BANGKOK, Thailand — The devils of Bangkok come in many forms: food, flesh and flash. But mostly, the devils are fiscal. Of all the cities in Asia, Bangkok is the most dangerous for the compulsive shopper.
Bangkok's stores offer more variety, better values and more temptation than Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo or Taipei, all more renowned centers for Americans intent on spending their strong dollar.
In Bangkok, for example, you can get an antique Burmese puppet, which costs several hundred dollars in America, for about $40. You can buy lavish beaded dresses that retail at home for about $600 for $200, silk fabric by the yard for a fifth of what you would pay in the United States, and jewels--particularly sapphires and rubies--for a fraction of their cost in America.
And, best of all, with a few exceptions, goods manufactured in Thailand are duty free. So you can spend to your limit without worrying about having to ante up another 10% or so when you arrive back home and go through customs.
First on Your List
If you are planning a swing through Asia, and if you are serious about shopping, Bangkok should be the first on your list. It offers a chance to buy some of the world's most exotic goods, often at unbelievable prices.
Sometimes, alas, prices are unbelievable because the goods are fakes. "Let the buyer beware" should be the watchword for any trip through the labyrinth of Bangkok stores. And, before you set out from the comfort of your air-conditioned hotel into the steamy air of Bangkok, some additional shopping tips:
--Before you leave home, price goods that you might like to buy. You might find that prices at home, particularly for electronic goods, are lower than those in Bangkok.
--Comparison shopping is most important. Many shops have identical or similar goods, and prices vary widely.
--Bargaining is a way of life in Bangkok in all but a few stores. If you bargain well you may get as much as 20% off the listed price. But don't bargain too much in tailor shops or you might regret it later. Tailors who have to cut costs too much might use cardboard for jacket linings, rather than horsehair or other suitable material. The result is that your suit will have more wrinkles than an elephant's ear after one cleaning.
--Try to shop only at stores displaying the Tourism Authority of Thailand emblem (a woman in a broad-brimmed lamp shade hat set against a light blue background). Stop at the Tourism Authority office on Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue for a copy of its official shopping guide that lists member stores. If you have a problem with a purchase the authority will investigate it and obtain a refund if possible.
--Be wary of any gem store (or factory) your driver may insist that you visit. He usually gets a cut of anything you buy there.
--Stores are likely to give you a better price if you use cash rather than a credit card.
--It is illegal to export old Buddha images from Thailand, and many other antiques require special export permits.
--Hotel shopping arcades are convenient, and prices are usually not any higher than those in shops outside main tourist areas. You can shop with confidence in the hotel arcades because hotel managers insist on the honesty of their tenants.
--Gems are one of the best buys in Thailand, particularly Thai sapphires and Burmese rubies, but be certain that you get a certificate of authenticity from the jeweler.
--Finally, don't try to fool U.S. Customs when you return home. Even though most goods from Thailand are duty free, it is wise to declare all goods on your person at the price you paid. Many store owners will volunteer to give you a false receipt for goods, showing a lower value than you paid. Customs officers, who see thousands of purchases every day, know the real value, so be honest.
Now that we have established a few ground rules, let me take you to some of my favorite shops and markets in Bangkok and tell you what you'll find.
Silk--There is no better store in Bangkok, indeed few better in the world, than the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Co. Thompson, an American, founded the modern Thai silk industry after World War II and is one of Thailand's most mysterious figures (he disappeared years ago while visiting a friend in Malaysia). The Thompson stores are Meccas for buyers who want to buy the finest hand-woven silk at bargain prices (a square yard of fine silk fabric is about $24, compared to $100 to $200 at home; a silk tie is $11).
Folk clothes--The hill tribes of Thailand make some beautiful clothes, elaborately decorated and beaded. You can buy dresses, shirts and vests, as well as striking silver belts and necklaces, at the Chitr Lada store on the Palace grounds.