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Can’t Buy Me Love, So Please Buy Me These 10 Things from Thailand

From hill tribe handicrafts to premium coffee to practical and stylish parasols, you may want to plan to check your bag on the way home from Thailand.

Shopping enthusiasts will have a ball in Thailand, where even tiny towns have street markets. If you’re keen on extensive shopping head to Bangkok or Chiang Mai; while the southern beach destinations like Phuket have plenty of shops, you won’t be as spoiled for choice—and nor do you want to lose time away from the water. In Chiang Mai, scoop uphill tribe textiles and handsome wooden furniture, both made nearby. In Bangkok, it’s all about the silk. Cool down after a shopping spree with a fresh coconut (and snag a few coconut products for souvenirs) or with a craft beer from one of the country’s growing number of microbreweries (any brewhead will be thrilled with a bottle brought back). From premium coffee to practical and stylish parasols, here are 10 of Thailand’s best things to take home.

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American Jim Thompson is credited with revitalizing the Thai silk industry, which in the 1950s was hanging on by a thread. He began selling bolts of it in the lobby of the Oriental (now Mandarin Oriental) Hotel, and after Vogue did a feature on him it took off in the West. Silk is made from strands spun by mulberry-leaf-eating silkworms which are then hand-woven on wooden looms exclusively by women in rural northeastern Thailand. The resulting textiles are gorgeous and available in a huge array of colors and patterns. Good Thai silk is not inexpensive, and what you see at markets is either of low quality or is polyester. Watch out for the “wedding ring test” (in which silk is pulled through a ring to show it doesn’t snag and the “burn test” (in which a swatch of fabric is lit with a lighter). Neither are legit, and no shop worth its silks will pull these.

Where to Buy: Good quality silk is not sold at markets like Chatuchak in Bangkok or Chiang Mai’s night markets. You can certainly buy pretty scarves there, but don’t pay for authentic silk when you’re likely getting polyester. In Bangkok, the Museum of Textiles, Prayer Textile Gallery, Jim Thompson House, and the less pricey factory outlet, and the Silk Zone (second floor of Old Siam Plaza) are reputable places to buy silk, as is the town of Lamphun outside Chiang Mai.

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Cotton Textiles

Thai silk gets most of the attention but skilled artisans in Thailand also produce beautiful cotton textiles. It has a few advantages over silk: it’s less costly, it’s heartier, and it’s more versatile (silk tablecloth + wine spills = broken heart). Some cotton textiles are hand-woven on wooden looms; many are machine woven. The patterns vary; you’ll find many in slim stripes, others in batik, and some in mudmee (Thai ikat).

Where to Buy: These are easiest to find in northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai. You can buy and learn how to make four types of cotton textiles at Studio Naenna. If you go hiking in Doi Inthanon National Park, particularly with a guide, you’ll pass a few weavers at work and can buy directly from them. The un-touristy fabric district, surrounding Warorot Market for several blocks in all directions, is teeming with stalls selling cotton in every print and color. There are a handful of cotton goods shops in Ban Daun Lueng, Pasang, near Lamphun, outside Chiang Mai. In Bangkok, head to enormous Pahurat Market (but skip the silk).

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Hill Tribe Handicrafts

Thailand’s ethnic groups or Hill Tribes including the Karen, Hmong, and Akha live in the mountainous northern and western regions of the country. In the past, the women of these communities would take villagers’ used, hand-embroidered clothing, cut it up, and stitch the squares into new clothing and accessories to be sold. These are no longer handmade, but hill tribe-style handicrafts abound—you’ll see clothing, purses and pouches, home goods, headpieces, and silver jewelry—and these colorful pieces make great gifts.

Where to Buy: These are at markets throughout Thailand, although they’re all produced in and around Chiang Mai, so you’ll find them at all of the night markets here. For bolts of hill tribe style fabric, trim, embroidery, tassels, and beads, go to Chiang Mai’s maze-like fabric district. Ask around for stalls run by hill tribe women, and when you find them, be patient, as some speak their dialects, not Thai, and not English. If you have a car and speak Thai (or have a guide), you can drive out to hill tribe villages deep in the countryside and buy textiles from them.

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Coconut Everything

One of the most refreshing ways to beat the Thai heat is sipping on a fresh coconut and then scooping out the delicious meat within. The country’s production of coconuts—more than 750,000 tons annually—means shelves at grocery stores are brimming with ultra-fresh coconut water, shredded coconut, chips, milk, moisturizer, candy, baked goods, ice cream and, at prices lower than your home supermarket, coconut oil in every conceivable size.

Where to Buy: Straw-ready fresh coconuts are on the menu at most Thai restaurants, particularly on the islands where they’re also sold on the beach and from carts on the street. Coconut products fill shelves in every grocery store in every city, and even corner and convenience stores will sell coconut milk, chips, sweets, water, and oil.

