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Thai buys

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Thailand has pulled out all the stops to make shopping an adventure, from the glitziest malls to the most rustic of night markets. By Jane Egginton


Bolts of silk, paper umbrellas in rainbow hues, gemstones and Buddha heads – anybody who has been to Thailand will have browsed the night markets for bargains. Now, even the most traditional markets are reinventing themselves, turning what used to be a case of simply browsing for knock-off designer wear and a tailor to hand-make a suit in a day into a whole new 'experience'.

 

Take Bangkok's Chatuchak Market, one of the largest in the world, where happy shoppers can browse a staggering 15,000 stalls selling everything from bargain-priced vintage clothes and collectible religious artifacts to genuine antiques and fighting fish. And for retail respite, they can now listen to the latest local DJs and tuck into the latest spicy offerings from bargain-priced street food vendors.

 

The newest addition to Chiang Mai's ever-changing and expanding night market is the Kalare Night Bazaar, which offers traditional street food and entertainment alongside slick, new stalls. Enjoy nightly performances of amateur dance, Northern Thai folk music and puppetry alongside shacks offering impromptu foot massages and delicious bowls of red chicken curry to take away. Pop into the highly entertaining Chaiya Studio, where you can dress up in traditional Thai costumes before being airbrushed to perfection and snapped for a unique souvenir photo.

 

Every island, village, town and city in Thailand has a fresh produce market, but many of them are expanding to offer much more. Chaweng market on Phuket, the biggest of the islands, is a classic example. In recent years it has grown to stretch the whole length of the beach road. Hand-carved sculptures and unique ornaments made from indigenous mango and coconut trees are on sale alongside stylish handbags. All created by local artisans, they are being snapped up by international visitors hungry for the 'next big thing'.

 

Rod Fai, or 'Train' Market, on a disused railway track in Bangkok, is a sprawling, eclectic flea market where shiny classic cars in mint condition stand next to vintage VW camper vans and piles of second-hand clothes and electronics. Cheap cocktails, sizzling barbecues and the ever-present aroma of fried noodles sustain browsers who roam the tangle of stalls for hours.

 

a new style of mall

 

Thailand's latest shopping invention cleverly combines two of the country's most appealing shopping experiences: the mall, or entertainment centre; and night bazaar. Asiatique, occupying the area of the country's first trading port on Bangkok's sparkling Chao Phraya River, now marked by the Bangkok Eye observation wheel, opened last year to much fanfare and manages to be both rooted in history and highly contemporary. It offers a nightly mix of live bands and buzzing restaurants, as well as some highly desirable boutiques, galleries and souvenir shops, including designers like Magnifique et Moi, floral dresses from which could be straight out of Paris or Milan.

 

Terminal 21 is the latest addition to Bangkok's mall scene. Designed like an airport departure hall, with each floor themed on a famous city, the concept is that shoppers can travel around the world without ever leaving the building. They are greeted by Vespas in Rome, double decker buses and red telephone boxes in London and an incredible variety of food stalls in a replica of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Free wi-fi and a spectacular 36-metre escalator to whizz visitors from floor to floor are just some of its very welcome, 21st-century features.

 

dressing up

 

For those who dread the dressing room, the recently re-launched Siam Center allows shy shoppers to enjoy interactive dressing-up televisions that show how clothes will look without customers having to face the throngs in the changing rooms.

 

Some interesting little shops have opened up in recent years on the islands, showcasing unique, high quality fashion and handcrafted jewellery. Don't miss Samui Hot Club on Ko Samui, which is a must for funky beachwear, with racks and racks of rainbow-coloured sarongs and bikinis. On Phuket, try the museum shop at Jim Thompson's House (an outpost of the main museum in Bangkok) for silks and textiles. In Chiang Mai's Hill Tribe Museum, browse for exquisitely made fairtrade handicrafts and textiles produced by the local indigenous tribes.

 

By far the best way to enjoy shopping in Thailand is not to take it too seriously. You will have to haggle – and that great 'designer' number that seemed like such a good idea in the market may well be fraying round the edges by the time you get it home. But treat shopping as an event. Soak up the steamy nights, the spicy food and the buzz of the crowd, or dress to impress and hit the air-conditioned malls of Bangkok like the locals do. Whether you unearth that bargain of the century is down to you – in Thailand, it's really the experience that counts.

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