As a fashion stylist, I’m always on the hunt for unique items to bring back for my clients. I’ve also learned to embrace the element of surprise because, at any given moment, I might need to hop on a flight. Whether it’s an activewear shoot for Nike, a runway show in Barcelona or at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Desert, my bags are packed and ready to go.
So, when I pitched a girlfriends getaway trip to my best friend and business partner, she needed no convincing. We spun the globe and landed on Thailand. Since we both wanted to shop, packing was pretty painless. With half our suitcases empty, we had plenty of room for the grabs we would deliver. Whether it’s your first time in Thailand or your 10th, here are 6 tips for navigating the Thai markets you won’t find in any guidebook.
1) Bangkok’s true beauty is in the details
Don’t expect the glitz and glamour of Paris or New York when you land in Bangkok; the real treasures of this city are hidden in the details. In Bangkok, temples, waterways, color architecture and an amalgam of neon lights are pretty but mixed in between cement, poverty and overcrowding. True beauty is in its people, handmade goods and food. Bangkok is a sensory overload in the best way possible. By day, the hot sun shines a spotlight on the colorful fruits and fabrics of the region and come nightfall, the city’s rainbow-colored lights take over.
2) Trendsetters take chic-modern to a whole new level
It’s safe to say that this stylist went color crazy in Thailand. The street fashion scene is loud and proud. There’s definitely an “anything goes” attitude here so expect the unexpected: One woman had the Thai style down to a T: Minnie Mouse T-shirt paired with ripped jeans, white fishnet tights and platform wedge heels rounded out with a chic yet modern hair cut. Among other trends were matching sets, jumpsuits, florescent colors, wild pattern combinations and fake everything (designer duds).
In a nutshell, it’s the best of both worlds. Art pop meets punk meets modern cartoons meets Hello Kitty is how I’d describe it. Half the time, I wasn’t sure whether the person was loony crazy or crazy genius. I love how daring they are. Usually you only see this bold combinations on fashion attendees and in Bangkok you see it on everyday people. All this, on top of the streets, which are a modern collage of Warhol and Picasso with some Chanel on top, gave me chic chills.
3) Skip the regular restaurants and hit the streets
It’s not that the restaurants in Bangkok are bad—in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth—but the food markets are better. I had my fill of delicious eats typical of the region: Tom yum, khao soi, green, red and yellow curries, shrimp everything & oyster everything, mango and passionfruit, fresh juices and smoothies and the best coconut water of your life.
As a traveler who delivered Grabs to help fund my trip, street food was a no-brainer. Packed with flavor and cheap to boot, this is a winning combination for any budget backpacker. Hungry yet? Good, because there are plenty of foodie hotspots. Head to the Bang Rak District for food with elements from Chinese, Indian and even western cultures. The Old City (Rattanakosin) is another must-see, as is Chinatown. Post dinner, hit up the bars in Taksura Ekamai.
4) Splurge on Thai silk
I was on a mission to find beautiful thai silk for my clients and while Bangkok certainly isn’t lacking in the market department, I ultimately found the best selection in Chiang Mai (weekend getaway, anyone?!) You can see the difference in handmade or hand woven by the discrepancies in the stitching and how the end of the piece is finished. I met a woman in Chiang Mai who sells brilliant silk jackets, skirts, scarves, table runners, belts and fabric. I bought several to bring back for my clients.
Fun Fact: The true test for determining 100% silk is to burn a piece of the scarf tassel and if it balls up, it’s not 100% silk. Real silk turns into dust and disappears.
5) Choose your markets wisely
Bangkok and Chiang Mai have countless markets but some are definitely better than others. Many items sold here are mass produced and geared toward travelers shopping for small trinkets and souvenirs rather than stylists hunting for handmade fabrics. That said, if you’re up for the challenge like I was, you’ll find the buried treasure soon enough.
Head to the Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market for unique, artisan goods or swing by the floating market for authentic grub and spices. If you’re in Chiang Mai on a weekend, you’re in luck! The city has a few weekly night markets and their Sunday night market is arguably the best for touristy shopping and street food.
6) Master the art of bargaining, but ethically
My feelings on market shopping are two-fold. Bargaining is simply part of the local culture and I’m all for that; on the flip side, it’s important to support local artisans with fair payment. I encourage fellow travelers to keep this in mind when traveling to countries where people have much less than you. You can still travel through these countries and stick to your budget so don’t stress if you spend a little more here or there. A little bit goes a long way in supporting the local people and their families.
I recently watched a movie called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that drives this point home. There is a scene where a little boy street beggar takes advantage of Tina Fey’s character in Kabul. He sits and cries because all of his eggs are broken and he needs to sell them for money. Hour after hour, passerby give him money, never knowing that he is a scam artist who breaks his own eggs for sympathy. Later in the movie, she walks past the egg boy again with her boyfriend and watches as he gives the little boy money. She tries to warn him that he is a scam artist and takes money from people all day. Her boyfriend looks at her and says, “I know, but I don’t care. He is still a little boy that is begging on the streets.”
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If you’re looking for styling tips, shop with Jamie. She travels around the world for clients, from San Francisco to Bangkok.
Written by Megan Eileen McDonough and Jamie Steinfeld.