Thailand produces everything from tiny trinkets to exquisite fabrics. Take home one of these traditional products as gifts and, with them, a small part of the Kingdom’s finest.
by Rachel Ross.
Stumbling across rare antiques in local markets, discovering the perfect presents within little family-run shops, creating your own bespoke pieces alongside designers and artists: all are aspects of the extraordinary Thai shopping experience.
Although Thailand does possess its mass-produced items, the universal feel to the artistry here is one of authenticity, local sourcing, and distinctive cultural tradition. The country’s textiles, jewelry and antiques range in price. However, cheap does not necessarily demand a compromise on beauty or on craftsmanship. The blend of tradition and personal artistry provides us with this guide for unsurpassed gift shopping.
Woven Through History
Brought from China, Laos, Vietnam, and Northern Burma, Thailand’s modern-day textile trade yields fabric pieces that are more than just decoration. Appreciate and understand East Asia’s rich artisan textile history through the lively and distinctive colors, patterns, and weaves. Each individual design is symbolic and represents a specific tribe, village, and an individual’s position in his or her community; every piece is laden with cultural heritage.
Although these textiles are sold throughout the country, most of Thailand’s textile production takes place in the North. So, if you really want to experience Thai culture through fabric, you’ll need to head up to the province of Chiang Mai.
Close Encounter with Hill Tribe Artisans
For a truly remarkable day trip, you can hop into a songthaew (remember to stop off at the golden Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple) and be taken up, up, and up into Chiang Mai’s mountains. Here, you get the chance to see the beautiful artistry in production by the Hmong hill tribes. Out of the six main hill tribes residing in Thailand, the Hmong are the most prominent in textile production. Support these communities while treating your friends and family with unique, handmade designs right from their place of creation.
The city of Chiang Mai also boasts a vibrant Sunday Market in the Old City, winding from Ratchadamnoen Road to the famous Thapae Gate. As well as featuring performances, local cuisine and live music, the market is lined with stalls offering local handmade tapestries, scarves, bed-sheets, toys, jewelry, clothing, shoes, and all things textile.
While traveling through Thailand, you’re likely to see tourists and locals alike adorned in these vibrant designs which, although affordable, still succeed in being rare discoveries.
Hand-picked antiques can be squirrelled away by the dozens in your suitcase, bespoke gemstone jewellery fits snugly into adorable little gift boxes, and handmade geometric scarves don’t add much to your airline weight limit. Take your gift pick: practical ceramics, beautiful ornaments, everyday clothing pieces, and special-occasion jewelled charms.
You may discover that the bracelet intended for your best friend has accidentally entwined itself around your wrist, and those beautiful cushion covers for relatives have woven themselves into a beautiful arrangement on your bedspread. Second gift buying is a precaution you may need to take.
Gems and Jewelry
Southern Mystic Jewels
Traversing way, way down, a journey of winding mountain bus routes, exhilarating train rides, speedier flights, or a mix of all three will take you away from the Northern textiles and bring you to the sparkling jewels of the South.
Countless cultures around the world hold the belief that certain precious and semi-precious stones possess healing and positive qualities that are passed onto the wearer. Since ancient times, Thai tradition has considered jewels, as well as clothes, to bring success and happiness; the colors and stones you wear are intricately linked to specific days and dates.
Whether you hold these beliefs yourself or not, giving gemstones as gifts is a wonderful way to pass on positivity and, by matching the gift to a person’s stone, show the recipient that you know them well.
Gemstones of Chanthaburi
Gem admirers can find a stone-trading experience like no other in Chanthaburi, a small town around 260 kilometers southeast of Bangkok, possessing a centuries-old history of colored stone mining, cutting, and trading. Although perhaps not the best place for buying gemstones for the inexperienced eye, this small town allows you to catch a glimpse of the hectic and bizarre trading bazaar.
Although fairly quiet throughout the week, the town’s gem market on Th Si Chan (Gem Road) erupts with activity on weekends when the trading really takes place. Professionals, enthusiasts, and a few passers-by are drawn in by the bargains and gorgeous precious stones.
Upwards Again, to Bangkok…
From small town market trading to city negotiations, find yourself in Bangkok’s Jewelry Trade Center, and follow lines of stores along Mahesak Road for a calmer than Chanthaburi precious stone buying atmosphere. For semi-precious, head to Songwad Road (Wat Koh) in Samphantawong, a more crowded atmosphere close to Chinatown.
And, for a truly creative and personal touch, head back up to Chiang Mai for some unique, local, jewelry design with influences from both the hill tribes and modern Thai artisans. As well as the aforementioned Sunday Walking Street, scour the Saturday Night Market, in the traditional silversmith sector of the city on Wualai Street, for inexpensive hand-crafted jewelry. During the day, wander around Nimmanhaemin Road’s boutiques as well as other prominent stores like Eranyara (145/2 Ratchadamnoen Road) for statement, high-end pieces and Dee Dee Pan Pan (270 Thapae Road) for modest, unusual designs.
Chiang Mai is bursting with jewelers and designers who are happy to create custom jewelry from stones you select, so don’t forget to try your hand at designing your own gemstone piece!
- Watch out for Thailand’s gem scam – just Google this and you will get enough information about it
- Know your stones or purchase from reputable dealers
- Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate and refuse to be pressured
- Feel committed, happy, and excited about your purchase
Lacquerware and Antiques
Discoveries Down “Handicraft Highway”
Lacquerware craftsmanship largely came to Thailand from Burma and, so, although you can find items in Bangkok from craft stores and places such as the Chatuchak Weekend Market and Narayana Phan Pavilion, Northern Thailand is, again, the best place to buy locally made lacquerware.
Thailand is a haven for delicate ceramics and wooden carvings at reasonable prices, and nobody can dispute the necessity of a second favorite teacup (especially if you’re British). Lacquerware is happily one of those wonderfully perfect “I don’t know what to buy this person” as well as a justifiable “treat yourself” gifts!
Take a stroll down San Kamphaeng Road, stretching from Chiang Mai to San Kamphaeng village, for a myriad of handmade and personalized items.
While immersed in the intricate details of the handmade, don’t forget to visit the Lai Thong and Ban-Khern Emporiums: filled with beautiful lacquerware and antique artifacts, as well as modern designs and productions.
Getting closer to the details of production may take you out to Baan Tawai Village, in the Hangdong District of Chiang Mai. Here, at the home of wood sculptures and wood-carved products, you can see the art of carving, painting and lacquer production, step by step.
You also can watch a cultural show and carpentry contest, coming away with an experience as well as with useful, practical, and beautiful presents.
Gifts and goodies aren’t always for those you’re closest to, so remember to treat yourself to something special to remember your Thailand trip by.
One of the most worthwhile things about buying from communities and artists directly? Of course, it’s that you see exactly what and who you’re supporting, and you allow the trade of independent and local talent to further flourish.