Nothing is ever more fun than hunting down things to buy in Thailand
Being out here, I meet people all the time who tell me that back in the day “things were so much cheaper” when they first traveled to Thailand. But the fact is that prices are still extremely low on certain articles. However, what people don’t know is that some stuff comes at unexpected high prices too. Due to unusual import taxes, luxury goods come at a hefty premium compared to the west. So buying a Ray-Ban in Thailand is a no-no! In this article I will list what’s cheap in Thailand, things to buy in Thailand and also what to stay away from.
THE “VALUE-FOR-MONEY” STUFF
COOKING HERBS OR A COOKING BOOK
I don’t think there is such a thing as a “must buy in Thailand”, but I think the two products below are some of the ideal gifts to buy in Thailand, and they won’t break the bank. If I had to make a typical list of Thailand gifts to bring home, “Thai cooking herbs” would make the top 3. They are available pretty much anywhere and most of the dried ingredients included are hard to come by in Western countries. Together with a recipe book, your mother or girlfriend will thank you for it.
An absolute masterpiece is a cooking book named “Cooking with Poo”, who’s author is also a well-known chef in the country, besides being named after well… “shit”. I am 100% convinced the publisher knew exactly how well the “unfortunate” title would sell, and as such this little book can be found all over Thailand. I’ve seen it at airports, along with an angry note stuck above it saying “no take picture, please!”.
Found anywhere, but especially in the tourist areas, fruit soap is a no-brainer. It’s small, you can get them in different fragrances and if you have several family members you want to make happy on your return, this is it.
I believe I have seen this stuff at airports as well, which saves you the hassle from carrying your gifts during your travels. Since this is essentially herbal soap, I am curious how they made the durian fruit soap smell. This local fruit has such a strong odor, that it is banned on public transport and hotels, and I’ve never had the heart to open one of the packages to find out. Mind you, the fruit itself tastes pretty nice; I would define its taste as rich and creamy, similar to avocado, which an artichoke-like structure to it when you chew it.
If you are feeling adventurous, just try eating it yourself (the real fruit, NOT the soap version). There are shops everywhere selling freeze-dried versions of the various local fruits but you want to avoid those. Go for the street stand selling durian. Feel the mild sense of disgust, and the surprising good taste of this legendary fruit when you are in the country.
The Thai love to drink. There are several big national beer brands, plus some interesting alcoholic quirks that are typical to Thailand. The thing that never stops to amaze me is just how popular “whiskey and soda” is, compared to other liquors. It gets even more interesting when you know that the big local whiskey brands “Sang Som” and “Mekhong” are actually not whiskeys at all, but rums. It even says so on the bottle, and yet the Thai consider it a whiskey.
Mind you, whiskey and soda is an acquired taste and personally, I think it tastes like window-cleaner. So if you are looking for something typical Thai, this is a great souvenir as the locals actually use and love this product. I am not so sure anyone of them ever uses herbal soap or elephant pants though.
My personal favorite Thai liquor is Black Cock Whiskey. Just trying to find an image on Google for “Black Cock Thailand” produced some very interesting results which I will not share with you here – use your imagination. It makes a perfect gift for the homophobes back home and again, it’s not really a whiskey by “our standards”. Distilled from rice grain, westerners tend to classify this spirit differently. But when you are at a Thai airport leaving the country, make sure you get you best friend some “Black Cock”. He’ll thank you for it. And if he doesn’t, just tell him 2017 is the year of the cock and they should get with the program.
When I just arrived in Thailand, an engineering intern working at the same office invited me to an MBK trip: “Let’s go get some software dude”. At the time, this famous shopping mall (more on that later) was well-known for selling hacked software packages from every supplier and platform you can imagine.
For a few dollars or euros, you can purchase some extremely expensive software and the only downside is that you won’t be able to update it once a newer version is released and compatibility issues pop up. But then you simply make you way back here again for a later version. For Thailand newbies, it is an eye-opener to see how young entrepreneurial Thais run these shops from little shacks and just how well they know their trade. None of them would be able to afford the real licenses, and yet they all know their way around Photoshop, Office and various professional packages.
With the government coming down hard on pirated content, this trade has gradually shifted away from MBK and is now to be found in Pantip Plaza. Occasionally a spotter will report a motorcade of policemen approaching the building, and your salesperson will apologize with a hurried “Sorry – police coming!” before closing his shop in a split second. But come back in an hour and they will be open for business again.
Pro tip: While the chance of getting caught with hacked software is practically impossible, flying back to Europe with fake goods like bags, watches or shirts is NOT a good idea as penalties can get expensive really quick.
The fines for bringing counterfeit into the country are rumoured to be five times the price of the real deal, so you can see how this can really mess with your holiday. Airports like Charles De Gaulle have their customs department looking out for these kind of articles (more than half the counterfeit articles are French luxury goods), so think twice before you do this. Especially if your itinerary shows you traveled to China, customs will have a reason to give you and your luggage a closer look.
