Bangkok: Big buys at bizarre bazaar

Freelance writer Casey Kittrell visited Bangkok recently. Here is his report:

here are countless reasons to go to Bangkok: the temples, the food, the nightlife. But if shopping is what clients want, then agents will be booking Bangkok for years.

One of the main markets for goods produced in Southeast Asia, the city receives the best (and most bizarre) of the region.

Clients who have only one chance to experience Bangkok's amazing shopping culture should visit Chatuchak Market (also known as the Weekend Market).

As its name suggests, the market takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It's one of the largest markets in the world, occupying about 35 acres, and buying a map of the market is a good idea. (I recommend Nancy Chandler's map, widely available in Thailand and on line at www.nancychandler.net.)

Everyone goes to Chatuchak. (At least it seems that way -- the aisles are narrow and often crowded. Don't be afraid to push.) There are Thai grandmothers buying oranges and underwear, Western tourists squirming at the sight of recently butchered chickens, dreadlocked backpackers examining opium pipes.

Some of the buyers are retailers from the U.S. One woman asked my opinion of a silk lampshade. I told her I liked it but preferred a different color. She considered my color choice, then ordered a few dozen for her boutique in Santa Fe, N.M.

I also saw cutlery identical to that in my kitchen at home, though it was selling for about one-tenth of what I paid for it at Pottery Barn. Housewares, in fact, are one of the better buys at Chatuchak. In addition to my Pottery Barn cutlery, I saw colorful plates, bowls and platters. Handcarved wooden chopsticks make good, lightweight souvenirs.

Antiques are fun to look at, but be wary: Most are fakes.

But the real steal, the best buy, the one thing no one should leave Thailand without ... is silk. Whether it's clothing, curtains, pillow covers, scarves or just a few yards of fabric to be made into something else later, shoppers won't find a comparable price on this luxurious material anywhere in North America. No matter what the purchase, be sure to bargain hard.

When it all gets too much, there are plenty of places to grab a bite to eat or just take a rest.

The best oasis is a small bar called Viva in the clothing section. Visitors are handed a cool cloth to wipe the sweat and grime from their body. Then they can sip a Singha (Thailand's best beer) or a glass of freshly squeezed juice until they've recovered the strength to resume their shopping.

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