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  • Debra Palmen

Buying stuff (well, trying) in Bangkok

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Are we there yet? No.

Are we there yet? No.

The part I hate most on any buying trip is schlepping around the airport, waiting to board a late-night flight. Even Tuk Chop, the little Asian noodle joint in the international terminal where we traditionally enjoy a pre-flight snack, is closed at that time of night. But all the duty free shops are open and touting for business.

And in that sense the international terminal is somewhat better than the domestic terminal, where late at night you can’t even buy a sustaining caffeine hit. Or a sleazy tabloid to distract and amuse. We could have sat glued to our phones, like almost every other person around us, while we waited to collect our house/moggie sitters, but instead we occupied ourselves with people watching.

First prize went to me, for spotting a young woman with the shortest short-shorts we had ever seen. I mean, Wow Girl! She did have a very fine bottom, it must be said, and most of it was on show so we had ample opportunity to analyse its best bits. Absolutely hysterical, though, was the guy standing in line behind her, too close to gain the full benefit of her magnificence, and trying so hard to twist himself into a pretzel to not very subtly obtain a better view.

It’s interesting to observe travelling clothes choices. Like me, most people go for comfort. Comfy trousers, loose tops and flat shoes means you won’t swan about looking like a Kardashian, or be leapt upon by paparazzi who have mistaken you for a super-model. But you also won’t spend a 10 hour flight having your circulation cut off by too-tight jeans.

And yet, a surprising number of people do make the Going-To-A-Nightclub choice in their travel attire, teetering about on vertiginous heels, with super-super tight jeans or super-super short skirts, and a fair dusting of sequins and glitter.

Doug was happy to observe that jersey boob-tubes appear to be back in fashion, after what he considers to be an unfortunate and scandalously long period in Fashion Exile. And one poor lass had chosen a satin jumpsuit with shorts that just wouldn’t stop riding up and up. And up. And her jumpsuit’s top was so incredibly plunging she was obliged to walk about with one hand covering her bosom at all times.

Doug’s view was that, having made her fashion choice, she should stick with it and walk around with shoulders back, proud and tall. In his dreams. What apparently made sense when she got dressed at home was now being deeply regretted by this young lady, in the dark chill of a late night airline terminal.

Time slows on a long haul flight, but finally we arrived in Thailand and emerged into the pre-dawn. Hot, drippingly humid and incredibly smoggy at 5.30am – welcome to Bangkok. As usual, our driver got us to the hotel in record time – hurtling past Police slouched in their pursuit cars and perched on motorbikes dotted along the side of the highway, all ignoring the yellow blur that was our taxi as they enjoyed an early morning cigarette. And as usual, the hotel upgraded us from a standard room to an elegant river-view suite. Damn decent of them.

After a shower and a quick rest, we headed off to an interesting antiques centre we know, which I've promised to produce a feature article on for the magazine I write for. Plus there was a possibility of shopping because on previous visits we’d pounced on fabulous Chinese antiquities for extraordinarily good prices. Usually not good enough prices for them to become stock, but good enough to buy privately and be well pleased.

Last time we visited this centre we bought two ceramic cocoon jars. They were used in the funeral rites of Chinese nobility over 2000 years ago, filled with wine for the deceased to have a ready supply of grog in the afterlife. We snapped them up for terrific prices – better than we’d seen anywhere else ever, ever, ever. So we thought we’d have a little browse this time as well, and see what we could turn up.

But alas the days of excellent antiquities buying in Bangkok seem to be behind us. We saw several things we loved, but the prices were swoon-inducing. My favourites were old Tibetan doors – early 20th century so not ancient but still with some age – painted with stylized tigers or dragons. In Buddhism these animals are seen as guardians, and were often painted on interior doors. They’re stunning and very beautiful pieces, but with the cheapest one $4500 plus freight to Australia, they were outside our budget.

Doug really fancied an exceptionally large, ceramic Tang Dynasty horse, partly glazed in deep green. Thermoluminescence testing is a reliable technique used by archaeologists to date antiquities, and this piece dated to between 1500 and 2400 years old. It was in the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it price range, though, so it also stayed behind.

I seriously wanted an ancient wooden curled up tiger in one shop, but it wasn’t for sale because it was the shop’s Guardian piece. And I also zeroed in on a gorgeous, very old fabric lantern painted with a dragon in another shop, but again it was the shop’s Guardian piece.

As you can see from the photos here, Buddha figures of all shapes, sizes and materials were available in abundance. Some were very beautiful, all were hideously expensive. We already have a lovely Qing Dynasty marble Buddha head, though, and we’re not in the market for another. Fortunately we bought ours many years ago, when prices weren’t stratospheric.

So I didn’t spend any money in Bangkok this time, other than on a hugely indulgent birthday lunch. I think we can all agree that four desserts is a touch on the indulgent side, right? We did share them, though, which was a big sacrifice for Doug, who doesn’t share well when it comes to food.

Now we’re in grey, soggy London. We’ve been terribly well organized and already collected boxes and bubble wrap and will now hunker down to lounge and snooze away the rest of the day, trying to get our body-clocks in sync with local time. Then at 6am tomorrow we hit Kempton Park, the first of the big antiques fairs for this trip.

Let the buying begin.

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