Bangkok offers a shopping experience like no other – vibrant, exhausting, gritty and glitzy all at the same time. Food and flower markets sprout on the roadside at sunrise. After dark, night bazaars sprawl across car parks and abandoned railway tracks. Malls, generally open from 10am until 10pm, range from specialist electronics arcades or 10-storey fashion wholesalers to slick lifestyle centres set in futuristic buildings.
And while the city is best known for its brand-name knock-offs, cut-price clothing and giveaway gadgetry, Bangkok also boasts a quite brilliant array of luxury shopping, from vintage clothing and antique silks to handcrafted cutlery and traditional woven rugs, to spa-quality skincare products and to-die-for jewellery (Thailand is one of the world’s most important trading centres for coloured gemstones).
Although a perennial shopping paradise, winter is the best time to visit weather wise, though in the June-and-July sales season, shopping malls drop their prices by up to 80 per cent (hotels are far cheaper during the summer rainy season, too). If you have the time and patience, you can save even more by claiming a refund on Thailand's 7 per cent sales tax when you leave the country. Look out for shops displaying the "VAT refund for tourists sign" and ask for a PP10 form (sales staff usually have them to hand). To be eligible, you will need a total bill of 5,000 Thai baht (Dh554), only applicable on single purchases of at least 2,000 (Dh222). Allow extra time before your flight to visit the VAT refund counter after immigration where they will hand over the cash.
Bangkok is bursting with brilliant malls where you will find one-of-a-kind fashion buys. Get your bearings in Siam, the city's shopping nucleus (easily reached by Skytrain). Swan straight into the cool white confines of Siam Paragon and encounter top-drawer brands sitting alongside an increasing number of high-end Asian designers. Seek out sleek-lined womenswear at Asava and edgy evening dresses at Flynow. Next door is the colossal CentralWorld mall, home to more instantly recognisable names – Marks and Spencer, Zara, Calvin Klein – as well as haute Thai designer Disaya, whose romantic tops, skirts and dresses have been spotted on stars such as Jennifer Lopez, January Jones and Anne Hathaway.
Across town, the ultra-luxurious Central Embassy is more than just a mall; it’s an architectural statement, with its shiny exterior swirling above leafy Ploenchit like a cobra uncoiling. Stroll past Gucci, Hermes and Harrods, and upstairs to Siwilai, a multi-brand clothing and lifestyle store, with a house-music soundtrack, selling cutting-edge men and women’s fashion, vintage records, books and knick-knacks.
Later, bling up your outfit with some gorgeous art deco-inspired sparklers from Chavana, one of Thailand's most fashionable jewellers. Also worth adding to your dance card is a visit to the upscale Em Quartier mall in Sukhumvit, where Bangkok's rich, ridiculously pretty elite (known as the hi-so) sip lattes in the sky gardens in between splashing the cash at Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Jimmy Choo. For something local, check out the hand-crafted clothing – dragon-print shift dresses, beaded kimonos, embellished opera gloves – at Kloset. Expect A-list prices at all of the above, with dresses from about Dh2,500.
Hand-crafted furniture, elegant ceramics, exceptional silverware, silk lamps, traditional textiles, eye-catching oriental objet – Bangkok’s beautiful array of homewares will make you want to rethink your entire home. Start your quest at Alexander Lamont, a British designer who has been based in Thailand for the past two decades. His elemental designs are fashioned into furniture, lighting and decorative objects using precious materials such as bronze, gold leaf and shagreen (an untanned leather). Prices range from Dh250 for a dainty copper votive to tens of thousands of dirhams for antique white-gold table lamps and lacquer tables. Elsewhere, Korakot has a range of fantastical sculptures, floor lamps and chandeliers constructed from bamboo (items from about Dh900), while the long established Neold Collection is the place for Asian antiques.
The gigantic Chatuchak weekend market is another great place to pick up unique items for the home at laughably low prices – think elegant hand-crafted cutlery from Dh10 per piece, celadon porcelain dishes from Dh5, oil paintings (from about Dh200; bespoke works can also be commissioned) and life-size wooden statues.
