Handicrafts are one of the signature products of Thailand and it’s difficult to avoid at least buying a few of these charming souvenirs that are sold in all tourist areas. They are cheap, often unique and make great take home gifts. In fact, handicrafting is a skill strongly woven into Thai culture and kept alive and well by the tourist trade.
The majority of handicrafts sold in Thailand are made throughout the nation’s northern region, where these goods are produced on a variety of scales ranging from industrial-sized work groups to small family-owned operations. The type of Thai handicrafts available vary from district to district, and the highest quality goods can usually be found in the region they’re produced. Chiang Mai is the catch-all for quality handicraft shopping in Thailand, and visitors can save themselves a lot of time by focusing their efforts here.
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar and Sunday Walking Street markets are teeming with handicrafts, housewares, handmade musical instruments and artists’ booths. These vibrant, open-air markets are fast-paced and confusing at times; and the quality of similar handicrafts can vary as much as the price when shopping as a tourist. But everywhere you go in Thailand, where tourists are found you’ll invariably come across street stalls selling everything from wooden kids toys to souvenir items and home décor.
If you’re shopping for Thai handicrafts of higher quality and don’t mind paying a little extra, then you’ll probably want to head away from the main tourist markets and seek out a non-profit outlet whose revenue goes directly to the creators, encouraging higher quality work. Shopping through these organisations keeps revenue in the hands of the artisans.
A few miles southwest of Chiang Mai is Hang Dong, Thailand’s pre-eminent centre for wooden handcrafts and furniture shopping. Shops in this area have large showrooms with more space to display their goods. In addition to endless arrays of furniture, you’ll also find attractive wicker woven baskets, lacquerware boxes and sculptures. San Kamphaeng is another popular shopping district near Chiang Mai with shops spanning the whole gamut Thai handicrafts.
Shopping enthusiasts are lured by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers into touring large factories on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Generally, drivers receive a commission for delivering tourists and this extra fee will be recycled back into the cost of the goods. With this in mind, taking a tour of a handicraft factory may be an enlightening experience, but it doesn’t afford any real savings.
The best prices when shopping for Thai handicrafts comes from local shop owners who have long-standing business ties with local artisans and receive business by virtue of their location rather than with the help of a tout. The Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai is an excellent place to shop for quality Thai handicrafts directly from local craftspeople, but obviously going directly to the manufacturers in Hang Dong is cheaper.
Hilltribe artefacts are another popular craft and can be purchased literally all over the north of Thailand, usually from ethnic minority women decked out in traditional garb and speaking virtually no English. The quality of these items depends on where you’re shopping. The best hilltribe artefacts can be purchased through non-profit organisations that charge a little more for the products and in turn solicit more authentic and high quality handicrafts.
Popular items to consider on your shopping list include: Buddhist art and sculptures, lamps and home décor, art and wall decorations, rattan furniture, wooden products (e.g. fruit bowls), neillorware (etched pewter), kids toys, apparel and clothing, shoes, leatherware, ceramics, soaps and essential oils, silk garments and products, bags and purses, ornaments, saa (mulberry) paper and products and much much more. The larger items, usually sold out of proper shops can be competently shipped home for you.