Bringing Home Bangkok
Most travelers spend at least some of their time and much of their luggage space on souvenirs for themselves and gifts to bring back to friends and family. There’s plenty of stuff buy in Bangkok, and plenty of places to buy it, but if you want something a little nicer or more unique than the same stuff you’ll see everyone else bring home, consider these ideas.
What to Bring Home
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
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 (tel. 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.
There is nothing as luxurious as getting clothing custom made, and Bangkok is one of the few cities left in the world where you can still afford the luxury. A custom shirt from a Jermyn Street shirtmaker in London will run you more than US$100, and a bespoke suit is probably out of the price range of most. In U.S. cities, if you can even find a tailor offering such services, custom clothing runs into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. For women it’s really a chance of a lifetime, as there are few places still making custom women’s wear. For half the price you’d pay for an off-the-rack dress or suit, you can go home with something made to your specifications and custom fitted for your body. If you’re in need of some new duds, the trip could even pay for itself in the money you save.
There are hundreds of tailors offering their services in Bangkok, and all over the city are signs advertising men’s suits custom made in 24 hours for 4,000 baht and promoters trying to lure tourists into shops with promises of cheap tailored clothing. Sure, it’s tempting to get something as cheap as you can, but if you’re in the market for tailor-made clothing, keep in mind that you get what you pay for. You’re already saving substantially versus what you’d pay at home; it’s foolish to try to find a bargain when you risk being unsatisfied. While the cheaper tailors are often very skilled, the cost savings is usually made up in the quality of the material. Choices in the cheaper shops are usually limited to synthetic blends with few, if any, wools and other natural materials.
To get a suit made of high-quality material in Bangkok, expect to pay anywhere between 6,000 and 14,000 baht. Trousers can cost 2,000 baht and up, depending on the material, and shirts around 1,000 baht. For women, custom suits should run around the same price as men’s, and you can pick up a custom evening gown for 6,000 baht and up, and even a custom-made silk wedding gown for around 20,000 baht.
To get the most out of the experience, make sure to give the tailor enough time. All of the good tailors in Bangkok will refuse to make anything if you can’t come in for at least two fittings.
At the first fitting, you’ll pick out the fabrics and the tailor will take all of your measurements. If you’re not already, you’ll become well versed in terms such as flat front, spread collar, slim cut, and notch because you’ll be choosing all of the specifications of your suit and shirt. If that’s all too confusing, most good tailors can offer advice and let you know what’s likely to look most flattering on your body, or you can even bring in your favorite suit for guidance.
When you go in for your second fitting, the clothing won’t be finished but you’ll try on the rough pieces for fit. If you’re really in a rush, or the clothing fits perfectly at the second fitting, any tailor can arrange for the items to be delivered to your hotel when they’re done. But it is always better to try everything on one last time.
Tailors are also expert at copying existing clothing. If you have a dress that fits you perfectly and you’d like to have it in different colors or materials, pack it with you and bring it in. They can even work off of a picture if you’ve fallen in love with something you saw in a fashion magazine. Whether they’re copying or designing from scratch, expect to go in for two fittings as well.
130 Sukhumvit Rd. near Soi 4
HOURS: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
COST: suits start at 9,000B
The favorite tailor for diplomats, visiting dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents is Rajawongse Clothiers. Jesse and Victor say that they don’t have to advertise their busy little shop in Nana because they have such a good reputation for quality work, and the pictures and business cards of former customers lining the walls (including George Bush Sr. and Tom Ridge) seem to be proof of that fact. The father-and-son duo who run the shop will shepherd you through the process, offering advice on their extensive selection of fabrics and letting you know tactfully whether something is likely to be flattering. If you have to wait—and you might, given their popularity—you’re likely to be offered a beer and a comfortable seat.
1/6 Sukhumvit Soi 4
HOURS: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
COST: suits 9,000B
Another favorite, and just slightly cheaper, is Raja’s Fashions right around the corner. Interestingly, Raja is related to Jesse and Victor, although the two shops seem to be in tight competition for the best tailor in the city. Raja’s shop is slightly bigger, but you can expect the same quality and personal service.
N and K Pinky Tailors
888/40 Mahatun Plaza Bldg.
Skytrain: Ploen Chit
HOURS: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
COST: women’s suit with slacks and skirt 6,000B
Unfortunately, neither shop does a lot of women’s clothes. A few blocks away at the far end of a little outdoor shopping mall is N and K Pinky Tailors, another popular shop with diplomats and visiting dignitaries. Pinky has three floors of fabrics, turns out excellent quality menswear, and also makes clothes for women. He will happily take even a sketch of something and turn it into a well-made, perfectly fitting dress.
© Suzanne Nam from Moon Bangkok, 5th Edition