Bangkok is a shopper’s paradise. Even if you are not into shopping, it’s hard not to do while in The Big Mango. This guide is intended for first time visitors, a multiple post series that will help you get the most out of your shopping experience while in Thailand. Of course, that is assuming you’ve already read my First Times Guide To Bangkok Gay Gogo Bars series of posts. Which is about shopping of an entirely different kind.
Your shopping experience in Bangkok can begin the minute you get off the plane. So can your ‘I Got Scammed in Bangkok’ experience. You’ll have ample opportunity to participate in both later, for now, show a bit of restraint, pass by the duty free shops – which means they make a larger profit, not that you get a cheaper price – meet the only Thais in the country who don’t smile (after you’ve waited an hour to get through immigration), get your first scam experience from the taxi driver outside the airport doors, and check in to your hotel. Phew. Now the shopping can begin.
Not to beat a dead horse (because the mamasan would charge you an extra 500 baht if that’s your kink), but your first shopping experience will probably be at one of the gay gogo bars. That’s as it should be. If you opt for a long-time off and keep your boy for the next day, he’ll be a great guide for your initial foray into Bangkok’s shopping extravaganza. This will also allow you to take part in the Thai tradition of buying someone you just met gold jewelry or a cell phone. Make that gold jewelry and a cell phone. And while there are plenty of places all over town your boy can take you to make that purchase, more than likely he’ll lead you to Mah Boon Krong (MBK), Bangkok’s most famous shopping mall. Even if you decide to make your first shopping trip without a bar boy, MBK is a great place to start. The place is humongous, fairly inexpensive, and serves as a good introduction to what shopping in Bangkok is all about.
I’ll walk you through the mall, which will be much less tiring than an actual visit to MBK, in a minute. First, as a newbie to shopping in Bangkok there are a few rules you need to learn. They all apply to your MBK experience; most will also be useful for anywhere else you shop while in the Kingdom. Except for street markets. And I’ll cover those in a subsequent post. But let’s start with the basics:
1. Haggling. The old rule of thumb was that if a store priced their merchandise, those were fixed prices and you paid whatever the asking price was. Everywhere else, you haggled. Not so any more. The world’s economy sucks and times are hard so almost all stores now will allow you to haggle over prices. This can be troublesome for the newbie. Not wanting to look cheap, many just pay the ticket price when with just a bit of effort they could have instead walked away with a great deal. So when should you haggle in a shopping mall in Thailand?
At MBK the only place where an attempt at getting the price lowered will be fruitless is the larger department stores. Which is pretty much Tokyo, the Japanese multi-floor retailer than anchors MBK at the Skytrain end of the mall. Everything there has a price tag on it (kinda, sorta). The clerks there do not have the authority to lower prices. The clerks there do not have the intelligence level necessary to make that kind of difficult mathematical computation. The fact that it takes six of them to conclude a single item purchase should tip you off. The fact it takes three of those six to figure out how to put your purchase in a bag should make it obvious. But their incompetency does provide you with a general rule regarding when to haggle and when not to: In a larger store where most things are priced and there are at least half a dozen clerks standing around looking like they just had a group lobotomy, haggling is not the norm. Everywhere else, go for it.
Oh, and by the way, this is Thailand, so everything is for sale. And you really need to learn English. Stores in Thailand do not have sales. They have promotions. Where everything for sale is on sale, or at a discount. Which they pronounce ‘dick count’. Not to be confused with the dick count you made at the gogo bar the night before.
2. Sizing. Even guys who don’t like to shop for clothes end up buying some at MBK. The selection is immense and the prices are cheap. Even though Thailand, like the rest of the world, mistakenly uses the metric system, for menswear they use U.S. sizes. Not that those sizes correspond to those used in the U.S. Because that would be . . . oh, never mind.
One Size Fits All means it won’t. Assume that you need to buy one size up in casual shirts. So if you usually wear a medium T shirt, you’ll need to start with large in Thailand. And will probably actually need to go to XL. Anywhere in the world if the garment is 100% cotton, it will shrink. If it was made in Thailand, it will shrink at least one full size. All cotton is not the same. And if you scored some of those 99 baht T shirts, they’re seconds and were probably mismarked to begin with.
Ditto for casual pants. Yes they do say they are size 32. That’s Thai for 28. Unlike T-shirts which you can eyeball, you’ll need to try pants on. In one of the small stalls this can be tricky. The dressing room is a small corner with a curtain hung in front of it that a normal sized Thai man would not be able to fit into. Your initial reaction would be to just drop trou out in the open, but that is considered rude. Unless the stall is too small to even have a curtain. Then it is expected. So you better not be shy. Or be wearing a thong.
