Shopping in Thailand

Shopping in Thailand is more fun than shopping at home because there are so many things you’ve never seen before and because they are so darn cheap! That’s good news. The rest of the story is not so rosy for newcomers. I went nuts for my first few months in Thailand because I couldn’t find anything I needed – even though I knew it was there. You see, Thais don’t use maps and their idea of giving directions is to wave their hand in the general direction of where they think you need to go!

Finding Stuff

Shopping in Thailand
Market Shopping in Chiang Mai

Finding anything is difficult until you get the hang of it. Thais don’t navigate by addresses, either. Only trained Post Office staff to understand addresses. Maps are also foreign to the Thai culture, and many Thais simply stare at them in silent bemusement. I know you think I’m kidding, but just wait ’til you get here. Thais navigate by pictorial memory and by asking for directions. A lot of asking. I’ve had a Chiang Mai-born taxi driver make three calls on his mobile before dropped me at a downtown address. That’s is one reason we provide workshoppers with GPS coordinates when they arrive in Thailand. They’re the only way we we farangs can find things when we first arrive!

But, once you’ve started creating a mental map of the place, shopping becomes a breeze. Markets for fresh (and I do mean fresh) produce abound. Stalls of all sizes line the streets. Shops range from shoebox to the football field. And the range of goods and prices is staggering. Right now I’m shopping for ultra-cool, lightweight, cotton pants and shirts. Last weekend I paid $11.85 for a set that is exactly what I wanted. Friends tell me that I can get the same outfit for $2.00 wholesale if I buy in quantity. Thais themselves love to shop and are the most entrepreneurial people on earth. With no capital or experience, and little space, they’ll set up a stall on a sidewalk and sell something. Anything. In keeping with the country’s proud history of independence Thais prefer to be self-employed.

Just down the street from where we host our workshops in Chiang Mai University. A wide sidewalk runs for a kilometer outside its walls. Every evening around six o’clock stalls magically appear along its entire length.

There are big stalls – like mobile restaurants – with kitchens, tables, chairs, and waiters. There are small stalls that dish out one simple take-away specialty. There are flower stalls, food stalls, drink stalls, clothes stalls, watch stalls, fortune-telling stalls, nail-polish stalls, fruit stall, footwear stalls, even (my favorite) a used cardboard carton stall that never seems to sell any used cartons.

The restaurant stalls bring propane cylinders for their stoves and take electricity from the University’s power supply. Nobody seems to mind. For those who can’t afford stalls, there are plastic table-cloths on the ground spread with, say, T-shirts. And those who can’t afford to hook up to the electricity lay out their tablecloths close to a brightly lit stall. No-one objects. Everybody cracks jokes, watches each others’ kids (who are doing their homework), and chats on their mobiles while waiting for customers. Than, around 10 p.m., like Cinderella’s coach, the lights go out, the stalls disappear, the trash collectors come, and the sidewalk is clean and ready for the morning.

At first, you might think that this is an example of “poverty”, or “third world”.But look a little closer. One stall-holder told me he paid his two kids’ university fees from the earnings of his little stall. Life’s a lot simpler here,and it’s also a lot more fun. There are adventures to be had on every street corner. Everything is on a much smaller, more human scale. Of course there are malls, too. Three or four of them in Chiang Mai. Dozens in Bangkok. But even at the malls there are stalls everywhere. Since so many people go to malls they are an opportunity stall-holders cannot resist. So they set up their stalls on the steps and in the forecourt of the malls – so densely that it’s difficult to get into the malls! But nobody, including the mall owners, seems to mind.

Enough of my opinions. Here’s what Travel + Leisure Magazine has to say about shopping in Thailand. Specifically, about shopping in Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar.

Night Markets & Shopping in Chiang Mai

One of northern Thailand’s biggest draws, Chiang Mai’s nightly market transforms a three-block stretch of Chang Klan Road into a lively shopping and food concourse. Stalls stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of covered arcades, Internet cafés, and restaurants, but most of the fun occurs streetside, where it’s as easy to find bargain Rolex knockoffs andHangover DVDs as it is painted silk and paper lanterns. For true artisan treasures, swing by one of the city’s weekend nighttime “walking markets,” which are closed off  to traffic, particularly the Sunday Market along Ratchadamnoen Road.

Market Find: Skilled Thai artisans render paintings of your favorite photographs on-site, making the ultimate souvenir. So come shop with us–in a country where shopping is a cross between a sport and an art! –Travel & Leisure Magazine

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