Thailand / Shopping

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เม็ดยี่หร่า (Foeniculum Vulgare Mill)

Thailand shopping / Clothes and cloths

For most items of dress including footwear, Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular offers great shopping bargains. The savings in buying clothes in Thailand when compared to what they would cost in Europe or the US pay part of the Thailand holiday.

The most convenient places to buy clothes in Thailand are Bangkok's department stores. Of course, one may find even cheaper clothes in markets, for example at the Pratunam Market near the Indra Hotel or at Phrakanong down at Soi 71 Sukhumvit Rd.

However, the department stores are best prepared for foreign visitors who usually require larger sizes than the locals (large sizes are difficult to find in shopping areas which cater exclusively to Thais). Furthermore, the department stores are a one-stop shopping place where one can buy clothes, footwear, toiletries and other items for daily needs, and it's usually a pleasant air-conditioned place where much of the staff speaks at least some English - enough for the talk that is needed to buy items of the kind to be found there.

Those whose taste for exclusive items cannot be satisfied by the department stores will find hundreds of boutiques and specialty shops around Siam Square.

Hill-tribe Textiles

Hill-tribe textiles are usually made of cotton and can be easily distinguished by their bright colors, usually on a black background. Often, hill-tribe textiles are richly embroidered and often decorated by metal ornaments, especially by old silver coins.

In Bangkok, hill-tribe textiles are available at the Hill Tribe Foundation (Tel 251-9816) on the grounds of Srapatum Palace on 195 Phaya Thai Road. The foundation which is under the patronage of the Princess Mother, is open Mon-Fri, 9:00-17:00, Sat 10:00-13:00. Aside from hill-tribe textiles, hill-tribe jewelry is also available.

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Thailand shopping / Gold, gemstones

Usually, the buyer of gold jewelry has a far better control over the pricing of in Thailand than in the West. This is because the price of a piece of gold jewelry in Thailand clearly is, in many cases, made up of two components: the price of the metal and the charge for the workmanship that went into a piece.

Thai bronze statue


Photo: Thai bronze statue

Gold jewelry, therefore, in general is a sound investment, and actually, many Thais and Chinese invest their savings in gold. Thailand has it's own unit of measurement for gold, called Baht like the currency.

One Baht of gold is 15.16 grams. A troy ounce, internationally used to weigh gold, has 31.103 grams. A Baht weight therefore is equivalent to .487 troy ounces.

Many of the gold ornaments sold in Thailand contain exactly one, or exactly one half Baht of gold. As prices at jewelers are often per weight unit of one Baht, it is easy to assess on a daily basis the value of any gold ornament one possesses.

Gold dealers in Bangkok buy back at any time gold ornaments bought from them or other stores at rates just minimally lower than their retail prices.

On December 2, 1991, gold shops in Bangkok sold one Baht weight of gold for around 4650 Baht (currency), while their repurchase prices were around 4550 Baht. A typical price for the craftsmanship for a gold chain was just around 150 Baht.

The international gold price (mid-rate) for December 2, 1991 was given by the Bangkok Post of December 3, 1991 as 368.25 US dollars. The average Baht / Dollar rate was 25.43. This translates into 9346.59 Baht per troy ounce of gold, or 4551.78 Baht (currency ) per Baht (weight) of gold.

The example shows on what minimal profit margin gold shops operate in Thailand. While the international mid-rate for gold was just 4551.78 Baht (currency) per Baht (weight), Bangkok gold shops at that day bought gold ornaments at 4550 Baht (currency) per Baht (weight) and sold gold ornaments at just 4650 Baht (currency) per Baht (weight), at a profit gain of just 100 Baht, or just around 2 percent (plus a fixed charge of just 150 Baht for the workmanship in a gold chain).

But in most Western countries, there is not only a much higher profit margin of the retailer and a much higher charge for the workmanship (not separately indicated) but on top of that often a heavy value added tax of up to 30 percent of the price of an ornament.

Thailand introduced a value added tax effective January 1, 1992. At the time this text was written, it hasn't been clear in how far the value added tax would influence the gold trade.