You need to try anything and everything you are considering buying on. Every piece. Just because the shirt you tried fits does not mean the same exact shirt in a different color will too. In fact that usually means it won’t. Bit it’s worth the pain of trying the stuff on, the clothes you buy will be at a great bargain. And they will still fit better than anything you have made at one of the custom tailor shops run by Indians in town.
3. Security. If you enter MBK from the ground floor or off of the Skytrain system you will pass through a metal detector manned by a few locals wearing vaguely militaristic uniforms. They are security guards and are just as brain dead as security guards are anywhere in the world. The metal detectors are not tuned as finely as those at the airport, but if you are carrying metal, such as a camera, they will go off. Ignore them. Focus your eyes on some undefined point far off in the distance and just keep walking. The guards will not come after you. To do so would be rude in Thailand. And if you do stop for your bags to be searched the horde of people waiting behind you will get quite pissed. They know the guard and detector are just for looks and will not tolerate your stupidity for long.
Of course if you really did intend on blowing up the mall, then you should know the entrances from the parking lot do not have metal detectors and the duty of the security guards on those doors is to hold them open for you. So that you can easily carry your bomb inside. If it is a heavy bomb, ask. They will carry it in for you.
4. Traffic Flow. You may have already noticed that in Thailand they drive on the wrong side of the street. If you are familiar with screwed up countries that do the same then you probably have figured out they also tend to walk on the wrong side of a pathway. Except in Thailand. In Thailand they follow their street traffic patterns which boils down to the ever popular ‘every man for himself’. Just like your taxi driver who will drive down the wrong side of the street because he spotted an open lane (which would look like the right side of the street to an American), in shopping malls your fellow shoppers will follow the path of least resistance. Especially if that means walking directly into you.
You will need to use the escalators to traverse from one floor to the next. There are a few sets of elevators at MBK, but they are well-hidden from touri. And if you stumble into one, your brief ride packed in like a sardine will teach you what claustrophobia is all about. You’ll also learn what a small space packed with Thais smells like.
Your parents probably taught you to be polite. And as a Westerner you have learned how to use lines (or queues for those of you from those countries where they drive on the wrong side of the street). Thais have not learned either of these tricks. This is nowhere more evident than at an escalator at a shopping mall. If you get into line with the other falang, you will still be waiting your turn an hour later. Instead, come in at an angle and cut to the front. Or just follow any Thai in front of you.
That politeness thingy also probably taught you to be considerate of the elderly. So even when cutting to the front of the line, your natural inclination would be to allow an elderly Thai to board the escalator in front of you. Big mistake. As soon as those magic stairs quit moving she will come to an abrupt and complete stop. And will begin reminiscing about her day, planning her television viewing schedule for the next two weeks, and reconsidering the major life choices she has made over the last eighty years. And if you were lucky enough to catch yourself from running over her, you’ll then be stuck behind her, squeezed in by the crowd, until she decides to move. This is what being polite gets you in Thailand.
5. Information. Large malls in Bangkok like MBK have Information Counters for falang to use to more easily find what they are looking for. And they are excellent for this purpose provided all you are looking for is the Information Counter you are standing at. This is one of the few positions at the mall that the HR department demands skilled labor to fill. To land one of these sought after positions you need to demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of anything to do with the mall. Having a total lack of knowledge about Bangkok means a management position is waiting for you.
Thais, however, will never admit they don’t know something. So the helpful clerk at the Information Counter will give you explicit directions to wherever it is you are looking for. And that information will be helpful. Do exactly opposite of whatever she tells you and you stand an 80% chance of being right.
The Information Counter can be fun though. If you are with other falang who keep asking you where stuff is, direct them to the closest Information Counter. It’s a great prank and you’ll have hours of entertainment laughing at them as the wander about completely lost while following the directions they received.
It’s also fun to eyeball the name of the nearest store and then stop and ask the girl at the Information Counter how to get to that place. She’ll get her fellow Information Clerks to help out, a long discussion will follow, and then she’ll point you in the opposite direction.
6. Toilet. Fortunately MBK has a large falang customer base and the locals have figured out Westerners are not intelligent enough to know how to use a hole in the floor as a toilet. So you will find familiar porcelain at the public restrooms at MBK. Locals using the facilities may not be as familiar with those contraptions, so don’t be surprise to pass by several of them squatting on top of a toilet seat. If nothing else, this leaves the urinals free for your use. And you’ll need that space. Because while you are relieving yourself an eighty-year -old local woman will start mopping the floor between your legs.
