Bangkok shopping

Bangkok is the proverbial shopper’s paradise. It has a multitude of malls, plazas, complexes, centres, arcades and boutiques and even more squares, small shops, markets and street stalls. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Bangkok, probably at a lower-than-elsewhere and/or irresistibly flexible price, too.

More of the Grand Palace's gilded splendour
More of the Grand Palace’s gilded splendour

You can hunt that international shopping “must have” in a number of the city’s chic plazas. Emporium, on Sukhumvit, houses a department store, designer fashion boutiques, fabulous, state of the art Asian homestores and Jim Thompson silks. In Ratchaprasong shopping district, Gaysorn has all the European greats such as Gucci, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry and Christian Dior. It also features many of Thailand’s innovative fashion labels such as Fly Now and Kloset Red. The Peninsula Plaza, on Rajadamri Road, is often described as Bangkok’s Harrod’s. Its 70 boutiques include Cartier, Davidoff, Versace and Gucci as well as top local fashion designers and jewelers. Here, too, you’ll also find some of Bangkok’s best tailors.

For a taste of old Bangkok head to O.P. Place, next to the Oriental Hotel. This 1908, neoclassic building was originally constructed as the Falk and Beidek Store, furnishing elegant outfits and home comforts to expats. Now, it offers high quality Thai silk, jewellery, carpets, paintings, leather goods and handicrafts. It also houses one of the Chitralada shops which specialize in handicraft goods made at the Sai Jai Thai workshops for the disabled, founded by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Narayana Phand, also in Ratchaprasong, is Thailand’s largest handicraft centre. It features a tremendous selection of high quality handicrafts from all over Thailand – silks, ceramics, wood carvings, lacquer and bronze ware, ethnic clothing, musical instruments, and Khon masks – all at reasonable prices.

Mah Boon Krong most commonly known as MBK, on Sukhumvit, is a large seven-storey air-conditioned market, packed with stalls selling everything from clothes, fashion accessories and cosmetics to mobile phones, DVDs and electronic games.

In Siam Square on Rama Road you’ll find a labyrinth of lanes with hundreds of cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops selling the latest and most outrageous in local youth fashion. Scattered among them are some of Thailand’s most avant garde and promising young designers, such as Srestis.

Stroll along any of Bangkok’s busy main streets like Sukhumvit, Silom Road or Rama I Road any day, or night, of the week and you’ll pass through long, meandering bazaars of stalls piled with souvenirs, clothes, shoes, CDs, bags and accessories at low, negotiable prices.

The most famous and most fascinating of all Bangkok’s shopping experiences is the weekend market at Chatuchak. It stretches for miles out on a far flung arm of the BTS sky train. Here, you’ll find everything from Animals to Zippers and among them are amazing objets d’art, carvings, masks, costumes, paintings, sculptures, homewares,  furniture, silks of every shade and texture, racks of mass-produced clothes and shoes, as well as local designers’ one-off masterpieces. Chatuchak takes time and lots of it, but it’s worth it, not only for the treasures you’ll find there, but also for the sheer pleasure of looking.


Traditional Thai Massage

Among Thailand’s memorable, and definitely not to be missed, experiences is the traditional Thai massage.  Tourists flock to massages all over the country, swearing by it as an antidote to fatigue as well as the other excesses of Thai travel. Millions of Thais incorporate it into their regular health and fitness routine. Some monasteries, like Wat Pho, run training schools and centres where the massage is part of therapeutic cleansing and healing. Massage establishments range from five star to very basic.

A gilded Thai Temple
A gilded Thai Temple

I took my Thai massage on Sukhumvit Soi 4, in Klong Toey, a narrow, traffic-clogged lane crowded with bars, tailors and restaurants, where every second business is a massage shop. Outside, bevies of tiny, smiling masseuses lounge in plastic chairs or stand on the pavements cooing “Welcome! Welcome!” to all who pass.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic reports of other travelers, the row of  chairs occupied by clients enjoying foot and neck massages, as well as the hard sell  and  the incredibly “interesting” price offered by a bevy of cooing masseuses in mauve, I decided to try the “daily special” at the Lilac Lounge .

My masseuse was not one of the petite spruikers from the street, but a Godzilla of a woman, with muscular arms and the challenging demeanour of a street fighter. She fitted with the stories I’d heard that many masseuses receive their training as part of Prison Rehabilitation Programmes. She ushered me firmly, if not forcefully, upstairs to the massage room.

The massage room had none of the calming, new age ambience of the massage centres which have proliferated under the name of Day Spa or Wellness Centre across the western world. It was a large loft (disturbingly reminiscent of the dormitory at the boarding school where I spent my teenage years) with a bare, wooden floor.  It was lined with cubicles with drawn, inscrutable floral curtains. There was a faint smell of baby oil, old timber and Pad Thai.

The “Daily Special” did not  include any of the gentle ministrations of the “massage therapists” who work in Day Spas and Wellness Centres. It entailed, instead, an hour of merciless manipulations during which, by turns, I clenched my teeth in agony, gasped for breath, stifled screams of pain, swallowed terrified yelps and choked back hysterical giggles. My limbs were stretched, bent and contorted. Every surface of my skin was pummelled, pulled and pushed. Every muscle was pounded, twisted and punched. My neck was yanked. My head was thumped. My joints were snapped and my fingers popped. The air was squeezed out of my lungs. My back was cracked. My face was slapped and pinched and my feet were scraped and tickled. There were moments when I seriously doubted that I’d survive to tell the tale, but survive I did.

Afterwards, recuperating in a recliner, sipping Jasmin tea, I had to admit, I felt marvelous. Perhaps it was because, like liver and silver beet, the Thai massage really is famously good for one, or perhaps it was simply because the immense relief of final a release from that heavy man-handling and strong-arming brings on an incredible lightness of being, almost like an out-of-body experience.

Whether the Thai massage can be honestly described as one of Thailand’s pleasurable experiences, is debatable. Some survivors describe it as torture, others as agony and others again, as brutalisation. Whichever it is, there’s absolutely no question that it leaves you feeling wonderful and well..