Gemstones

Gemstones are Thailand's second biggest export line, after garments and before rice. In 1990, the country exported gemstones for approximately 1.5 billion US Dollars. More than half of the worlds quality rubies come from Thailand, mainly from the region bordering Cambodia (rubies from Cambodia also find in substantial numbers their way to Thailand). In the Thai provinces of Chanthaburi, Kanchanaburi and Phrae, blue sapphires are mined. Zircon and garnet are other gemstones found in Thailand.

Thailand is a good place to buy gemstones. However, one should only buy in proper shops. One should not buy from persons who approach tourists and offer "special deals" as such persons often are con artists. They make friends with foreign visitors and after a while come up with a story that they have some relative in the gems trade, and accidentally, an "extremely good chance" is just existing to make a small fortune. As the con artists word it, it always seems to be a chance tailored for foreign visitors - but of course the only one who will finally make a small fortune is the con artist and his cohorts.

A story presented by a con artist could sound like this: "Because the Thai government has put under state control the export of gems, ordinary Thais cannot export stones by themselves. However, foreign visitors can buy gems and take them home. Because the gem trade is under state control and the government fixes the price for exports through the normal commercial channels, prices for gemstones are much higher abroad than in Thailand. A tourist who buys a few gemstones directly from a good source (the con artist may even indicate that his relative's gems are black-market stones) can easily finance his Thailand trip just by taking a few stones out of the country, walking into any jewelry store back at home and sell the stones for triple the price." There are endless varieties of con artists' stories. For example, a con artist may claim that his brother has to sell some stones which are old family inheritance because his baby will need a heart operation, and the brother therefore is allegedly willing to sell the stones for far beneath their value. It is reported that some extra stupid tourists have then offered to pay the "real", of course higher price for the stones - and others have, because of the alleged serenity of the circumstances, at least refrained from haggling over the price.

One just has to read the letters to the editors of the English newspapers in Bangkok to find regularly some more varieties of the same old theme.

Of course, all curious claims of con artists are just nonsense. The Thai government doesn't control the gems trade and imposes inflated prices for stones to be exported. And gemstones are not some exotic novelty or fashion item for which a price is set quite arbitrarily but rather an international commodity for which prices at any time do not differ much from one country to another (though retail shoppers probably pay at home a few percent duty and most probably the full Value Added Tax of maybe 10 to 30 percent - plus the mark-up of the retailer).

This is no longer the age of spice traders who made a few thousand percent profit on a sack of pepper brought from the Far East to Europe. Price fluctuations of just some 10 percent between Asia and Europe are a difference on which commodity traders can easily live - in the case of rubbers just as in the case of rubies.

Nevertheless, there may be cases when a foreigner buys gemstones at a retail outlet in Bangkok at lower prices than he would at a jewelry shop back home. But even then, the price difference will not make it worthwhile to buy a few gems in Bangkok and to try to sell them back home. The price difference certainly is not due to a very substantial difference in wholesale prices but to different retailer mark-ups. In the case of a knowledgeable retail shopper, a gems retailer in Bangkok may settle for a mark-up smaller than his counterpart in a Western country. But bluffs will not work. The retail shopper has indeed to be knowledgeable.

The Asian Institute of Gemological Science (Tel 513-2112, 513-7044 to 5) offers a one week course on gemstone identification at a price of 4,850 Baht (no gems included, but a text book). The course does not turn an amateur into a specialist and gems trader.

Those contemplating converting money into gemstones should be aware that gemstones are only to a limit suited as commodity investment. Unlike in the case of gold and silver, the value of a gemstone cannot simply be determined by weighting it. To many other factors play a role, size, shape and even how healthy Western economies are at a given time. For gemstones except diamonds are marketed almost exclusively as jewelry.

Even the Asian Institute for Gemological Science from which certificates attesting to the genuineness and quality of any particular gemstone are available at 599 Baht if one can wait a week for the report or at 999 Baht if one wants it faster, refrains from putting a value tag on stones.

The ordinary visitor should buy gemstones if he or she fancies them for his or her own adornment or as a gift. He or she should not buy them with the intention to resell them at a profit because that profit will most probably not materialize.