Beauty and skincare
Thailand’s reputation as a top spa destination equals plenty of lush lotions and potions to take back home in your suitcase. Stock up on kaffir-lime-and-lemon-grass shower gel, sea-foam shampoo, rice-bran scrubs and white clay face masks at Thann, one of the country’s leading producers of luxury beauty products. You will find their moodily-lit stores in almost every Bangkok mall, but the branch to aim for is in Gaysorn, which has its own candlelit spa, complete with shimmering green and gold treatment rooms, a salt chamber and wonderful 90-minute deep-tissue massages for Dh300 – perfect for a mid-shop recharge.
Panpuri puts the focus on locally sourced organic ingredients and has a wider range of products; decorative copper diffusers, coloured glass candles and brass oil burners, among lavish bath and body creams, richly scented hair cleansers and conditioners and top-notch skincare (the youth-boosting Antioxidant Concentrate [Dh390] regularly sells out). They also have their own sensational spa at the Park Hyatt hotel should you wish to try before you buy.
Other covetable Thai beauty brands include the 100-per-cent natural, completely chemical-free Siam Botanicals, the retro-stylish Erb (try the Spice and Shine gel body scrub for soft dewy skin), Harnn and Organika.
Silks and tailoring
Thailand's best-known purveyor of silks is Jim Thompson, established in 1951 by the American adventurer and architect. The flagship store is spread across six traditional teak houses transported from Ayutthaya and Baan Khrua, and incorporates an arts centre, museum and cafe, making it a popular Bangkok attraction. Fashion items – blouses, shirts, scarves and ties – range in style from classic to painfully dated. However, JT's romantic, tropically themed home-furnishings never go out of fashion. Pick up peacock-coloured silks woven with metallic threads, antique-style scenic wallpapers and cushion covers in jewel-like hues. Jim Thompson also has a number of outlet stores sprinkled around town, where you can expect to find last season's stock for 50 per cent off the regular retail price.
Other notable silk merchants include Almeta, which supplies to the likes of Missoni with rich, radiant, machine-washable silks. At Anita Silks, every shred of material is spun, dyed and woven in-house (most Thai silks are factory produced) and can be purchased by the yard or tailored into Hillary pantsuits, Jackie O shift dresses or Princess Diana-worthy evening gowns. Made to measure nightgowns cost from about Dh650; allow for at least two fittings across three to four days.
Gentlemen should make their way to Tailor on Ten, hidden in a beautiful old Thai bungalow at the end of a bamboo-screened soi (lane) in Sukhumvit. Smooth and sophisticated, it is a little slice of Saville Row in the City of Angels – all master craftsmen, fine fabrics and fixed-prices. A bespoke single-breasted suit in luxe-ish Italian fabric costs Dh2,000 – about a third of what you would pay for a tailor-made suit in London, Milan or Hong Kong. Throw in a made-to-measure Thomas Mason shirt for Dh520 (half the price of ordering an off-the-rack number online) and you have a full outfit for relative peanuts.
Where to stay
From kitschy boutiques to flash five-stars to atmospheric heritage hotels, there is no shortage of enigmatic accommodations to choose from in Bangkok. But if you want to avoid slogging through the capital's abominable traffic and maximise your shopping time, location should be your main consideration.
Discreetly tucked away a few blocks from the cacophonous malls and markets of Siam Square is the serene Anantara Siam (double rooms from Dh580). The grand lobby is adorned with huge marble elephants, soaring pillars and elegant displays of tropical flowers, while the lately refurbished rooms are decked out in tasteful shades of navy and grey. There is also a large palm-lined outdoor pool, a huge gym (with muay Thai boxing ring) and a different eatery for every day of the week.
If you prefer your hotels cool and conceptualised, swan over to shiny new Park Hyatt (doubles from Dh830) in upmarket Ploenchit. Its 171 Zen-chic rooms, outdoor infinity pool and sensational Panpuri Spa spiral up above the Central Embassy mall, so you can shop until you drop without having to leave its air-conditioned confines.
Also new is the ludicrously lavish 137 Pillars Hotel (doubles from Dh2,000). Located in Thonglor, Bangkok’s most fashionable quarter, it is perfectly placed for hitting the neighbourhood’s hip indie boutiques, design studios and sleek furniture shops – each suite comes with a personal butler who can help you find them.
Emirates operates six direct flights per day between Dubai and Bangkok, with economy fares from Dh1,850, including taxes. Etihad flies direct four times a day from Abu Dhabi, from Dh1,060, including taxes. The flight time with either airline is about six hours.