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TAILOR-MADE SHIRTS AND SUITS
Many people put tailor-made clothes on their shopping list when they travel to Asia, and rightly so. Artisans are much cheaper here than they are in your country and you can make some great deals on suits, shirts and coats here in Asia.
There are a variety of scams you need to look out for though, but generally speaking you can get great tailor-made clothing for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. Keep in mind that this is a process of several days, and that you will have to return to the shop.
Buying a shirt is a simple matter of taking your measurements, picking the fabric and waiting for a week – some shops will even deliver to your hotel. But when you purchase in Thailand, a suit or something a little more complicated, be prepared to come back repeatedly for testing fittings and point out clearly what you expect once your suit is ready. My tailor made all of my shirts, and can be found in Soi 11. Note that Jhasper Fashion only makes menswear, so ladies should look elsewhere.
Try to stay away from pushy salesmen in the tourist areas, trying to talk you into their shop. If you absolutely must buy from them, at least do yourself a favor and check their online reputation on websites like tripadvisor. There are still a lot of shops out there who will sell you anything, confident that the next batch of hapless tourists arrives next week.
Pro Tip: You can travel down to Thailand with just an empty bag and some bare essentials. Make sure you land in the weekend so you can make it to the JJ weekend-market. At this ultra-cheap market, you can buy an entire wardrobe, as they sell anything you will need. Boardshorts, flipflops, cargo pants, underwear, elephant pants, sarongs, scarves, t-shirts, bracelets, etc.
Pick up your tailor-made shirts and suits before you fly back and you will be amazed at how much money you save. You can even buy your backpack at Chakchuchak at the beginning of your trip. Think about the bragging rights this gets you when you fly to Thailand with just a toothbrush and a GoPro!
THE “BUCKET LIST” STUFF”
GO FOR BROKE WITH LUXURY ACTIVITIES
As prices in Thailand are low, you can choose to live on the cheap for several weeks. But it is much more fun to book some additional activities that you would never be able to afford in your own country. Anything in the service industry is considerably more affordable over here than it is over there, so staying in a luxury hotel apartment with your own Jacuzzi is suddenly an option.
Or maybe you have always dreamt of spending a few days in your own private villa, somewhere on a remote island? All of this is possible and while pricing is extreme when you book from abroad, doing some local investigating when you arrive can turn up some real gems.
Floating villas in National parks, private helicopter rides over Chiang Mai or chartered yachts on the Andaman Sea are more affordable than you think. Especially if you get together with a couple of friends, you can splash out on penthouses overlooking the sea, villas or yachts for several days.
THE “DON’T DO IT” STUFF
When it comes to activities like parasailing, jet skiing or bungee jumping, health and safety regulations are often at a standard that I don’t recommend. Having lived in the South of Thailand for three years, there were accidents on a weekly basis and without exception, bad equipment or improperly trained staff was always to blame.
If you know what you are doing, go ahead and rent some equipment. But if you are relying on others in any way, perhaps it is better to stay away from speedboats, big bike rentals and other hazardous activities. In Thailand, life really is cheap and you will be surprised at the amount of fatal incidents.
SCAMS, DRUGS AND SHAKE-DOWNS
Before coming to Asia, do yourself a favor and read a list of the more obvious scams in- and around your destination(s). It will really help you to understand what is going on when a Tuk-tuk driver wants to drive you around all day “for free”, or you are being offered to participate in “an authentic Tea ceremony in China”.
I also can’t stress my next point enough. Chances are you will frequent tourist areas, and especially in the nightlife areas, you will be approached by drug dealers. Never, ever talk to to these people, let alone take them up on their deal.
I don’t want to add to the general paranoia, but people do get caught and the penalties are incredibly harsh. If you ever find yourself in that situation, the best thing you can do for yourself is to settle right then and there. The further up this goes into their justice system, the harder it will get to keep you out of trouble. Should you ever find yourself in a situation where your choice is to pay or “going to the station”, just pay.
At this point, it is nothing more than a shake-down, so don’t be afraid to haggle either. Stay friendly, let everyone involved know you are cooperating and settle on the spot. Chances are that you won’t have enough on you to settle, so just present the police officer with the problem. No doubt he knows a variety of ATM machines nearby. Believe it or not, this is an embarrassing situation for the police as well and they would rather do this smoothly than hard.
With the exception of some luxury items, Thai goods and services are still incredibly cheap in 2017. By doing a little planning, you can have the trip of a lifetime AND make some great deals for your friends and yourself. Preparation is everything, and it is not uncommon for travelers to buy certain articles at such low costs, that the trip to Asia practically pays for itself. I encourage you to do the same thing!
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Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.