Phuket is certainly a shopper’s paradise as it offers such a wide choice to locals and tourists alike. In recent years, several large shopping malls have been established here and so the whole gamut of shopping experiences are represented well. Compared with Bangkok however, Phuket doesn’t quite have the same diversity and quantity of shops, but you can certainly find just about anything you need on the island without too much trouble.
Shopping anywhere in Thailand can be an extremely intense but enjoyable experience, as there are so many varied, wonderful and even downright strange things to buy. From the usual tourist souvenirs to handmade silk items, tailor made suits and knocked off clothing, fine furniture and arts and crafts; just about everything you can imagine is available somewhere. Most people that shop in Thailand wish they’d brought a couple of extra suitcases to fill up, once they realise just how many bargains there are to be had. We recommend that you buy an extra bag or two whilst here and pack it to the brim with all the wonderful stuff that you can get your hands on!
A Little Local Knowledge
For most people that come to Thailand on holiday, it can be helpful to learn a few basic Thai words and phrases to help in your quest to find that elusive bargain. Certainly in Phuket, most of the shops and traders understand at least some basic English as they are well used to dealing with foreigners. However, it can definitely help to speak a few words of Thai and it really adds to the overall sense of fun and engagement with local people; Thai people usually appreciate the effort you’ve gone to and might even give you a slightly better price, especially if they think you’ve not just arrived fresh and pale straight from the airport!
We’ve mentioned a few handy basic phrases below, to get you going and help break the ice with the locals. It’s definitely a good idea to obtain a phrasebook that will have more details, and help with the correct pronunciation.
Try out the following phrases whilst shopping and see what response you get. Don’t forget to end each sentence with the polite particles “ka” if you’re a woman and “khap” or “khrap” if you’re a male speaker.
“An nee tao-rai krap” – How much is this one?
“Mee eek mai” – Do you have any others?
“Mai ow” – I don’t want it, thanks
“Lot rah-kah dai mai” – Can you lower the price?
“Kor doo noy” – Can I take a look?
“Pairng mahk” – That’s very expensive
“Pairng bpai noy” – A little too expensive
“Mai bpen rai” – Never mind
Where to Shop in Phuket
First time visitors to Phuket and Thailand might be somewhat overwhelmed at first when shopping on this magnificent island. The first thing you might notice will be the constant but friendly harassment by the ubiquitous hawkers and tailors that you will invariably attract whilst walking the streets around the main tourist zones. This is true especially in Patong Beach, and the other west coast beach resorts to a lesser extent. After a while this bombardment becomes easy to block out and ignore politely, but you might just miss a bargain or two in the process.
The small streets around Patong Beach, especially the main road parallel to the beach, are packed with tiny stalls and shops that sell all manner of T-shirts and clothes, copied DVD’s and computer games, tailor made suits, besides souvenirs and trinkets of varying quality. You can find very similar goods all over town – there isn’t that much variation, and it’s normally a case of bargaining to get the best deal.
Shopping Malls and Department Stores
The quality of shopping malls in Phuket has taken a giant leap on the past few years. Nowadays the malls are big, modern and have a great variety of local and international brands. You can expect to find a superb array of shops and boutiques, restaurants and fast food chains, as well as entertainment such as cinemas, bowling and nightclubs.
The two most popular malls in Phuket are JungCeylon (pronounced Junk Ceylon) in Patong Beach, and Central Festival which is just outside of Phuket Town. You could easily spend a couple of days in each one on a mammoth spending spree. Take your credit card along and be prepared to spend, spend, spend! You can read more on both of these splendiferous shopping havens and more, in our guide to the local shopping malls.
Local Fresh Markets
Phuket has an abundance of dedicated fresh food markets (normally called talaat sot in Thai which means fresh or wet markets) in every town, as well as oter markets that sell just about everything including footwear, clothes, electronics, motorbike parts, children’s toys and so much more. The local markets are where the savvy locals go to buy the majority of their food as they are by far the cheapest (being much less expensive than the more upmarket supermarkets such as Carrefour and Tesco), and provide an interesting and colourful insight into the lives of real Thai people.
The markets tend to start very early and finish in the afternoon, though there are some night markets which open in the evening and stay open until quite late. You might need a pair of wellington boots or sturdy shoes in the fresh markets to avoid slipping in the aisles, and watch out for motorbikes careering down the isles laden with buckets of ice and produce.
The idea of OTOP (One Tambon One Product) is to help encourage locally produced goods, especially arts, crafts and souvenirs. The main OTOP market is located in Patong Beach and is a fantastic place to wander around and buy some interesting souvenirs. You’ll find a varied selection of items available such as wood carvings, leather goods, decorative ceramic plates and tableware, health and beauty products and much more. It’s a great concept and you’ll also be helping local companies by shopping here.
