An Insider's Shopping Guide to Bangkok

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Custom tailoring, gems, and jewelry in Thailand's capital

In Thailand's bustling, compelling capital, a wide range of everything from tourist knickknacks to awesome antiques are yours for a pittance. But your best bets boil down to two: custom rags and shiny rocks. You can spruce up your wardrobe and don (or decorate your mate with) all manner of gems and jewelry for a fraction of the cost stateside.

Top Thai tailors

Bangkok is one of the world's top destinations for low-cost, top-drawer tailored clothing. Unfortunately, the high quality of some is diluted by the plethora of less-than-reputable self-proclaimed tailors, as well as misleading come-ons. For example, some in-flight magazines and free brochures distributed around town boldly advertise "Two suits, five shirts for $75," and the like. What these prices don't include is the material, which is then marked up considerably, nor do they include truly top-quality work.

A more reasonable price to expect from the reputable tailors for one well-made wool/polyester-blend suit (jacket and trousers) is between 6,000 and 8,000 baht ($135-$180); a good 100-percent wool suit will run somewhere in the neighborhood of B15,130 ($340). Applying to women's suits as well, these prices for tailored suits are incredible deals even compared to quality off-the-rack models in the States. Custom-made shirts are similarly affordable; a cotton mix goes for about B800 ($18), a 100-percent Italian or Egyptian cotton shirt for B1,500 ($34).

The best and most easily accessible areas to find tailors are around the major hotels and down the perennially popular Silom and Surawong Roads, a B44 to B66 ($1-$1.50) taxi ride from the major hotels along the river (see my top picks in the accompanying box). Also along Silom and Surawong are various stores that sell material by the meter. If the tailor you've chosen doesn't have exactly the material you want, stop in at one of these places and choose your own. They're also great places to pick up world-famous Thai silk, which makes great shirts and women's clothing. Silk by the meter from the famous Jim Thompson store on Surawong runs between B550 ($12) per meter ($3.65 per foot) for single-ply and B1,100 ($25) per meter ($7.60 per foot) for two-ply. You'll need about three and a half meters for a shirt and seven for a suit.

To avoid getting taken for a ride, never allow a third party to bring you to a tailor shop; it'll invariably cost you more money in the long run. Also, of the three main ethnic groups making suits in Bangkok (Thai, Chinese, and Indian), stick with the Thai and the Chinese, who I feel are normally the more reputable, honest, and forthright. They're usually second- or third-generation and maintain a small shop with family staff dedicated to producing the best work. Lesser quality shops will often have a three-tiered factory farm-out system, depending on the price you demand for your suit. If you demand too rock-bottom a price, they'll simply send the suit to be made at the low-end factory. If you agree to a higher price, they think you know quality and they'll send it to the middle- or high-end factory. The best shops are the ones that, when you come in for a fitting, have the same person measure you, cut the material, and then adjust the pins until it is exactly right. Ask to speak with the tailor; if the shop is basically just a front for an assembly-line production of suits, then the tailor will be nonexistent. Ask to see completed suits waiting to be picked up and review the stitching and workmanship. Most of all, visit several shops to get a good feel for price and quality before giving the go-ahead to any one tailor.

Siamese stones

Partly because of its low labor costs, Thailand is the world's foremost center for the highly labor-intensive cutting of colored precious stones, and it has been estimated that in Bangkok you can save between 30 and a whopping 500 percent compared to here in the States. Once upon a time, Thailand was home to some of the world's top ruby and sapphire mines. Those are depleted now, but Bangkok is still a fantastic place to obtain both at a great price-indeed, they are your top gem bets for purchase. It's extremely difficult to pass on hard-and-fast pricing information about loose stones due to the wide variations in quality, but just to give a very rough idea, sapphires can range between B2,200 ($50) and B35,600 ($800) per carat depending on quality, with B13,350 ($300) per carat considered a medium-quality stone. Similarly, loose rubies will go for anywhere from B4,450 ($100) to B66,750 ($1,500) per carat; here, medium quality will run you about B22,250 ($500) per carat.

Gems and jewelry in Bangkok also have their fair share of disreputable peddlers. Luckily, the more honest storeowners set up the Jewel Fest Club (JFC) to help regulate the industry. Thus, one of the best ways to know if you're in a jewelry shop of good reputation is to check for the JFC membership certificate prominently displayed on a wall. If you're in a member store, anything you buy is certified for authenticity and quality, but the best part is the refund guarantee. If you simply decide you don't want the gem or jewelry anymore, these stores guarantee you a refund of 90 percent within 30 days and 80 percent within 45 days. I list three outstanding JFC members in the box below.

If you make a purchase and want to check before you leave Bangkok whether the stone is natural or synthetic, the independent Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (see box), located in the heart of the Silom Road jewelry district, will tell you so within about ten minutes for a fee of B356 to B534 ($8-$12), depending on stone size and the tests required. It will provide you with a certificate stating its findings, but it will not appraise your gem -- and neither will any other independent local source.

If you can eyeball a stone and tell the difference between a Jager, a River, and a Top Wesselton, then you don't need me to tell you how to shop for gems and jewelry, but if you're a bit unsure, then there are some practical tips for shopping in Bangkok. The first is simply to shop around (preferably among JFC members) and get to know the market. If you aren't an expert on gems, then don't try and buy for investment; your goal should be to find something you like. Once you find a piece that pleases, ask the price and then start bargaining for a 30-to-50-percent discount off that original price. Like bargaining in any market, don't start the process if you aren't prepared to go through with the purchase. Happy shopping!

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