For some people, shopping is a heavenly, therapeutic delight. For others, it is the darkest of the seven circles of hell, a slog through the worst that humanity has to offer. I can see both sides. I used to pretend to be sick every time I went to a mall when I was a kid just to shorten the torture. Markets in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are not your typical shopping experience, though, they are a spectacle full of color, scent and noise, with something to delight even the most shopping-averse traveler. They are so characteristic and so much fun, I suggest a great market scene before any museum in all of these countries.
To shop in the markets in Southeast Asia, bring cash. Thailand runs on the Baht, which is about 35 Baht to the Dollar. Be solid on calculating the currency conversion before you go into any foreign market, many sellers prey on confused tourists who can’t do the calculation in their head. Write a little conversion chart to keep in your pocket: $1=35, $2=70, $10=350, and so on. I always pay in local currency, even if people will often take dollars because the prices are usually higher in dollars.
Cambodia is a little odd in that they work in local currency as well as US Dollars as a primary currency. They local currency is something you really don’t want or need, so having a big stack of small US bills is the best strategy. If you need change, ask for the bills to be in USD. They don’t have US coins, so anything under $1 will be in local currency.
Kinds of Markets
Markets in Southeast Asia can be focused on food, textiles, junk, crafts, tourist knickknacks and just about anything else. What is sold can vary based on day, time of day and location. If you have something particular in mind, do a little research before you venture out and find the right market.
Morning markets usually offer fresh food, especially seafood, meat, veggies and other perishables. All-day markets usually sell clothes, household goods and touristy things. Night markets usually sell a mix of things with the addition of a bustling street food scene and entertainment, like fire jugglers or musicians.
Clothing is a favorite market item. Prices are good, but the best values are in the markets of Vietnam. It’s even possible to have custom made clothing ordered and delivered within a day–a great find for unusual sizes (like extremely tall people!). When I go next to Vietnam, I plan to bring an empty suitcase and buy my travel wardrobe there.
There are a few floating markets in Thailand, which are their own special experience, and I visited Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, south of Bangkok. This kind of market developed in Thailand with the influx of Chinese immigrants, who preferred to trade on boats. The immigrants dug a network of canals lined with waterfront market stalls. Goods are brought in on long boats and sold along the waterfront, along canals or boat to boat.
While Damnoen Saduak was definitely touristy, it was great fun. Part of the experience is to get in a boat and take a cruise around, stopping to buy things from vendors passing buy. I pulled over to buy my kids wooden cat figurines at a stall, and then bought a spear of roasted pineapple from a lady barbecuing it right in her boat.
Local, non-tourist markets are fun to navigate, although may not have as much for you to buy. They sell household goods like mops and frying pans, or other items that may give you some insight into the culture. In Cambodia, I passed through a market with a long line of customers buying pajama sets. A local later told me that pajama sets are very trendy as street clothes in Cambodia right now. No joke. Kids these days.
What to Buy
Clothing is everywhere at markets in Thailand. The most typical type of clothing, other than T-shirts, are the soft, baggy Thai pants with tropical designs. Sundresses, skirts, tops and any other kind of clothing are found at rock bottom prices. For those with funky tastes, there are small, hipster artisan clothing stalls as well in the more touristy Bangkok markets.
Shoes are purses are widely sold at markets, but if you think you’re getting real Prada for $5, you’re kidding yourself. Look closer at the tag, it probably says “Proda” and is made of genuine plastic.
I particularly like the handmade stuff, like jewelry, real leather wallets and scarves. The Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, while offering just about everything you could think of, had plenty of stalls of interesting art and artisan products.
At the markets in Thailand and Cambodia, I scored a rope hammock, two silk dresses, a silk shrug, a linen scarf, fake Birkenstocks, Thai elephant pants, wrap-around pants and top, and a handmade necklace. Apart from the silk clothing, everything else came to less than $50 total.
How to Buy
Here’s the part where some get squeamish and other people get a real thrill. Bargaining. I am terrified of bargaining and am just horrible at it. It took me months to buy a new car recently because I hate salesmen and I hate, HATE negotiating a price. But you have to do it at the markets in Thailand, you’re a fool not to. Those little cat figurines I bought at the floating market? No negotiation price was $20 each! I eventually got it down to $5 each and thought I was a winner. The next day, I found the exact same thing at a normal market for $1.
SO here’s the thing- you will need to be tough and be prepared to walk away. Don’t fall in love with anything or you’ll overpay. Shop around before making an offer. Make a ridiculous offer to start, like 25% of the initial price. If you’re obviously American, you look like a cash machine with legs, so you’ll have to be bold if you want a fair price. The merchants should look stricken by your offer. They should huff and puff and stomp. They should curse. If they don’t do that, you’ve offered too much. Remember, this is theater, it is part of the experience.
Food and Street Theater
Even if you aren’t much of a shopper, the markets are a hoot. Food stalls sell fresh smoothies, cut-up mango, noodles, meatballs, grilled fish, curry-in-a-hurry and just about any other street food you can think of. Locals dare each other to eat the fresh fried tarantulas and snakes on a stick.
The local color often comes out at the markets, I ran into beauty queens, sword eaters and musicians. Tuk-tuks zip in and out of the action. The evening scene is vibrant and fun. Best of all, the people watching at markets can be hilarious, and that’s free. Best show in town.
Would you like to travel with me to Southeast Asia? We will shop and eat our way through and have a wonderful, local experience. Seats are still available for my February tours of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. More info and sign-ups at imprinttours.com