Visit Gems Gallery in Bangkok and Chiangmai.

Bronze

A major component in bronze is tin for which Thailand is one of the world's major producers. Tin is mined in Thailand for centuries on Phuket Island and neighboring provinces. Nickel-bronze which makes a greenish appearance has been used in Thailand since ancient times to make Buddha images.

Tin and nickel are among the more expensive non-precious metals. According to Asiaweek of August 16, 1991, the price for a ton of tin at that time stood at 5,670 US Dollars, and for a ton of nickel at 8,240 US Dollars. In comparison, the price for a ton of copper was given as 2,274 US Dollars, the price of a ton of zinc as 1,053 US Dollars and the price of a ton of aluminum as 1,160 US Dollars.

The tin content in bronze is just about 10 percent, with the rest mainly copper. Based on the above commodity prices, a ton of bronze has a metal value of around 3,000 US Dollars. From this figure can be derived what possibly could be the lowest prices available for bronze items of lesser weight.

There is a large number of bronze and brassware shops in Bangkok, especially along New Road between Sathorn Nua Road and Surawong Road. There are also a number of bronze and brassware shops on Silom Road and Surawong Road.

The best selection in brass and bronze, however, is found at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Furthermore, prices there are considerably lower than on New Road or Silom Road.

Among the designs available are two kinds, those Western inspired and those in the tradition of Thai art. It must be noted again at this place that Buddha images are not allowed to be exported from Thailand, except with special permit of the Thai Fine Arts Department. Obviously, the Thai government wants to avoid that Thai objects of worship end up as curios or even worth.

The visitor will notice that many shops offer the same objects with almost no variations - may it be that they receive them from the same source or that certain styles are just copied by a number of factories. Pieces like lamp stands or old street lights are sometimes offered as both brass and bronze.

Bronze

Photo: Manufacture of bronze items

The shopper should be aware that the weight of a piece doesn't necessarily indicate how much brass or bronze has been used to manufacture it. Hollow statues and pieces like street lights are often filled with concrete to make them heavier and thereby more impressive. Even small pieces are regularly filled with cement. (Not that bronze statues in the West would be cast solid. But to leave them hollow when they were cast hollow sort of speaks of more respect for the arts than filling a piece up with concrete.)

Aside from brass and bronzeware, pewterware is also available in Thailand. Pewter, consisting of fairly pure tin, is suitable mainly for small decorative items or intricately decorated cups.

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Thailand shopping / Art and antiques

While Thailand is rich in antique art, the collector faces some serious limitations. Pieces which are considered part of the national treasure can be purchased by non-Thais but cannot be taken out of Thailand, neither by foreigners nor by Thais. In the case of Buddha images, such a limitation exists even for those new.

A license must be obtained from the Department of Fine Arts before any art objects or antique piece can be taken out of the country. The rule applies for originals as well as reproductions. That the rules also cover reproductions is a Thai particularity. A similar rule outright prohibits making reproductions of especially revered Buddha images such as the Emerald Buddha of Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo. The rule of prohibiting in principle the exportation of Buddha images as well as the copying of the country's principal images is intended to prevent the country's religion becoming commercial.

The art or antique object for which a permit to export is requested must be submitted to the National Museum in Bangkok (224-1370 and 224-1333) or the Chiang Mai National Museum (Tel 053 / 22-1308) or the Songkhla National Museum (Tel 074 / 31-1728) at least five days before the date of shipment or departure of the applicant. An application form must be filled in, and it must be accompanied by 2 front view post card size photographs of the object or objects in question (no more than 5 pieces in one photograph) and by a photocopy of the passport of the applicant.

Whether a certificate is required depends on the judgement of the customs officer. This author has once had a shipment to England held up because it included a number of wood carvings purchased cheaply in Northern Thailand. The customs officer requested a certificate from the Fine Arts Department for these wood carvings so they were separated from the rest of the shipment which passed the export inspection. When this author inquired for the price for the certificate it turned out to be more expensive than the wood carvings themselves.