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Beauty Products

Thai beauty products may not get as much play as Korean, Japanese, or French, but there are loads of makeup, skin, and haircare products waiting to be snapped up. Sometimes the packaging has English, sometimes you can figure out what it is even if it doesn’t (a picture of the sun is a giveaway), and sometimes you’ll have no idea. Use Google Translate to find the Thai word for what you want (mascara, hair mask, etc) and a store clerk will help you track it down. Beauty blogger favorites include Sunsilk hair masks to tame your frizz, Water Angel face masks, and Smooth E cleansers. Make sure you read the packaging carefully; some goods, including sunscreen, have whitening cream in them.

Where to Buy: Chain pharmacies Boots and Watsons have well-stocked shelves. Malls like MBK Center and Siam Center have a slew of stores selling Thai (and international, particularly Korean) beauty products. Beauty Buffet, EVEANDBOY, Beautrium, and Oriental Princess are local favorites.

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Palm size bottles and packets of spices are one of the easiest things to carry home, and cooking an aromatic curry with them can bring you right back. And, if you’re checking your bag, you can add liquid condiments to your shopping basket. The list of Thai spices, herbs, and roots is long. Look out for curry paste, kaffir leaves and galangal for curries, lemongrass for soups and curries, pandan leaves for desserts, and bird’s eye chili and crushed chili for everything.

Where to Buy: All grocery stores sell a good selection of spices. In Bangkok, go to  Market Khlong Toei, supermarkets Lotus, Big C, Villa, Makro, and Gourmet Market (in Siam Paragon) and various shops in Pahurat, the city’s Little India.

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Wooden Furniture and Accessories

With patience, time, and money, it’s possible to buy handsome wooden furniture and home goods like teak dining tables, mango wood chairs, carved wooden sculptures, pretty baskets made of water hyacinth. Custom furniture can be made and shipped to you, though keep in mind that the cost of shipping and any duties you may pay can be more than the furniture itself.

Where to Buy: Chiang Mai is the best place to buy wooden furniture and accessories. Drive out to Han Dong and go to Baan Tawai Village, where sells teak and mango furniture and can arrange shipping. In Bangkok, there are some furniture vendors at Chatuchak Market like Nina Decor and plenty of shippers. In Phuket, Island Furniture and Phuket Intercraft are good bets, selling antique-style and new wooden furniture and doing custom pieces.

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Local Alcohol

If you’ve spent one night out in Thailand, you’ve probably had a Chang or Singha beer. Those are the old standbys, but a craft beer mania is sweeping Thailand—even if it has to be brewed abroad (often in neighboring Cambodia) because microbrewing is technically illegal. But Thailand’s brewers haven’t been dissuaded: among the country’s many craft beers are Full Moon and its popular Chalawan Pale Ale, Taopiphop and its Saison, and Dirty Forty’s light-bodied pilsner. Down south on the islands, rum is being made in Phuket (Chalong Bay brand) and Koh Samui (Magic Alambic). Iron Balls brews its gin in Bangkok.

Where to Buy: The beers are stocked at convenience stores like Family Mart and 7/11 and at craft beer bars throughout Thailand, including Craft in Bangkok. Iron Balls gin is sold at their bars in Bangkok and two dozen other locations. Pick up Chalong Bay rum at their distillery in Bangkok, at duty-free, and at liquor stores across the country.

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Thailand grows arabica beans in the north and robusta in the south. Most of what Thailand grows is robusta, but it’s the arabica that serious coffee aficionados go for. If you want to see coffee production first hand, go to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and arrange a coffee tour. If you just want to sip one good cup after another and bring home a few bags of excellent beans, you don’t even need to leave Bangkok.

Where to Buy: If you go on a coffee tour you can buy beans directly from farmers and sip their brew on the spot. Specialty coffee shops abound throughout Thailand, especially in Chiang Mai (like Ristr8to in Nimman) and Bangkok (Casa Lapin, Wonderwall The Kaffebar), and you can buy beans here, taking recommendations from baristas.

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Save for a few months in northern Thailand, it’s always hot and humid, and the sun is strong. You know those vacationers you see with a brutal sunburn? Don’t be them. In addition to slathering on sunscreen, make like the Thais and use a parasol to protect yourself.

Where to Buy: In Chiang Mai, go to the village of Bo Sang, just outside the city center. It’s umbrella central. In the south, like in Phuket or Krabi, you’ll find them along the main streets at shops selling bathing suits and pool floats and at the Old Towns’ night markets. As with everything else, you can find them at markets in Bangkok: Chatuchak and Pratunam, and on Khao San Road.

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