Amazing Bangkok bargains come at a price

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      Heat rises from the concrete parking lot, hits the canvas tarp, and settles in droplets on my sticky body. It’s high noon, and the temperature is intensified by dozens of bodies jostling through the narrow aisles. I lean over a table piled with turtleneck sweaters. One by one I pull them free, tossing rejects left and right. I feel faint—skipping lunch hasn’t helped—but plow on, stretching each knit across my chest in an attempt to gauge the fit. The label says Ann Taylor LOFT. The sign says 100 baht. For a scant $3 each, it’s worth the sweat.

      Fake label? Shoddy rip-off? Not in this case. Bangkok is full of markets packed with polyester “silk” pyjamas, vinyl “Hermí¨s” handbags, and “Nike” T-shirts. But this isn’t Patpong, where vendors ask $200 for an obviously fake Rolex and then immediately discount it to $25 when you don’t bite. (The occasional clueless tourist actually does, so who can blame them for trying?)

      I know this garment is genuine because the label has been slashed to prohibit retail-store returns, the fabric purrs quality between my fingers—and because my Thai colleagues told me so.

      For several years when I worked in Bangkok, I frequented a market five minutes from my office. Known only as talat nat (“the market”), it was one of the many makeshift spots that spring up around the city over lunchtime, catering to hungry, bored office workers.

      Twice a week, the strip-mall parking lot of a bank and a convenience store was transformed. At 9 a.m. all would be pavement, save for a dozen or so vendors setting up tables and scaffolding on which to hang the contents of their overstuffed bags. Things got going around 11, with hawkers scooping fish-cake paste into huge woks of sizzling oil, rotating satay skewers over charcoal, stirring vats of red stewed pork, and cubing pineapple and cantaloupe. At noon, smartly dressed white-collar workers poured in, perching on red plastic stools to enjoy fried fish, fiery coconut-milk curry, and barbecued duck hacked from a hook.

      Then they would shop.

      You never knew what you would find, and that was the thrill. New vendors were always popping up, and the regulars hawked different merchandise every week. School notebooks, nylon granny panties, woodblock toys, fake Estée Lauder eye shadow, real Clinique lipstick, laundry pails, barrettes, brooms, rhinestone flip-flops, pirated DVDs”¦even real pearls.

      I discovered that last one when I complimented my section head, Normita, on her lovely necklace. “I got it at the market,” she said proudly. “Four-hundred-and-fifty baht!” Fourteen dollars for a strand of pearls? I was skeptical. To prove their authenticity, she took off the necklace and bit it. “It feels gritty and leaves no marks,” she said, showing me the beads’ lustrous surface.

      A vendor would have to be pretty bold to quote a local that much for a fake. At this nontourist market, they wouldn’t dare ask more than 100 baht for costume jewellery. But if the pearls were real, how could they be so cheap?

      Normita explained that the wo ­men who sold stationery occasionally received slightly flawed pearls from a relative who fished for them in southern Thailand. When she had enough to string a couple of strands, she put them up for sale. “They go fast,” she said. “You’ve got to get there early.”

      Despite the fact that everyone in my publishing office worked to a 2 p.m. deadline, my colleagues always made time to go to the market. The Thai guiding principle of sanuk (“fun”) deemed it a priority. So one by one, we would absent ourselves for 20 minutes of speed shopping and report back with bulging plastic bags.

      One day, Normita returned breathless and shooed me out of my chair. “They’ve got the pearls!” she said, panting. “Go! Go!” When I arrived at the stall, sure enough, two creamy strands lay nestled between the ballpoint pens and the erasers. Fourteen dollars later, one was mine. Although the clasp has since broken, I’m willing to bet the pearls are genuine, if slightly imperfect, specimens.

      Slightly imperfect describes many of the bargains at the market. The made-for-export clothing, like those Ann Taylor turtlenecks, were indeed the real McCoy. Often they landed there because they hadn’t passed quality control: a missed stitch, a stain, a sloppy seam, a tag sewn inside out; sometimes the flaw was enough to pass it up, and other times it was inconsequential. Often nothing discernible was wrong, but the size had been mislabelled. Buyer Beware ruled, as there was no place to try anything on, payment was cash-only, and don’t even think about returns or exchanges.

      That didn’t stop me. Things were so cheap that, when unsure of the correct size, I simply bought two. Gap T-shirts for $2. H&M button-down shirts for $3. Liz Claiborne flannel pyjamas for $5. L.L.Bean pants for $7. One day, to my patriotic delight, I even came across Bay-brand Togo fleece tops. I stocked up on dozens of Carter’s Baby outfits for $2.50 each, dressing my infant nephew for the first several years of his life. Then there were the IKEA ceramic bowls and Le Creuset ramekins for 30 cents each”¦

      The one thing all these items had in common was a Made in Thailand or Made in Cambodia label. My colleagues confirmed that much of what I saw in the market was brought in from regional factories. They explained that some items were flawed and had been written off by the company. But some perfectly good items made it through less-than-honourable channels. Some were illegitimate overruns, cut from the same cloth in the same factory as genuine items by staff working after hours. Other items had been diverted by profiteers at some point on their journey out of the country. “The market’s near the port,” Normita explained with a shrug.

      Did I feel guilty buying questionable goods? Not when I nabbed a pair of Banana Republic wool slacks for $10. But I could never shake one nagging question. How could this clothing be produced so cheaply in the first place? How can a Thai vendor make an acceptable profit on a designer shirt sold for $5 at the market, or $10 at a retail outlet store in Bangkok?

      According to a September 7, 2006, article in Thailand’s the Nation news ­paper, the garment industry in Thailand pays about 250 baht ($7.70) per day to a skilled worker. That’s no longer deemed competitive in the manufacturing industry, so a company that makes bras for Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein has just laid off 1,600 Thai workers to move operations to China and Cambodia. Thailand’s minimum wage is 184 baht ($5.70) per day, but it’s only the equivalent of 70 baht ($2.20) in Cambodia, the paper reports.

      Kind of takes the swing out of that bargain designer skirt, doesn’t it?

      I would like to say that statistics like these stopped me from snapping up bargains in Bangkok. They didn’t. I reasoned that it doesn’t make any difference to the factory workers if I buy the same sweater in Thailand for $3 or in Vancouver for $50. I’m well aware that this misses the point entirely.

      Back in Vancouver, whenever I see a Made in Thailand label, I think about how little I could pay for that very same garment overseas. And then I try—yet again—to reconcile myself to what it really costs. -

      ACCESS: The market in the circuitous Klong Toey district runs from about 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. There are a number of markets in this district, and this particular one is difficult to find. Ask a taxi driver to go to Klong Toey and then to Bangkok Bank, at 116 SSP Tower 2, Na Ranong Road, off Sunthorn Kosa Road. Keep in mind that on any given day, the market’s offerings could delight or disappoint.

      For an easier-to-find authentic market, head to Chatuchak weekend market, at the Mo Chit Skytrain station, on Saturdays and Sundays.