From low-rent to labels

Belinda Jackson finds no time for second thoughts on the busy streets of the Thai capital.

Markets, department stores, street corners, entire suburbs of shops - Bangkok talks up its reputation as a shopping mecca. But is it all just puff?

Take a squiz around the airport arrivals hall at the number of visitors arriving with enormous, empty suitcases and there's your question answered.

Before you leap into the fray with a virginal credit card, plan your Bangkok bazaar to include a Saturday or Sunday so you can visit the massive Chatuchak market.

Avoid peak hours from 7.30 to 9am and 5 to 7pm, though Bangkok's notorious traffic is always bad. Tuk-tuks are often the better bet, as the little motorised carts weave in and out of the traffic where taxis can't go - though you need some idea of prices as they are unmetered and drivers can be unscrupulous.

The solution at our hotel, the Conrad Bangkok, is the new, black and very, very shiny Easy Rider mopeds. We climbed on board and powered off into the city streets, complete with little Conrad flag fluttering behind us.

The hotel's cheery concierge, Jack, helped us plan our assault on the city's streets and also shared his hot shopping tips: Food Loft above CentralWorld for great city views and brilliant budget food; Chinatown for gold, gold and more gold; and, in a city pumping with tailors, he plumped for Embassy Fashion (, a place that thought nothing of whipping up a bespoke suit and shirt in three days, complete with two fittings.


Chatuchak Weekend Market, possibly the biggest flea market in South-East Asia, is pure budget overload. There is method to the madness: the 10,000 stalls are split into 26 sections and each soi (street) is numbered, so grab a map and find your groove, from the large second-hand clothing section (think Levis and far too many Che Guevara and Bob Marley T-shirts) to silk sellers, jewellery, handbags and a pet section with fluffy dogs and weird reptiles.


There are food stands throughout and cafes serving strong iced coffee. The markets are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays and the fastest and cheapest way to get there is by Skytrain (BTS).

The night bazaar of Suan Lum, set in Lumpini Park, is a one-stop shop with a massive open-air food hall where you're serenaded by Thai-singing popettes - but expect to pay prices well above most other markets and the choices are limited.

The location makes it a good night out for those staying in Sukhumvit or Silom but its days may be limited as redevelopment is planned.

Are you surrounded by deep-fried insects, buckets of beer and frog noisemakers pushed upon you by Thai hill-tribe touts? You must be in Khao Sarn Road, Bangkok's (and quite possibly all of Asia's) beating backpacker heart.

We found this season's beach fashions on the streets at prices not too dissimilar to that of other markets and the sellers are, like, totally over it, so you're saved the hard sell. Pirate DVDs and CDs are freshly burnt in a nearby back alleyway while you wait. Best to go when the sun goes down and the party warms up.

And finally, the notorious Patpong Night Markets are in the seediest part of town. The grunge is real but all the designer watches, luggage and sunnies are as fake as spray-on tan. The stalls share the broken footpaths with drunks, lechers and pimps for steamy girlie shows - expect to see punters in raunchy ping-pong clubs brandishing faux Louis Vuitton carry-alls. These places are hugely overpriced - the sellers are punting on your intoxication and newness to the city to make their living.

Department stores

The strip between the Skytrain stops of Siam Chit and Ploen Chit on Sukhumvit Road is the hub of Bangkok's department stores, from low-rent to labels.

Most have discount cards for tourists - ask for yours at the main information desk.

It's loud, it's slightly tacky, it pumps from 10am to 10pm - what's not to love about MBK? This massive department store is five levels of power; new and used mobile phones and electronic gadgetry cover one level alone, discount sparkly heels at $10 are commonplace and a great little beautician, Nice Face, on the fifth level, does a pumping trade in express pedicures and facials from about $6. Fotofile, a camera shop on the ground floor, sells bargain lenses, while the knock-down cosmetics on level four are worth careful scrutiny.

We loved the fact the elite Erawan department store, which boasts such labels as Burberry and the US leather brand Coach, has its feet well and truly grounded by the Erawan temple and shrine at its entrance. Temple dancers perform and devotees leave offerings of food and fruit to the shrine while the beautiful people push past to get into the designer galleries. Linked by overhead walkways, you can skip directly across to the equally chic Gaysorn for more labels, including Gucci, Pucci, Prada and friends. Expect your Rolex to be noted for the fake that it is.

CentralWorld is another great stop on this strip - in particular, the hip Zen store-within-a-store that includes a strip of small, independent Thai fashion designers such as the girly Living Doll and Pretty Little Things. The popular Thai skincare brand, Thann, is also here, as is its aromatherapy sister, Harnn. CentralWorld is linked to its sister property, Central Chidlom, by overhead walkways through the Chidlom BTS station.

Much lower down the food chain is Platinum Fashion Mall, on the corner of Ratchadamri Road. Be still, beating heart, this is bargain central. There are two prices, the retail price (if you're buying one or two pieces) or the wholesale price, at nearly half the price, if you buy more than three pieces at a time. Few shops will let you try stuff on before buying. Check out the great costume jewellery at Loom for about $1. Beware, the mall closes about 6.30pm.

Don't be in such a rush that you miss the street stalls on Ratchadamri Road - we saw cut-price knits bearing Zara and H&M labels for about $9 and Chanel, Bobbi Brown and Mac compacts, lipstick and eyeshadow sets from about $2. Stallholders say, cryptically, they come from Korea ... we're not sure what that means, either. Also up this end of town is "Geek Nirvana", aka Pantip Plaza, on Petchaburi Road, open 10am-8.30pm daily. It's an IT hypermarket with the cheapest dodgy software as well as computer gear, MP3 players and anything powered by a USB cord.

Speciality shopping

Jim Thompson is one of Thailand's top silk retailers , with outlets across the city - and now in Melbourne.

It's not cheap but the quality is unsurpassed. Check the beautifully boxed silk ties and more at

Doitung is the Mae Fah Luang (the Princess Mother) fair-trade project that sells silk works produced by the country's impoverished hill tribes.

There are shops at Siam Square shopping mall, near and in Suan Lum night market. See for more locations.

Also in on the act is HRH Princess Maha, whose Phufa shops aim to create self-sustaining communities through their production of fabrics, food and handicrafts.

There's one at the entrance of Chatuchak markets. For other locations of Phufa, see

The fifth floor at Central Chidlom has a comprehensive Thai local products section including Panpuri teas, Erb spa products, high-grade woven silk products and items from the Doitung range.

The writer was a guest of Conrad Hotel, Bangkok.


Getting there

Airlines flying direct to Bangkok include Thai Airways and Jetstar.

Staying there

The Conrad Bangkok, 87 Wireless Road, is close to the action. From $230 a night, its executive-level rooms (including full access to its executive and cigar lounge with daily cocktails) are $350 a night. See

Getting around

Bangkok is serviced by an underground rail line (MRT) and the Skytrain (BTS), taxis are cheap and plentiful (check the meter is on), while tuk-tuks are fun but require negotiation on the price. Taxis turn off their meters and prices double in peak hours.

Further information

Shopping hours are long, with many stores open from 10am-10pm and night markets even later. The big department stores open on Sundays.