The best place to get an idea on what art objects and antiques are available in Bangkok is the River City Shopping Center next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton, off New Road. It's probably not the best place to buy art and antiques as prices are generally quite high. There also are a number of antique shops along New Road and in the lower Silom Road area, as well as on the second floor of the shopping arcade in the Indra Hotel. Less exclusive pieces can be found at Chatuchak Weekend Market. However, fakes and copies abound, not only at Chatuchak Market.

There is no clear definition how old a piece has to be to qualify as antique. Pieces some 30 years old would generally not be considered antiques by Westerners. If a trader gives as specification just Rattanakosin Period - well, that dates between 1782 and the present time.

At places such as Ban Chiang in Northeastern Thailand were prehistoric excavations have been made, quite a few people live of selling to tourists pieces of pottery and even bones alleged to be some 5000 to 7000 years old. Who believes such claims has only himself to blame.

There are numerous well done reproductions around. It's nothing wrong with them as long as one pays reproduction prices. More honest, however, it is to settle for nice pieces of handicraft which reflect an old tradition but are not particularly old themselves.

Those who think they could get real bargains in real antiques are usually mistaken. Much as in the case of gemstones, the antique trade is something for true professionals. Those not firm in the field of Oriental art may buy pieces primarily for their beauty but better not as investment or with the intention of making a fast bug by selling in Europe or the US what they bought here.

Aside from the Fine Arts Department, the Association for the Propagation and Preservation of Objets d'Arts also prepares certifications on art objects and antiques. While the Fine Arts Department basically certifies that a piece of art can be taken out of the country, the above mentioned association certifies the authenticity of an object. According certificates can be requested when pieces of art or antiques are purchased.

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Thailand shopping / Thailand shopping / Fakes

Khon Masks are made from a paper mache, produced of Sa paper (which is also used to make umbrellas).

There are numerous well done reproductions around. It's nothing wrong with them as long as one pays reproduction prices. More honest, however, it is to settle for nice pieces of handicraft which reflect an old tradition but are not particularly old themselves.

Those who think they could get real bargains in real antiques are usually mistaken. Much as in the case of gemstones, the antique trade is something for true professionals. Those not firm in the field of Oriental art may buy pieces primarily for their beauty but better not as investment or with the intention of making a fast bug by selling in Europe or the US what they bought here.

Aside from the Fine Arts Department, the Association for the Propagation and Preservation of Objets d'Arts also prepares certifications on art objects and antiques. While the Fine Arts Department basically certifies that a piece of art can be taken out of the country, the above mentioned association certifies the authenticity of an object. According certificates can be requested when pieces of art or antiques are purchased.

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Thailand shopping / Handicrafts and umbrellas

Thailand is extraordinarily rich in handicrafts. Most famous of course is handwoven Thai silk which is cheaper in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. Painted fans

Aside from silk, there is a wide array of pottery as well as of wood carvings. Among the most original Thai handicraft products are painted umbrellas of handmade paper. Available in Thailand are also large quantities of handicrafts of neighboring countries, especially Burma. Actually, as the current Burmese government still prefers to keep the country isolated, more Burmese handicrafts are traded in Thailand than in Burma herself. Aside from Burmese handicrafts, Vietnamese products are also readily available, especially in towns along the borders to Laos and Cambodia. It is said that Vietnamese handicrafts smuggled into Thailand are considerably cheaper than the same products in Vietnam.


Umbrellas

Skilfully painting umbrellas

Probably the most original, one of the most beautiful and one of the best value Thai handicrafts are painted umbrellas. And while they are available in Bangkok and tourist souvenir stores all over the country, practically all of them come from one place: the village of Bo Sarn between Chiang Mai city and the small town of San Kamphaeng, just a few kilometers west of Chiang Mai.

Bo Sarn has specialized in umbrellas not only since tourists have happened to like them. Umbrellas have been manufactured here for decades if not centuries. The original purpose of the umbrellas was to give them as offerings to monks and temples. Still today Wats are occasionally adorned with large Bo Sarn umbrellas, and sometimes they provide shade for Buddha images.

