IT IS about 11pm. Outside Gaysorn Plaza, beneath a street lamp along Ploenchit Road's night bazaar, a woman is scooping out clothes with torn labels from a black rubbish bag.
'Tommy Hilfiger, Armani Exchange, Ann Taylor. All 100 baht,' she rattles off. The amount is S$4.
Women descend upon her like locusts from every direction, snatching up the wisps of cotton as soon as they fall upon the plastic floor sheet.
We, too, join the scramble, zipping ourselves into whatever she flings our way as cars zoom by. Not our most dignified moment, but we are too delirious to care.
Except, everything looks huge. 'Export size,' she explains. Noticing our crestfallen looks, she dives deep into her voluminous bag until, finally, she surfaces with a size 2 green silk skirt.
It is crumpled, its Armani Exchange label barely discernible. I cannot make out its exact shade in the scant light. But it fits. Anyway, I would have bought it out of sheer gratitude.
The nicest thing about shopping in Bangkok is that prizes and surprises await you at unsuspecting corners.
Sometimes, they even stand in your way - in the shape of an elephant, its wrinkly handler beckoning you to touch its trunk for good luck and 20 baht please.
Other times, they are strewn along the Silom Road pavements, like Birkenstock knock-offs for 199 baht. Or wildflower oil paintings by Chulalongkorn University art students for 1,000 baht.
Whimsical designs, cool concepts, madcap interpretations of popular culture - all a little naughty but at very restrained prices - are Bangkok's lure. You almost always go away wondering: 'Now why didn't I think of that?'
At the Bed Supperclub, a dining restaurant and bar housed in a white, futuristic pod along Sukhumvit Soi 11, you get to recline between courses on what must be the world's longest bed.
The appetisers and mains are scrawled in ink on the slender torso of a young waiter. The day's desserts, on the waitress' belly, where her tube top ends.
WITTIER THAN THOU
Across all price points, Bangkok's window displays, retail concepts, product, promotions and packaging blow you away with their imagination and outrageousness.
At upmarket Siam Paragon, the just-opened mall touted to be Asia's biggest, you can buy a pair of Jimmy Choos to test-drive Maseratis and Lamborghinis from its second-floor super car showroom in style. Or buy a Chanel bag to match that Ferrari you fancy.
The basement level holds the Siam Ocean World aquarium, a third bigger than Sentosa's Underwater World, complete with a flat-bottomed boat ride through a shark tank.
Over at uber-trendy concept store Playground! in residential area Thonglor, the atrium has artfully-strewn bean bags for angsty architects and writers to huddle and discuss the meaning of life.
Opened to rave reviews last March, its black slate interior stocks indie labels like Medium-Rare and hosts provocative mixed media art exhibitions.
Strolling through Siam Centre, Thai fashion's wit and idiosyncrasy immediately strike you.
Local clothes labels like Soda, Jaspal, Greyhound, Fly Now, Theatre and Tango boast shocking window displays featuring, for example, dismembered mannequin parts. Bags, shoes and asymmetric clothes are slung willy-nilly on twigs or industrial racks suspended from the ceiling.
The irreverence extends to products. At lifestyle store Propaganda, the Thai answer to Alessi, one of its bestsellers is a porcelain lamp shaped like a boy peeing. The flick switch is the male appendage.
Beyond malls, this creative revolution is also fought out in the streets.
At Siam Square, a crammed, budget-conscious cluster of shops along Phayathai Road, boutiques are styled like boudoirs, with French wallpaper and deep velvet sofas.
With its wonky grammar as a primer, It's Happened To Be A Closet, along Soi 3, serves up an eccentric mix of vintage clothes, chocolate cake, iced tea, hair-cuts and pedicures.
Even at the weekend Chatuchak Market, stalls have off-the-wall themes. One, selling accessories as cheap as 25 baht, recreates a candy-pink girl's dressing room, replete with chandeliers and fur.
At the end of Suan Lum Night Bazaar, along Wireless Road, past aisles of traditional Thai crafts like silk hangings, celadon and hammered silver, you arrive at an ultra-modern scene straight out of Wallpaper magazine.
Curvy chairs and sinewy lamps in a riot of colours, crafted by rising designers and fetching up to 5,000 baht apiece, illustrate how far Thai design has come. These days, you can find over a half dozen Thai interior design magazines at newsstands.
There is also Wallpaper Thailand, a spin-off of the global style magazine and only its second foreign franchise, after Russia.
MOVING INTO ITS OWN GROOVE
One theory about Bangkok's 'hyper-conscious aestheticism', posited recently by the New York Times, is that it is a 'sub-conscious reaction to the dirty, damp, often wonderful ugliness of Bangkok's streets'.
Another is that the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 devalued the baht, hiked up the price of foreign products and scuppered the plans of many young people hoping to study abroad. That was when Bangkok chic truly came into its own and found its groove, as the people decided to embrace their own quirky products and raffish sense of style.
According to Mr Likit Fahpyochon, president of the Thai Retailers Association and executive vice-president of Thailand's oldest retailer, Central Retail Corporation, the crisis spawned many young Thai designer-entrepreneurs who felt that they had little to lose in setting up shop.
Low rents and labour costs also encourage such experimentation. Rental is about 250 baht psf per month and a salesgirl's starting salary is 8,000 baht, including commission.
But what really supports Bangkok's rash of independent retailers and small labels is its thriving indie scene, especially among youths. Its followers even have their own name, dek naew, to describe young funky things who would not be caught dead in Gucci. Their counter-culture individuality is maintained by eschewing designer clothes and mainstream brands.
