What to Buy
Head into any of the city’s many supermarkets to pick up some Thai curry paste packs. They’re inexpensive, don’t need refrigeration, and are easy to use. Just mix them with coconut milk, vegetables, and meat or tofu to impress your friends. Love cha yen? You can make it at home with special Thai tea, which you can also pick up at the supermarket (just add sweetened condensed milk!).
Real Thai Handicrafts
Skip the mass-produced junk and head to the Support Foundation at the Grand Palace for handicrafts made by Thai villagers.
Lemon grass, pomelo, coconut, mangosteen, and rambutan scented soaps and lotions make great, exotic gifts. If you’re on a budget, most supermarkets carry a line of locally produced bath and body products. Otherwise, head to one of the high-end shops throughout Bangkok.
Though cheap souvenir stands will label everything “Thai silk,” you can find the real stuff in Chinatown. Bring home a few yards or, if you have time, have it made into throw pillows or other decorator items while you’re here. For ready-made, high quality Thai silk items head to Jim Thompson shops.
What Not to Buy
A couple of readily-available items here in Thailand may get you into a little trouble if you try to bring them back home.
While some tourists consider Buddha figures fun souvenirs, to many Thais they are revered objects of worship and their export is limited. Only new figures of the Buddha may be taken out of the country, and only for the express purpose of worship, cultural exchange, or education. Anyone taking a Buddha out of Thailand is required to obtain a license from the Department of Fine Arts (02/628-5032). In practice, thousands of tourists a year probably bring back Buddha images in their suitcases. If you’re bringing home a large Buddha, or if you’re unlucky enough to have your bags searched at the airport, it will be confiscated if you don’t have an export permit.
Everyone wants to bring home something old and authentic. If you do happen to buy something that really is as old as it purports to be, chances are it’s illegal to export it from Thailand. The issue doesn’t come up too often (probably because there are so many fake artifacts out there); but if you are shopping for expensive antiques, make sure you buy from a reputable dealer who has a license to export.
These super-comfortable triangle-shaped pillows and mats with triangle-shaped pillows attached are sold all over Thailand and would make great souvenirs except that U.S. customs officials don’t seem to like to let them into the country. The issue is that these items, made mostly of natural fibers, can harbor insects (Japan has totally banned them). There’s no consistency on how customs officials in the U.S. will treat them. Some flat out refuse to let them in, some will inspect them, which can include ripping them open, and some won’t even stop you.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Bangkok.