On the whole, this is probably the most mismanaged aspect of trips abroad. But there are also lots of variables here, too. A holiday abroad? A trip abroad? One week or three months? A gap-year where you’re moving around the world? All these things are vastly different. And yet they’ve all got one thing in common. In every one of these scenarios people will take things back with them at the end. A lot of these will be spontaneous on-the-spot buys. But if you’re wise, it can be a lot more fulfilling. So why not spend as much time planning this aspect, as you’ll no doubt spend online checking out hotels and restaurants before you come?
Another element is what age-group you’re in. An Australian friend of mine used to work for the customs department. And it was a source of amusement to her when planes flew in from Bangkok. The first rule here was that absolutely everyone brings things back from Bangkok. And the second guestimate was that 99% of these will be illegal. Bear it in mind that a Thailand trip has virtually become a rite of passage for young Aussie teens. Thus some truisms emerge. The main one was that nobody ever planned what they brought back – everything was bought on impulse. And then it gets silly, as nearly everything that was confiscated at customs could just as well have been bought online via any dodgy internet trader. Top of the list were weapons – flick knives, throwing stars, blowguns, batons, slingshots, and even replicas of military guns. And then there was also a sprinkling of the unregulated pharmaceuticals available here.
Thus let’s look at the other side of the coin – a family. Or at least a handful of individuals of mature years sufficient that Thai ‘culture’ implies historical and social artefacts, as opposed to where to get fake ID cards, party substances and boasting about how many ‘buckets’ you drank before passing out. And this is the point where the time factor comes into the equation.
The majority of visitors to Thailand are here for an average stay of 10 days. Breaking this down further, there are millions who are here only for around five days – most significantly the recent influx of Chinese tourists who now descend in organised waves. For short-stay guided tourists like this, there is little in the way of choice as to what they’ll be taking home. Their itinerary will include an enforced afternoon at a gold and gems emporium, and another one at a huge mall such as Bangkok’s Siam Paragon or MBK. Indeed, anyone of any nationality who is factually ‘on holiday’ is very much limited to taking home artefacts – items you can buy in the shops. There’s simply not the time to consider absorbing moreinteresting
possibilities, such as learning the Thai language, taking on a course of Thai cooking classes or even getting involved with Muay Thai, the world-famous Thai kick boxing.
And then there’s the other end of the scale; people who come here on an extended tourist visa and stay for between two and six months. Traditionally many of these are outdoor workers, escaping from the unseasonal winter weather, or oil workers who go for long periods without a break. And then the masses from the former USSR: most are able to network online and many of them come and go, maintaining their wives and children here all year round.
Really, anyone who comes here for more than just a couple of weeks will be able to take advantage of the hundreds of different types of real bargains that are available in Thailand. Yes, we’ve immediately got the usual shopping lists – fake designer goods from watches to Polo shirts and handbags and purses and wallets. Mostly no problem, unless you try
to act nonchalant about 100 Rolexes in your suitcase. Plus the temptation of Thai gemstones of course: but whole books have been written about the pitfalls of looking for a bargain here.
However this is where the idea of planning comes in. Nearly everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this has been set in their thinking: buy things here and carry them home on the plane. Which is probably the worst thing to do, as inevitably you’re limited to just a few kilos. So this is where you think long and hard about mailing them back instead. Consider what you are buying and the comparative cost back home. Keep it in mind that international sea freight runs to about $10 a kilo. Then realise that, even allowing for possible import duties, you can mail back a goodly amount of exquisite craftwork and similar items for probably about one-third of the comparable cost back home – if you can even find items of this sort of quality.
The obvious things are tailor-made clothes, for instance. (But do research your tailor first; some use cheap labour and produce shoddy goods.) The entire range of spa products: Thailand is famous for these and they are expensive to buy in other countries. Then objet’s d’art and cultural items and woodcarvings: you can pack some good stuff into a 20kg box. Fine authenticated silks by Jim Thomson: add them to any package you send, it’ll cost you nothing. Even Thai foodstuffs and curry pastes; half an hour in 7-11 will fill a goodie bag that’ll last you for ages.
But lesser-known bargains come in the form of cutlery or tableware. How about a full 18-place cutlery set made out of rosewood and bronze that comes in its own velvet-lined box? (The box alone is a work of art and weighs 5kg.) This will cost you around 3,500 baht plus shipping (about $150). Or the height of Thai extravagance, a full Royal Thai gold-leaf Benjarong dinner service? These can be found in Bangkok’s Emporium or Siam Paragon Mall, and there are two shops in Emporium which will pack this very carefully for overseas shipping (but take this to the post office yourself – their shipping charges are unrealistic). And with something fragile like this – make sure it’s insured!
It only takes a moment’s thought. But once you realise, you’ll be shipping it all back home instead!
Rob De Wet