Typically, the umbrellas are made of so-called Sa paper which is manufactured in old technics from the bark of the mulberry tree. Even unpainted, this paper looks delicate as it resembles parchment or a very thin hide. In most cases the umbrellas are painted with flower or bird motives.

They come in all sizes, ranging from the very small one which can adorn potted plants, to the very large, good enough to provide shade for a whole group at a picnic.

In general, the umbrellas are made in home industry by the villagers of Bo Sarn and, meanwhile, surrounding villages up to San Kamphaeng and beyond. Nevertheless, at Bo Sarn a number of places present themselves in factory style, similar to the "factories" for lacquerware. In contrast to what is the case for lacquerware, these are the best places to buy retail quantities of umbrellas. Umbrellas of the size of utility umbrellas cost about 50 Baht (2 US Dollars) while the smallest are available for about 35 Baht (small umbrellas aren't much less work than those regular size). All the major sales places offer shipping of large umbrellas.

An rather touristy offshoot of the umbrellas are hand painted fans. Large numbers are manufactured in San Kamphaeng. Actually, at San Kamphaeng, every second shop seems to sell hand painted fans. While they are not as original as the umbrellas they are easier attached to walls than the umbrellas which tend to consume quite some space in the rooms they adorn. While the workmanship is less intricate in the fans than in the umbrellas, they cost about double for comparative sizes. The reason are the more expensive raw materials - cloths instead of paper and straight bamboo sticks instead of thin ordinary timber sticks.

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Thailand shopping / Thai and Mutmee silk

It is believed that the Chinese were the first to develop the technique of producing silk fabric some 4,000 years ago. Thai silk

The secret was closely guarded for centuries and gave rise to the overland trade route known as the Silk Road. Exportation of the cocoons or the hiring from abroad of craftsmen skilled in the art of making silk was banned. But eventually some cocoons with the information about the technique were smuggled out of China.

In China at the time of Confucius, it seems that silk was, curiously enough, cheaper and more easily obtainable than cotton-type fabrics. To the contrary, in most other countries silk was long regarded as being suitable only for royalty, nobles and celebrities. It stood out among all fabrics and has retained its unrivalled position as Queen of Textiles up to the present.

Archaeological evidence found among the relics of Ban Chiang (a human settlement site in today's northeast Thailand dating back in it's origin some 5,000 to 7,000 years and existing probably for several thousand years) proves that the people who lived in the Northeastern part of Thailand were already using silk cloth in prehistoric times. Though it is not clear whether the silk used then was of the Mutmee type, there are indications that some of it was; the typical patterns of Mutmee silk are among the most ancient patterns to appear on cloth, and these patterns have great similarity to the ancient cloth designs found in Russia and many other countries.

While the people living in Thailand several thousand years back were ethnically not Thais, the Thai silk home industry nevertheless dates back many hundreds of years. Manufacture of silk was for a long time an important traditional occupation of Thai girls. Following the steps of their mothers and their mothers' mothers, Thai maidens used to rear their own silkworms, produce fibers and weave fabrics for their families. The masterpiece of their weaving was naturally their own wedding costume.

The caterpillar (silkworm) spins a yellow cocoon consisting of up to 1000m (3300ft) of reelable filament. The caterpillar, after stuffing itself with mulberry leaves, weaves the cocoon around itself as a protection during its metamorphosis into a moth. The filaments from tens of thousands of cocoons are reeled together into strands making raw silk for the spinning and production of the fabric.

As Thai silk is hand-woven from hand-spun pure silk yarn, the resulting fabric is naturally uneven and knobby in texture. The weaving is done with great skill and care taken to retain a matching consistency. Authentic Thai silk cannot be mass-produced; no weaver can substitute for another's labour without damaging the yield.

Thai silk does not undergo mechanized finishing treatment. In its natural form, it catches light more effectively, giving off a lively glow of rich colors. It is costly if compared to other textiles because of the care taken to preserve standards and consistency.

Thai silk can be washed only with the mildest soap, then rinsed in tepid water as many times as necessary, but never wrung. In the last rinsing, a spoon of clear white vinegar can be added to retain the original luster. It should be allowed to drip dry in the shade.

