designer clothes can also be found, as well as more practical items such as bikinis, shoes and shorts. Clothing is the dominant product among street vendors and night markets, including the popular Chatuchak Weekend Market where brand knock-offs and casual wear can be had at low prices. Since many of the original quality, brand garments are made locally they can also be bought at half the international price from local stores, such as Robinsons Gaysorn and in other malls.
Asia is famous for its cheap electronics goods, and whereas Thailand isn’t the cheapest place in the region, there are many bargains to be found due to the sheer volume of goods on sale. The city’s big IT malls, like Pantip Plaza on Petchaburi Road and Fortune Town on Rachada, are the bees-knees. These places have dozens of shops clamouring for space and the competition can drive prices right down, unearthing the occasional bargain. But for something as large and expensive as a laptop, expect prices to be only marginally less than back home. However, desktops and other hardware are excellent value since they are manufactured locally.
Thai people are very fashion conscious, and most Thais like to dress smartly and stylishly. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to find that there are plenty of designer outlets in Bangkok. Those searching for designer-wear should try Gaysorn Plaza (by Chitlom BTS Station), the Emporium (by Phrom Phong BTS Station) or the gigantic Siam Paragon at Siam BTS Station.
Tax-free shopping is offered at Suvarnabhumi Airport, but due to a severe lack of transparency by the AOT, King Power is the only company permitted to retail duty free goods here and the prices aren’t competitive at all, even if they are tax-free. Despite offering a vast retail space, the selection isn’t extensive either and only the alcohol and cigarettes are fair value for money.
If you’ve taken a Thai cooking course and want to take back some of the ingredients with you, or are looking for the customary gift of small food items to take to a Thai home, you should have no problem acquiring these items in Bangkok. As there are food markets everywhere, it’s unnecessary to offer directions to any in particular. Those wanting a glimpse into village life from Bangkok can take a stroll down Petchaburi Road Soi 5, however, to see all the weird and wonderful market produce for sale. For gourmet items, the Siam Paragon Gourmet Food Market is extensive. Please note that you cannot take fruit or vegetables out of Thailand; only tinned, packaged or preserved goods.
Computer and IT buffs will be in their element in Bangkok as there are two large IT malls, namely Fortune Town (on Rachadapisek Road) and Panthip Plaza (on Petchaburi Road). These large malls are stacked with gadgets, software, hardware, cameras, as well as plenty of DVDs, software and games.
Along with silk are some of Thailand’s best known and most highly valued products. However, a price tag accompanies most jewellery items and visitors should shop around carefully before parting with their hard-earned cash. Gem scams are fairly common in Bangkok, and unsuspecting tourists can be duped into buying fake or very low quality gems, believing them to be a special not-to-be-missed offer. Only make purchases from a licensed gem shop and avoid those who accost you on street corners to buy their wares.
One of the biggest outlets is Gemopolis in Bang Na, while good selections can be found at Benetone on Sukhumvit Road and the Gaysorn Plaza. There is also a whole floor of MBK dedicated to gold, silver and gems. Real experts head for the smaller shops around the Silom Road area, but you have to be ‘in the know’ to make a good purchase here.
A wide range of attractive, yet affordable, handicraft items can be found in Chatuchak Weekend Market (open Saturdays and Sundays only) at very reasonable prices. The 6th floor of MBK is also a good place to pick up some souvenirs, although they are a bit more expensive here. Many smaller shops are scattered around Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road and Khao San Road, although you need to be a good barterer. The Suan Lum Night Bazaar by Lumpini Park is more in the Chatuchak price range, is a good place to shop and has attached beer gardens and food courts. If you are heading for Chiang Mai, save your souvenir and handicraft shopping until you get there.
