For a professional traveler taking too seriously a trade which is misunderstood by most humans, traveling across the world in order to visit a shopping mall and buy items from international brands available everywhere is almost a crime.
While perpetrating such a scandal, he would have a handy excuse for the case an acquaintance would recognize him in his moment of weakness. A fake moustache would cover the embarrassing possibility of an innocent article on the New York Times front page featuring the incriminating photograph of the event.
However, reality is more complex. While traveling for long periods of time, renewing stocks is unavoidable; after being for a while in places unheard of and eating insects until tiny wings begin growing on his back, a triple cappuccino at Starbucks is imperative. After trekking until the last hyper-technology shoe soles get holes the size of the Himalayas, resting for a while in a glitzy shopping mall is human.
Fooling myself with such silly excuses, I ventured into Bangkok's shopping malls. I really needed to fix my brandish sunglasses, a good cup of coffee and, maybe, new jeans. Trekking shoes with an integrated, multi-dimensional GPS combined with a cellular phone would be a nice addition to my backpack; the latest English books; a sushi dinner in that fancy restaurant with the tiny floating boats. Lush luxury.
Soon I discovered a new world. Visiting the Central World Plaza wasn't like visiting Harrods in London or Lafayette in Paris; the Thai culture permeated into the malls and most visitors were Thai. The same charming Thai culture of Ruam Thai and Nong Khai was present here, interacting with a hybrid, international environment. I took out the fake moustache, gave my sunglasses to a clerk with a smile wider than her face and took a long look at this part of the Smiling Kingdom.
Central World Plaza (formerly known as World Trade Center) has recently emerged from a massive renewal; the old and dark structure was replaced by huge amounts of glass and is now a river of light. The biggest shopping mall in Thailand includes six shopping zones, a hotel tower and two popular department stores (Zen and Isetan). All the main brands are represented here and it would take more than a day just to explore its 500 world class stores and countless restaurants.
Across the junction, is the crowded and plain looking Sogo Department Store; just next to the Erawan Shrine and connected to Sogo with an elevated bridge is the Amarin Plaza. Amarin is the perfect place to search for traditional Thai products, many shops sell silk and silk-clothes are placed here. To increase the feeling of having entered a Thai space, the restaurants on their upper floors are mainly local and there is even a traditional stall place serving traditional Thai filtered coffee. In front of Amarin is Gaysorn a relatively small shopping mall packed with stylish, exclusive shops.
A few blocks east along Ploenchit is the Central Department Store, which includes the best Thai-food plaza in Bangkok at its basement. A good book store occupies the top floor together with a mini-branch of Starbucks, the perfect combination for a tired traveler. Another Starbucks faces the street by the entrance and is pleasantly styled as a street facing bar. Before buying there something of value, it is recommended to check prices with the nearby Isetan and Zen.
At the corner Siam Square Skytrain station, is the Siam Discovery Center, which is connected with an elevated bridge to the Siam Center and hosts the most luxurious cinema in Bangkok. Across the Siam Square junction is Mahboonkrong, popularly nicknamed MBK, which is considered among knowing Thais as the best shopping mall for cellular phones, despite being less stylish and having less expensive merchandise than the other malls mentioned here.
East of Siam Square is the sparklingly new Siam Paragon, the most up-market shopping center in town, and maybe in South East Asia, with 250 stores and endless luxury items.
North of Central World Plaza, on the junction with Petchaburi Road, is the Fashion Mall and the Pratunam clothes market across the street; before buying clothes anywhere else it is worth visiting them, no other place in Bangkok compares to them in variety and prices.
A block west, along Petchaburi Road, is Panthip Plaza, the biggest computer's shopping centre in Thailand. The best electronic gadgets in Thailand are concentrated in its six floors; whole products as well as single parts, both new and used, are available at prices similar to Singapore's low prices, but usually one generation behind those. Last year I arrived there from the USA and could compare directly; Panthip was better in variety and prices than any similar place I visited in the USA.
Other shopping centers are scattered along the city and are worth exploration if the time and the stamina needed are available. The Robinson department stores are worth mentioning, there is a handy branch at Silom's eastern end, near the Lumphini Park. The Oriental Plaza, within the famous hotel with the same name, is one of the most exclusive shopping plazas in the city.
Supermarkets are rare and scattered along big distances; the Big C is the best of them, in quality and prices, and has a new and very comfortable branch in front of the Central World Plaza. Pharmacies occupy almost any free space in town, but the British Boots chain is recommended if searching for western products.
Bangkok department stores are arranged in a similar fashion that arises from Buddhist beliefs: the floor dedicated to children products is below the one for women, which in turn is below the men's floor.
How do I pay for my new and stylish backpack?
While in Thailand, the best is to pay in cash with baht, any other option is more expensive. If paying with a credit card, most shops add the credit card company's commission to the product's final price. The commissions are surprisingly high if compared to the European ones, since credit cards are far less popular here. The baht exchange rate changes daily and each bank sets its own buying and selling prices.