Shopping for antiques in Thailand has become such a popular activity among tourists that there are very few authentic antiques remaining for sale. The few legitimate Thai antiques out there are generally very expensive and, in many cases, they’ve been acquired illegally. Shopping for authentic antiques in Thailand requires a keen eye and a lot of bureaucracy.
All the same, Thailand is on the frontlines of antique dealing in Southeast Asia, with prices much lower than in the rival markets of Singapore and Hong Kong. The best deals on antiques are found in the north, especially in Chiang Mai near the old city. Those who aren’t real collectors and prefer the asthetics to the genuine article will find dozens of shops selling replicas and reproductions of Thai antiques. They look suitably impressive but are much more affordable.
Shoppers used to the Chiang Mai markets are prone to sticker-shock when shopping for antiques in Bangkok, where you’ll pay considerably more for the same caliber of merchandise. The primary places to buy in Bangkok are in River City, Chatuchak Market, Wag Burapha, Chinatown, Charoen Krung Road and Nakorn Kasem. There are also several genuine dealers in Chiang Mai who present shopping customers with both genuine articles of verious vintage, as well as very good reproductions.
No matter where you’re hunting, you won’t find a fire sale on Thai antiques. Each item is carefully appraised and dealers are generally aware of the value of their stock. Perusing a Thai antiques shop is worthwhile even for those who don’t intend to buy. The contents range from artefacts from temples to lacquerware, marionettes, tapestries and ceramics.
Due to the high level of interest in shopping for Thai antiques, local dealers have had considerable success with replicas and (in some of the most malicious cases) outright fakes. The quality and attention to detail in these replicas make them desirable in themselves. The majority of those shopping for antiques in Thailand are actually more interested in what they look like rather than what they are worth. You needn’t be a deep-pocketed expert to go Thai antiques shopping here.
In many cases Thai antiques shoppers choose to purchase these faked antiques as a more conscientious tribute to ancient Thailand. Artisans go to great lengths to make these items as authentic and realistic as possible, and the final product is very believable. Only an expert Thai antiques shopper would know the difference.
Collectors out to purchase authentic antique items in Thailand should be aware of a few regulations. All Thai antiques have to have prior approval before being exported, and permits can be obtained from the Fine Arts Department of the National Museum – usually arranged by the dealer upon sale. Bare in mind that many items are illegally smuggled in from Burma or Laos, so you need to make a consciencious decision on that.
The same requirements apply to any image of the Buddha, and customs officials enforce these requirements dutifully. This strict enforcement is for good reason, as Thailand has suffered significant cultural loss in the past at the hands of carefree exporters concerned more with turning a profit than with cultural heritage.