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Bangkok's Bountiful Baht Bargains

Personal Business: CITIES: BANGKOK


Thai jewels and antiques are cheaper than ever

Asia's financial crisis has turned the region into a bargain-hunter's paradise, and nowhere is this more true than in Bangkok, the city where the region's economic implosion began. With the baht down 36% against the U.S. dollar since mid-1997, Bangkok has become the shopping capital of Southeast Asia, allowing you to stay in great hotels and snap up high-quality gems, antiques, and flatware at unbelievably low prices.

Air fares can be cheap enough to justify a shopping spree. Cathay Pacific offers an $899 economy-class ticket from New York or Los Angeles to Hong Kong with free additional trips to 17 Asian cities, including Bangkok. Once you arrive, try the luxurious Oriental Hotel, with its unbeatable health spa, for around $145 a night. Shops near major hotels tend to be pricey, so it's best to venture out.

For a full day, hire a driver trusted by local contacts or use a hotel car. Steer clear of well-dressed locals toting cell phones. They'll try to lure you into shops where they get kickbacks. I hire Sukda (Toy) Srinorrakhut (662 951-7458), who comes recommended by friends and charges $65 for a 10-hour day.

The best deals can be found at the Chatuchak, or weekend market, 45 minutes north of the city. Get there when it opens at 8 a.m. to avoid crowds. Some 5,000 vendors jammed under plastic awnings sell everything from goldfish to real (and fake) antiques. Nancy Chandler's widely available map of Bangkok ($4.50) has a helpful layout of the place. Chatuchak oozes with local flavor, including food stalls with spicy fare worth a try. Be ready to bargain. One shopkeeper asked $55 for a buddha--I got it for half. Most vendors drop prices by 10% to 15%.

Thais are known for their excellent workmanship as gem cutters, silversmiths, and artisans. The key is to find reputable shops, such as Lambert Holding (807 Silom Rd., 662 236-4343), on an alley off the main road. On the fourth floor, you'll see a trove of cut stones priced at about a third below the U.S. retail rate by David Glickman, an amiable U.S. lawyer and longtime Bangkok resident. A 1.05-carat ruby goes for $1,000.

Bangkok is a mecca for collectors of Southeast Asian antiques. I head for smaller shops with better prices than those at the River City shopping center near the Sheraton. I like Erawan Antiques (149-8 Surawong Rd., 662 235-8981) with its three floors of relics, from $10 rooster-shaped opium weights to $25,000 10th century Cambodian stone carvings. Stick with known dealers to ensure quality and to avoid running afoul of Thai laws banning exports of antique buddhas.SILK HEAVEN. For fine crafts, I like Rasi Sayam, owned by Jonathan Hayssen, an American once hired by the Thai government to advise cottage industries. He now has a shop filled with baskets, textiles, and ceramics by outstanding craftsmen. His goods aren't cheap, but they're good value. Intricately woven baskets sell for $60.

No trip is complete without a visit to Jim Thompson's Thai Silk. Thompson, an American who disappeared mysteriously in Malaysia in 1967, is credited with reviving the Thai silk industry. Thompson stores boast some of the best Thai silk products, with fabric sold by the yard. Men's ties sell for around $25.

But shun men's tailors--suits tend to be of poor quality. Women's clothing is a better deal. My favorite shop is From Siam with Love, (1328 New Rd., 662 235-4513). Owner Panida Rintanalert uses Southeast Asian textiles in her designs. Thai-silk tunics go for around $65. On-the-spot alterations are free. The selection is limited, but I walk out with a purchase every time. In fact, for every trip to Bangkok, I leave the Thai economy a bit healthier.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN

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