What to Buy in Phuket
As a tourist or visitor to the island, you might be wondering what to buy in Phuket? Perhaps you’re looking for something memorable to take back home as holiday memorabilia or a gift for a friend. Phuket is quite well known for certain items such as Pearls, and you can usually find good examples of Thai arts and handicrafts produced locally and further afield. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the special or just plain cheap items that you might want to seek out.
Phuket is becoming increasingly well known for extremely colourful and interesting batik work. Typical items available almost everywhere (particularly in Patong Beach, Phuket Town and Rawai) are bags, clothing and sarongs, which are adorned with the beautiful and sometimes intricate designs. A few batik shops will even let you create your own patterns which can be made into any item you want. Perhaps the most common designs found in Phuket however are scenes of tropical fish, various ocean creatures and colourful scenes of nature from around the island.
Cheap clothes are sold all over Phuket but the quality may not be up to the usual high standards that you might expect to find back home. Well, you probably can’t expect a 100 baht fake Billabong T-shirt to last as long as the real McCoy. Having said that, there are plenty of stores in the main shopping malls that sell branded and original clothes, usually much cheaper than you can find in Europe. There are also a few factory outlet stores in Phuket that have knock down prices and a decent range of products.
Hundreds of tailor shops can be found around Patong Beach but they are mainly just shop fronts; the work itself is done in some backstreet sweatshop, so it’s important to find a tailor that is reputable with high quality workmanship. Having said that there is very little to distinguish between them. Garments that are made in a day are likely to be of very dubious quality, so make sure the stitching is up to scratch and allow several days to get it made.
Copied DVD’s and Games
Practically all the DVD’s you see on sale in the streets are copies. Whilst not strictly legal, they are absolutely everywhere and you can find all the latest releases months ahead of the official release dates. If you’ve spent time around any of the bars, you’ll no doubt have come across the DVD sellers playing their wares from bar to bar (this is common in all tourists in Thailand). Pirated DVD’s and games are also available in hundreds of stores in the beach resort areas. Just be aware that despite the very low prices, the quality can vary and some have even been filmed by hand in the back of Asian cinemas. Check the discs on the DVD players in the store before you buy. Nevertheless you can find many of the latest films that do have a good quality picture and sound, especially those that have been released for a while. Legitimate movies and games can be bought from many stores in the shopping malls and even the 7-11 convenience stores, but they are usually available in Thai only and may be on a lower quality video CD rather than a DVD.
Thailand is quite famous for its gorgeous gems and precious stones. Be very careful when buying and look for reputable dealers only. It’s important to be aware that anyone that approaches you in the street or in unusual circumstances is probably trying to scam you. Just use your common sense, because there have been many well known cases in Thailand where unsuspecting foreigners become tangled up in some kind of elaborate hoax. For legitimate gems, the prices are quite reasonable compared with other countries and the selection is usually good.
The Patong Beach area in particular is packed with abundant little shops filled with skilled artists knocking out dozens of copies of famous paintings, as well as a few original and attractive designs. Many of these pictures are surprisingly of a very high quality, and the hardworking artists can be seen throughout the day and night faithfully reproducing the works of art in their little studios. The traditional scenes from Thai culture such as elephants and various characters in authentic Thai dress are consistently popular subjects. Pictures can be taken off the frames and sent abroad for a reasonable price.
Phuket is home to several active pearl farms and is also quite appropriately known as the Pearl of the Andaman. The pearls themselves come in many colours and sizes and can be made into necklaces and other adornments at jewellers shops all over Phuket. These days, due to advances in cultivation techniques, most pearls take just a couple of years to reach maturity, and the quality of those found in Phuket can be high.
Thai silk is highly regarded around the world and can be found in Phuket having been made into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, ties, shirts and home furnishings. There are dozens of places to buy good quality fabrics, especially around the beach areas and the local shopping malls. Jim Thompson silk is perhaps the most well known and respected company that has popularised Thai silk all over the world. There are several Jim Thompson outlets in Phuket including at the Central Festival mall.
The Art of Haggling
In Phuket it’s essential to bargain hard to get the item you want down to an acceptable price. Most souvenirs in the tourist areas are quite overpriced and the sellers will understandably do their best to maximise profits. However they do expect some bartering and it’s normally possible to negotiate prices downwards, especially if you do it with a smile. In many shops such as department stalls the prices are fixed so it’s not possible to obtain a discount. However, at the markets it’s a different story and definitely recommended to engage in some friendly bartering for items such as clothing, electronics, jewellery, and souvenirs. You might be able to grab a real bargain if your skills are up to scratch.
VAT Refunds For Tourists
Remember that it’s often possible to get a VAT refund for any items bought whilst in Phuket. Just keep the receipts and when leaving the country take them to the customs office where you’ll receive a refund of the 7% tax levy. It’s quite surprising how many people either don’t know this fact or forget to reclaim the money when they reach the airport. Since VAT is applied to most goods and especially luxury goods in Thailand, with the exception of a few items, you might as well reclaim some of your hard earned cash!