Gems, silks, and greeting cards: Thailand is a shoppers’ mecca.
Among Thailand’s many charms are some great shopping opportunities. Here are some items we’ve found particularly worthwhile, either for personal use, or as gifts.
Jewelry and gemstones: Emeralds, rubies, and sapphires are mined in Southeast Asia, and you can find good buys for both individual gemstones, and for jewelry. However, there are lots of scams out there. Shop only at a reputable establishment, not at the jewelry shop your tuk-tuk driver suggests. (He gets a commission.) A good hotel, or government tourism office, can make recommendations.
Silk bathrobes: They’re cheap, they’re pretty, and they make great gifts. Got an office full of co-workers who expect a souvenir? This is the ticket.
Cotton lounge pants: Extremely thin cotton pants with decorative designs — elephants are popular — can be found in Chiang Mai and other markets. They’re great for wearing around the house or pool, and are also suitable as gifts.
Placemats: Made from cotton, silk, or bamboo, Thai placemats are an enjoyable, and easy-to-pack, way to remember your Thai vacation.
Handmade greeting cards: From time to time, you’ll spot handmade greeting cards at various street markets. They are true handicrafts, and styles vary enormously. If you see some that you like, get a stack. They’re less expensive, and far more interesting, than anything you’ll find at home, and they’re easy to pack.
Furniture: Beautiful hand-carved teak and rosewood furniture can be bought in Chiang Mai and elsewhere in Thailand. This no longer falls into the “easy to pack” category, but most stores will arrange shipping, and even with that cost, it’s still likely to be a good value. If you’re looking for distinctive new coffee table, bed, or anything else, hold off on your purchase until you see what’s available here.
Lacquerware: Strips of bamboo are woven and polished into plates, bowls, and other items, then hand-painted in bright colors, commonly against a black background.
Silverware: Whether made of silver, bronze, or pewter, this can be a good value. You’ll probably want to purchase it toward the end of your trip, or arrange to have it shipped.
Exercise judgement about certain items:
Buddhas: Statues of the Buddha are considered religious items, and officially, an export license is required. In reality, the size and age of the statue also come into play: The law is more often applied to larger and older statues than to small, new, mass-produced items made for tourists. If you do take a Buddha out of Thailand, treat it with respect. Pack it in luggage amongst your shirts, not with socks and underwear.
Antiquities: Thai law clearly prohibits the export of antiquities without an export license, but is less clear about what qualifies as an “antiquity”. If in doubt, apply for the license, or risk having the item confiscated when you leave the country. A reputable dealer can help you with the licensing process.
Low-priced designer items: Counterfeits are common. Did you really expect to get a Rolex watch for $25?
And don’t even think about:
Drugs: Yes, you can get some good deals on drugs in Thailand. (Or in the USA, if you know where to look.) Thailand has strict anti-drug laws, and purchasing drugs here can get you a long prison sentence, as well as supporting an underground economy wreaks havoc in developing countries. Beware, as well: Drug dealers have been known to make a double profit, first on the sale of the drug, then by reporting the buyer to the police.
Thailand’s markets have great bargains — and they can get better.
In the U.S., stores post their prices and you pay that price, otherwise you don’t get the item. (Or you shoplift, but that’s a different web page.) That system makes sense here in the U.S.: It would never work for a $6.00-an-hour clerk to have the authority to lower prices at whim.
In Thailand’s markets, you’re often buying right from the owner of the goods, an entrepreneurial merchant with a rental stall. Bargaining is expected, and the merchant is eager to close a sale while still making money.
This bargaining process may intimidate first-time visitors, with memories of haggling over prices with a used-car dealer and coming away feeling burned. No worries. Here’s what to do.
First, figure out if bargaining is appropriate here:
In an open-air market, with no prices posted, you bargain. In a department store with marked prices, you do not.
If you’re dealing with the owner, it’s probably appropriate to bargain. If you’re dealing with a salaried clerk, it’s probably not appropriate.
It should be worth everyone’s while. Farangs (westerners) have been known to try to bargain over the price of a 10-baht (25-cent) bottle of water. That’s bad form.
When in doubt, merely note what others are doing.
Once you’ve determined that bargaining is expected, you need a sense of how much you can expect to drive down the price. Make a counter-offer too low, and you look bad. Too high, and you’ll pay more than you need to.
Typically, at an outdoor market you can expect to get the price down by 10-30%. However, if you’ve been pegged as a rich farang, a merchant might have raised the price by a factor of 2 or 3. Don’t buy the first thing you see. Look around. Get prices from a few merchants. You’ll soon get a sense of what’s reasonable.
Some other tips:
You’ll do better if you learn the Thai language for the numbers needed to name a price.
If you don’t know Thai numbers, be alert to one potential confusion: The Thai-accented pronunciations of twenty and seventy — tsventy — are easily mistaken.
It’s never appropriate to get overly emotional about bargaining, nor to insult the merchandise or seller.
Don’t let it become a point of pride to get the lowest possible price. This is business; perhaps it’s a game; it’s certainly not a war.
If you make an offer and the merchant accepts it, the unwritten rules require that you make the purchase at that price. Same as Priceline.com — but Thailand had the system first.