Like any other entertainment venue in Thailand, admission to the toilets at MBK is not free. I think it is now 2 baht. There is a guard at the door who will collect your fare, and she will be much more diligent about her job than the security guards who didn’t stop you from walking into the mall with a loaded AK-47. You will not get a free pass from her no matter how badly you need to go. And she does not have change (which would amaze anyone not Thai since she is siting there with a bag full of one baht coins). So be prepared. Or head out to the parking lot and pee against a pillar like the locals do.
7. Money Matters. This may come as a newsflah to you, but you are shopping and that involves money. Since you are in Thailand, that involves baht. This seems to be incompressible to the many Russians you’ll see causing a ruckus because their rubles are not being accepted, but most falang know enough to exchange their currency for the local’s version that looks like it came from your old Monopoly game. If you are smart you’ll do so before you hit the mall. The rate you get will be worse here, it’s a convenience. Meaning it is convenient for them to rip you off with low exchange rates.
You may try to beat the system by using plastic. In attempting to do so you’ll find, just like in those Visa commercials, they don’t take American Express. They also don’t take Visa. Or MatserCard. PowerBuy, the large electronics store, will. So will Tokyo. But as the size of the stores grows smaller so is the likelihood that they will accept plastic. It’s not that they are unable to, they just don’t like to. If you insist, expect to pay a 3% fee for using your credit cards (and they still don’t accept American Express).
8. Lay Out. I’d warn you that MBK is so huge that you can easily get lost, but you won’t listen to me so I won’t bother. Besides, if you do get lost you can always stop at an Information Counter for assistance. Let’s instead talk about basic layout. Of MBK and any shopping district in Thailand. Think of each floor as a village. Traditionally in Thailand, every village specialized in producing one type of product. This has carried over into malls and shopping areas.
This phenomenon will be most noticeable when you hit the fourth floor. There are 2.8 million stalls selling cell phones on the fourth floor. Okay, that may be an exaggeration. I’m probably overstating by a few dozen. And not only do they all carry cell phones, they all carry the same brands and models too. Don’t worry, your boy du jour will know which one will give you the best deal. And will give him the best commission for bringing your wallet to them.
But this layout scheme make shopping for specific items easy. If you want the 99 baht T-shirts, they are at the opposite end of where the Skytrain station is on the sixth floor. There are around 200 stalls, all selling the same shirts and all gathered in one big clump for you to shop from. See, it does make sense.
9. Transportation. You may have noticed I’ve mentioned the Skytrain a few times already. It’s also known as the BTS, just to avoid confusion. It’s the best way to get to and away from MBK. You can also take a taxi or tuk tuk, but the traffic around MBK – and the dozen of other malls that spread out along both sides of it – is notoriously jammed. It looks a lot like MBK’s parking lot, except the traffic doesn’t move quite as quickly as it does in the parking structure. To help alleviate the traffic congestion, taxis and tuk tuks are not allowed to let off or pick up customers along the two fronts of the mall. So, of course, if you take a taxi or tuk tuk to the mall, this is where you will be let you off.
When you are ready to leave, to catch a taxi or tuk tuk you need to find the rear entrance to the mall. This is the official public transportation hub for the mall. There are no signs directing you to this area. So you can take your chances and step out front instead where, unless there is a Boy in Brown collecting tea money, you’ll be able to catch your ride.
If you use the BTS, your disembarkation point is National Stadium. This is the terminus for the Silom Line. Most of the crowd you ride in with will get off one stop before at Siam. Don’t. That stop is for two other malls. And you haven’t been trained to shop at those malls yet.
If you have not yet used the BTS, your excursion to MBK will be an excellent opportunity to practice your crowd survival skills. At your boarding station you’ll notice everyone politely lines up on the arrows provided and patiently waits for the next train. When it arrives, thirty doors chuff open down the line. Then the nicely formed lines dissolve into a feeding frenzy; those passengers exiting engage in a head-down, grunting, shoving and pushing match with those who want in. No voices are raised, no punches are thrown, but if you have personal-space issues, a ride on the BTS will be a trial by frottage for you.
The worse part of the MBK shopping experience is that the mall is so huge and there is so much to look at you can easily become shopped out without ever having bought something. Sad to say, but it happens to the best of us. It’s kinda like if you’d read this post this far to get information about what you can buy at MBK and were to discover that after running you through the shopping basics the post has run on too long and needs to stop now.
Ah well, consider this a lesson learned. In Thailand you will always get exactly what you pay for.
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