Kuala Lumpur's Central Market
Asia has a well deserved reputation as a paradise for bargain hunters as well as more well-heeled travellers. From local handicrafts at provincial Thai temple fairs, to Bangkok's world-class jewellers, to Singapore's modern mecca along Orchard road, Asia has something for every shopper.
Here's a brief run-down on the most popular types of items and where to buy them, followed by a list of handy guides written just for shoppers.
Generally speaking, the term "antique" in most of Asia refers to goods designed in an old or traditional style. Genuine antiques -- things more than 100 years old -- usually require special permission to be taken out of the country. Our advice is to ignore the purported age of an item when negotiating the price, and if the seller insists on an unreasonably high price because of an item's age, ask to see the export permit for the item from the relevant authority.
As is probably obvious, prices for "antiques" can be outrageous in places that cater to tourists. Don't be afraid to offer half or even a third of the initial asking price, if you think its high. Don't be afraid to walk away if the merchant isn't coming down enough in their price, its the quickest way to get them to change their minds!
Bags and Luggage
Handbags, backpacks, wallets, purses, briefcases and suitcases in just about every size and style can be purchased in markets throughout Asia for a small fraction of the price you might pay elsewhere. Its quite easy to pick up a good backpack suitable for use as a catch-all / camera bag in your travels for less than US$5.
Leather items can also be found in abundance, especially in tourist areas. Prices are competitive and quality is usually quite good.
Fabrics & Clothing
Thai silks, Balinese batiks and ikats have practically become symbols of their nations. In Thailand, you can purchase silk in the north and northeast where its made, or you can often get it just as cheaply in Bangkok. A visit to one of the "factories" just outside of Chiang Mai is a must, although these are generally showcases for tourists and not real factories.
Tailor shops also abound in just about every tourist area of every country in Asia. You can have shirts, suits, dresses or whatever you can imagine made to order, and often ready within 24 hours. Be wary of shops touted by taxi drivers, etc. They're almost never very good. Another tip is to avoid places offering deals too good to be true, such as a suit for $25. The work is often slipshod. Basically, the rule is that you get what you pay for. That $10 pair of slacks in Hoi An probably won't last a year, while a $200 suit from a good tailor in Bangkok can last a lifetime.
Asia is a major exporter of colored gems and gemstones; and in recent years Thailand has developed the industry of cutting, finishing and setting stones as well. You'll find jewellery stores in any tourist area, and in Bangkok there are several centers specializing in almost nothing but jewellery. While prices are very competitive, common sense is highly advised. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is. The "resale" value of a stone may be exaggerated. Our advice, as always, is to determine an item's value to you and don't pay more than that. Don't consider an item's purported resale value, age or other factors.
This traditional craft has evolved with the times, although old style goods are still widely available. Some of the nicest items are those with mother of pearl inlaid in the black lacquer. You'll find this technique used in temple doors as well as bowls, boxes and other items for daily use. The modern variations include bright metallic finishes that can make a simple piece the focal point of a room. Vietnam is perhaps the best place to find brightly colored wares at rock bottom prices.
Silver and Bronze
You'll find silver shops in many places, especially Thailand, Bali and central Java. Most silver jewelry and almost all place settings, frames, trays, etc. are sterling silver, often labeled "925" meaning they are made of 92.5% pure silver. Some jewelery items as well as buttons on traditional style costumes are made with an "old" silver, which is a traditional method yielding a lower silver content. Such items are usually easy to recognize as they lack the luster of sterling, sometimes coming close to pewter in color and finish.