Mobile Phones & SIM Cards
If you’re travelling around Thailand, it’s a good idea to get yourself connected to the Thai mobile networks as you can save a great deal of cash by doing this instead of roaming internationally from your home network, or by resorting to payphones (which aren’t always available). A Thai SIM card can be purchased at the airport on the AIS network for 800 Baht (including 800 Baht of free credit, making this a very good deal), and they also offer the phones themselves for very reasonable prices. There are many shops around town where mobile phones and phone accessories can be bought, especially in MBK, where the whole 4th floor sells little else. Phones are cheap, and there is a large second-hand market in Bangkok.
If you’re after something a bit unusual to take home as a souvenir, then head for some of the more ‘funky’ stalls in the Chatuchak Weekend Market. All kinds of fun, novelty items can be purchased here, including dancing flowers, ‘splattering’ rubber tomatoes, slithering snakes and many other weird and wonderful items.
If you’re setting up home here for a while and you want to decorate your apartment, Chatuchak Market offers numerous shops selling plants, too. However, these cannot be taken out of the country.
It would be a shame to leave Thailand without picking up some of its most famous product, Thai silk. The market leaders in silk are Jim Thompson and the Shinawatra Company, both of which have numerous outlets throughout the city. For more information on silk, please read our Silk article. Silk is also widely sold by street vendors, although make sure you are not buying the cheaper ‘Chinese silk’, which is synthetic and not a patch on genuine Thai silk.
Shoes are generally excellent value in Thailand, since many companies, like Ecco and other well known brands, are made here. Unfortunately, only the savviest of shops and department stores in tourist areas bother to stock any sizes big enough for big Westerner feet.
Both fakes and the real deal can be bought in Bangkok. We recommend that you buy the genuine article if you’re going to be spending a long time in the sun, as fakes do not provide adequate eye protection. For knock-offs, head for Patpong Night Market or Khao San Road, while for the real thing try any one of the many opticians around the city – especially those situated on the corner of Petchaburi Road and Phaya Thai Road (by Ratchathewi BTS station), or MBK. All are imported and come at standard pricing, though.
Pratunam Market offers some very good deals, with whole shops selling bikinis at knockdown prices. MBK should also be able to help you out, and if you’re staying on Khao San Road there are a few small shops along there that sell swimwear. Thai women are modest, so don’t expect to find G-strings or revealing two-pieces in shops not specifically catering to foreigners.
In Bangkok you’re in a perfect position to take home a beautifully-tailored suit made from top quality materials, and for a fraction of the cost back home. Tailors can be found everywhere that tourists are at and the chances are there’ll be one in your hotel if you’re staying in a mid- to high-end establishment. It’s difficult to recommend one above another as fierce competition drives standards and prices up and down, but one we can recommend on Sukhumvit Soi 11 (near the Nana BTS) is Narry, which has a long-standing international reputation. Many more are found in this area and they are perhaps cheaper than those in the hotels and usually offer a uniform package for a similar price, so you need to closely inspect the quality of their finished items to be sure. These tailors can copy any brand name garment, but sometimes the measurements aren’t always what you expected.
Shopping for toys in Bangkok is a must if you have children, since they are so cheap here. Most are made in China and are considerably cheaper than back home, although, consequently, they are fast at falling to bits. The big department stores, such as Robinsons, Central and others in malls, have a dizzying selection that will send the kids wild with excitement. Cheaper, but lower quality, items are sold at Chatuchak Market and by vendors at street side stalls.
Some time during your stay in Bangkok you will probably be approached by a street hawker shoving handfuls of watches in your face, encouraging you to buy these cheap fake goods. By all means have a look, but don’t be surprised if a watch you buy from these guys breaks within days! For the real thing, many high quality designer watches can be bought at specialty shops in Gaysorn or the Emporium.
Wines & Spirits
Thai wine is still in its infancy and there aren’t many that can compete on the world market. Picking up a decent bottle would make a nice souvenir though; just don’t expect to be bowled over when you uncork it! The very knowledgeable staff at Siam Paragon’s wine cellar should be able to help you. Note: although wine is becoming more popular, it is very expensive as it’s heavily taxed.