Under no circumstances should Thai silk be put into a washing machine. Thai silk should be ironed on the inside just before it is dry or later only with a damp cloth over it.

It is recommended to shop for Thai silk only in stores that carry the approval signs either of the Thai Silk Association or the Tourism Authority of Thailand, as only in these places is the quality of Thai silk guaranteed.


Mutmee Silk

Part of the northeastern people's rich cultural heritage is the production of a unique silk fabric locally known as Ikat but internationally referred to as Mutmee. Mutmee silk is so called because of the particular tie-dye process by which the silk threads are tied according to the desired pattern before they are dyed. Actually, Mutmee can be made of both silk and cotton. But Mutmee silk is much more popular.

To make Mutmee, only filaments uniform in size and texture are used. In the past natural dyes derived from roots, vegetable or earth were used. However, today chemical dyes are given preference for they save a great deal of time and permit more color varieties. Traditionally, the prevailing Mutmee color is an inky blue which used to be extracted from the indigo plant.

Typical Mutmee designs are nature motives: animals such as birds or serpents, especially pythons, or trees or flowers.

Until not long ago, Mutmee was produced for domestic use, mostly in religious ceremonies or on auspicious days such as wedding days. Only at the beginning of the 80's, Mutmee was promoted beyond the villages of the Northeast chiefly by Queen Sirikit. The manufacture of Mutmee silk has since then become part of the economic development of this poorest region of the country. Trade organizations under the patronage of the Queen help in the distribution.

Today Mutmee is popular among Thai men as well as women. To encourage people to use this unique local product, the Royal Family regularly wears clothes made from Mutmee silk. Recently, King Bhumiphol suggested that a national Mutmee attire should be worn in place of western style suits which are uncomfortable in the tropical climate. Mutmee shirts are now accepted as formal wear and are commonly seen at social gatherings.

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Thailand shopping / Clothes and cloths

For most items of dress including footwear, Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular offers great shopping bargains. The savings in buying clothes in Thailand when compared to what they would cost in Europe or the US pay part of the Thailand holiday.

The most convenient places to buy clothes in Thailand are Bangkok's department stores. Of course, one may find even cheaper clothes in markets, for example at the Pratunam Market near the Indra Hotel or at Phrakanong down at Soi 71 Sukhumvit Rd.

However, the department stores are best prepared for foreign visitors who usually require larger sizes than the locals (large sizes are difficult to find in shopping areas which cater exclusively to Thais). Furthermore, the department stores are a one-stop shopping place where one can buy clothes, footwear, toiletries and other items for daily needs, and it's usually a pleasant air-conditioned place where much of the staff speaks at least some English - enough for the talk that is needed to buy items of the kind to be found there.

Those whose taste for exclusive items cannot be satisfied by the department stores will find hundreds of boutiques and specialty shops around Siam Square.

Hill-tribe Textiles

Hill-tribe textiles are usually made of cotton and can be easily distinguished by their bright colors, usually on a black background. Often, hill-tribe textiles are richly embroidered and often decorated by metal ornaments, especially by old silver coins.

In Bangkok, hill-tribe textiles are available at the Hill Tribe Foundation (Tel 251-9816) on the grounds of Srapatum Palace on 195 Phaya Thai Road. The foundation which is under the patronage of the Princess Mother, is open Mon-Fri, 9:00-17:00, Sat 10:00-13:00. Aside from hill-tribe textiles, hill-tribe jewelry is also available.

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Thailand shopping / Pottery and ceramics

Thailand offers an exceptionally wide selection of pottery and ceramics. Thai plant pots, especially of large sizes, are exported to many countries ; even pots in ancient Roman or Greek design sold in southern Europe are actually made in Thailand.

Ordinary tourist shops often carry some porcelain but seldom terra-cotta items, probably because they are too bulky to store and too heavy and too breakable to be taken along as tourist luggage. A good selection of terra-cotta pots can be seen at the Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Celadon

Celadon This generally low-priced variety of ceramics is widely sold in Thailand. Among the items available are pots and vases of all sizes, table sets and decorative pieces of every size including elephant images which double as stools. Lots of blue-and-white pottery is available at the Chatuchak Weekend Market and nearby on Kamphaeng Phet Road

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Thailand shopping / Thailand shopping / Lacquerwares, and Bencharong (2009)

The manufacture of lacquerware is a complicated process which, like so many arts technics, has been introduced to Thailand from China. Today, most of the Thai lacquerware is made around Chiang Mai. Lacquerware

The manufacture of lacquerware starts with raw wooden forms. In Thailand, small elephant images are very popular, aside from show plates and little boxes. The wooden piece is polished and then painted with black lacquer again and again.

While a design can just be painted on top of the lacquer item, the much more intricate technics is to create in-laid designs. For these, extremely thin gold leaves are most commonly used. Other in-laid materials are egg shell and mother-of-pearl.

There are a large number of lacquerware factories in Chiang Mai on the Road to San Kamphaeng, just a few kilometers out of the city. Visits to these factories are common itineraries of sightseeing tours in Chiang Mai.

Quite a lot of Burmese lacquerware is sold along with Thai products. Smuggled from Burma into Thailand are considerable quantities, especially of gold-inlaid lacquer pieces depicting not just any easy-to-do ornament but intricate designs of human or mythological figures. These figures are scratched into inlaid gold-leave layers with needle-like tools.

Prices for these Burmese, or at least Burmese-style, lacquer pieces are often not higher than for rather cheaply produced other lacquer items just featuring painted ornaments. The lowest prices for this exquisite kind of lacquerware this author has found at Mae Sai right at the border to Burma. Many shops selling Burmese lacquerware as well as other Burmese handicrafts are right at the bridge that crosses the Sai river into Burma.

In Bangkok lacquerware from Chiang Mai and Burma is available from many street hawkers in the tourist districts, at handicraft stores and at Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Only seldom available in Bangkok is Vietnamese lacquerware. It is easily distinguished, first because it normally uses red-brown instead of black lacquer, second because most pieces are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and third because pieces of Vietnamese origin are usually much larger than those of Thai or Burmese origin. Vietnamese lacquerware is smuggled through Laos and Cambodia into Thailand by numerous small-time traders who cross the borders with just a few pieces and then sell the items in Thai border towns such as Mukdahan and Aranyapathet.

Vietnamese lacquerware actually is among the best buys Thailand can offer. If compared to Thai and Burmese lacquerware, the pieces generally appear more artistic. And still, when taken the price per square inch, they tend to be cheaper than either Burmese or Thai lacquerware. Very large Vietnamese mother-of-pearl lacquerware is not uncommon. Aside from show boards, there are available room dividers, boxes and whole living room furniture sets.

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Thailand shopping / Thailand shopping / Khon masks and shadow play figures

Khon Masks are made from a paper mache, produced of Sa paper (which is also used to make umbrellas).

Khon masks

Khon Masks are made from a paper mache, produced of Sa paper (which is also used to make umbrellas). They are available in miniature or original size - original size is what can be worn not just in front of one's face but over one's head as most Khon masks are rather helmets reaching down to the neck. Traditionally these Khon masks were used in classical Thai theater, and each mask depicts a specific epic, legendary or mystical character.


Khon dance drama

Khon dance drama

Shadow Play Figures

Much the same as on Indonesian Java though not as famous are Thai shadow play figures. They are cut out of bull hide and will appear to an audience watching them behind a screen at various sizes, depending on how close to the source of light they are moved. Traditionally, these shadow play figures (Nang Rai in Thai) are just black as this obviously is sufficient for a shadow play. Nevertheless, probably as a concession to the foreign buyer who acquires them not for the purpose of shadow plays but to adorn his home in full light, they are now produced more and more in color.

Much like the Khon masks the Nang Rai figures traditionally depict legendary or mythological characters. But meanwhile, a large number of other motives is also available - of motives which have nothing to do anymore with shadow plays.

Shadow play figures almost always come from southern Thailand. In Bangkok they are commonly offered by sidewalk vendors in areas frequented by tourists, such as along Sukhumvit Road and around the Oriental and Royal Orchid Sheraton hotels. They are considerably cheaper at the Chatuchak Weekend Market where, aside from that, the selection is also much larger than along the sidewalks.

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Thailand shopping / Thailand shopping / Kalagas and wood carving

Khon Masks are made from a paper mache, produced of Sa paper (which is also used to make umbrellas).

BurmeseKalagas

Kalagas are traditional Burmese wall hangings which depict scenes from legends as well as events of religious importance. While they resemble carpets they are certainly not suitable as floor covers, and not even to sit on. Often parts are elevated as in reliefs and beads, pieces of colored stones (real or artificial) as well as mirror pieces are worked into the design.

In Bangkok, Kalagas are available at handicraft stores and, at lower prices, at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Cheapest, however, they are at Thai-Burmese border towns such as Mae Sai, Mae Sariang and Mae Sot.

Wood Carving

Thai wood carving

Until a few decades back, wide parts of northern and western Thailand were covered with dense jungles, known for their majestic teak trees. And until just a few years back, Thailand was a major exporter of wood, mostly in form of logs but also of manufactured wooden products including carvings. But in the 80's soil erosion took catastrophic proportions, and a total logging ban was imposed.

The government rushed to declare national parks at a breathtaking rate and meanwhile the population is as concerned about every remaining teak tree as Europeans about centuries old oak trees. Today, no other handicrafts are as difficult to export as are those made of wood. While container shipments of any kind of Thai handicrafts are generally no problem, those of wood carvings or other wooden products are now likely to need a permit from the Department of Fine Arts.

So difficult is the situation by now that this author was told (half secretly) by a major manufacturer of carved cuckoo's clocks that he now imports his wood from... the United States.

In spite of the fact that northern Thailand is no longer rich in woods, most of the wood carvings of the kingdom still come from the north (there are even fewer forests in other parts of Thailand). Traditional Thai wood carvings have a highly original design. Most notable are figurines of children with very round features. Typically, they are pastel colored.

Large wood carving

Increasingly available in Thailand are Burmese wood carvings which are very different from those Thai. The easiest way to recognize Burmese carvings is by the colors - they are black. Not that they wood be carved from ebony - there is no ebony in Southeast Asia, ebony being a native of central Africa.

The blackening of the carvings would be understandable if the Burmese carvings wood be made of a wood of minor quality without a beautiful grain. But amazingly enough, the Burmese carvings are mostly made of teak wood, a precious wood itself. That the Burmese teak wood carvings are artificially blackened is the more surprising if one knows how nowadays this blackening is brought about. It is by... shoe polish. Without any regard of whether the carvings might look better black or in the natural reddish teak color, one cannot imagine that a piece of handicraft or folks art can possibly gain in value by being treated with shoe polish. It does sound just like wallpapering over old frescoes.

Well, if one forgets that the black appearance stems from shoe polish, the Burmese carvings look quite exquisite. Common motives are workmen in short sarongs, women in ritual dances or harnessed warriors. Typically the carvings go into great detail. While most pieces are about 30cm (about 1ft) high, there are also ensembles carved as one piece which include mounted warriors, mythological animals they fight against and a base which may include carved plants. There is a tendency that larger pieces depict a rather martial scene.

Many arts and antiques shops in Bangkok have a few pieces of Burmese wood carvings, and occasionally they are also seen at handicraft stalls along the side walks in tourist areas such as Sukhumvit Road. A typical Bangkok price for a 30cm figurine is around 500 Baht. At Mae Sai or other towns at the Thai/Burmese border they can be bought for half that price.

Most furniture available in furniture stores in Bangkok meanwhile is of Western style. Exceptions are only some rattan furniture, and especially rosewood furniture which typically is richly decorated by ornamental carving. Occasionally, pieces have inlaid mother-of-pearl.

The Thai (and Vietnamese) technic for mother-of-pearl inlays is quite different from the Chinese one. The original Chinese technic is to fit precisely cut shell pieces into notches. The Thai and Vietnamese technics to the contrary are to glue the mother-of-pearl on the wood and then apply several layers of lac. After that the surface is sanded until smooth.