This rejection of mass-market stores may be one reason why Japanese stores - from Daimaru to Yaohan, Sogo, Tokyu, Seiyu and Justco - have opened and closed down in Bangkok over the past four decades. Only Isetan remains.
To Mr Allan Namchaisiri, it is this iconoclast streak - 'a broad bandwidth' and 'greater tolerance for deviance' - that keeps Bangkok's retail scene exciting.
The senior vice-president and head of marketing of the 15-store Central Department Store notes: 'Thais are daring, willing to explore and given the encouragement here to explore, mix and match.
'Why should everyone carry the same LV bag or wear branded stuff from head to toe? Here, they mix it up, carry that LV bag with a Hello Kitty keychain, pair it with Levis jeans, a Giordano T-shirt, a Cartier watch and maybe a brooch from Chatuchak market.
'Why not create something different...mix purple and lime green? When you have so much to play with, the scope of life is much wider.'
Thai women are also game to mix it up. In fact, it is considered a bigger fashion faux pas to be boring, than mismatched.
As for the men, he notes that Bangkok probably has one of the largest populations of metrosexuals, who are well-groomed, go to spas and shop regularly. Besides its big gay scene, there is also a big community of cross-dressing katoeys, or 'lady boys'.
In his store, the largest in Thailand, he estimates that 40 per cent of sales come from men and 60 per cent from women, compared to probably a 20:80 ratio in Singapore.
Men, Mr Namchaisiri suggests, may be the missing link needed to muscle up the Singapore retail scene.
Besides innate style, the other priceless gift that Bangkok has is being able to make even a budget tourist parting with a few dollars feel like a million bucks. A 10-baht item is lovingly-packaged and handed over with a gracious wai (pressing of the palms together near the chest and bowing) and a respectful sawasdee khaa, or 'thank you'.
SORRY NOT ENOUGH
But though the smiles and hospitality are warm, the weak product knowledge and command of English can leave you cold. And that is when sorry is no longer enough.
As Mr Kriengsak Tantiphipop, chief marketing officer of Siam Paragon Development Co, puts it: 'Service is a basic instinct here. It's not the people but the technique and the system that need more work.'
The traffic-tangled streets are also enervating. Another downside that even Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Juthamas Siriwan laments is the prohibitively-high import duty of 30 to 40 per cent on fashion.
But the newest titan to enter the fray, Siam Paragon, might just change all that. At 550,000 sq m, it is more than five times the size of Suntec City and one of the biggest high-end malls in the world. It has 250 jewellery, watch and fashion brands, over 70 per cent of them flagship stores.
Best of all, it is a duty-free complex without Bangkok's old scourge of high taxes. It also promises prices as low as Hong Kong's. It will plug the gap in high-end shopping not just for tourists, who contribute about 30 to 40 per cent of mall receipts, but for the burgeoning Thai middle-class.
Mr Kriengsak points to an estimated two million 'Hi-So kids' - high-society young adults who dress to the nines, attend big parties and have money to burn. He has been pulling out all the stops to shock and awe them.
Besides its oceanarium, Siam Paragon has an opera house designed by British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh.
There is also a butler service offering hands-free shopping (your packages are sent to your hotel for you), personal shoppers, fashion stylists for consultations and 40 'ambassadors' on the floor at any one time to help you call for a taxi or hunt down stores.
Finally, Mr Kriengsak throws down this gauntlet: 'We aim to be the shopping destination of Asia. Size does matter. It makes a powerful statement to have all the leaders of the pack under one roof. It's a magnificent magnet.'
He adds without prompting: 'We can do it because rents here are five times cheaper than in Singapore or Hong Kong.'
He doesn't say it but his smugness implies it: Be afraid, Singapore, be very afraid.
WHERE TO GO
- Soi Lalai Sup, off Silom Road, near Saladaeng BTS Station
Soi Lalai Sup, smack in the heart of the business district, literally means the 'money disappearing' alley. If you've ever wondered where all those snappily-dressed office ladies get their outfits, chances are, they bought them here.
The alley is a moving smorgasbord of stalls which changes every couple of hours, catering mainly to working women squeezing errands into their lunch breaks.
There is a moving feast of Old Navy and Gap overruns in bins, moo tod (peppery fried pork) in plastic bags, Hello Kitty accessories, Carter's baby clothes, plum-sized lychees from Chiangmai, and the best fried chicken I've ever tasted. Open only on weekdays from 11am to 2pm.
- Pratunam Market, at the intersection of Ratchaprarop and Phetchaburi roads
Tell your cab driver to head towards the Amari Watergate Hotel or Indra Regent Hotel and get off at Baiyoke Garment Centre.
If you see something you like within the cavernous corridors here, buy it. It's probably not going to be cheaper anywhere else. Street vendors and MBK shopkeepers buy their stock at the numerous wholesaler outlets here, as well as at the further-flung Bobae Market.
Denim capris go for 150 baht, tote bags for 100 baht, 'cashmere' pashminas for 500 baht. But you have to buy at least three to six pieces, so it's good to go with a large carry-all and a pack of friends. But low prices come with low quality. Wear comfy shoes.
- Jim Thompson Sales Outlets, 153 Sukhumvit Soi 93, Bangchak, Prakanong
Silk is always a good buy in Bangkok. And the best quality is indisputably found at the Jim Thompson chain, named after the legendary American who helped revive the Thai silk industry and disappeared mysteriously in the 1960s, never to be seen again.
Just one Jim Thompson cushion can transform an entire living room, or so they say. But if you refuse to pay stiff boutique prices, head for its factory outlet at the city's fringe. It sells large home furnishings at large discounts - rugs, lamp shades, bags, throws, fabric and lots of cushion covers. Open from 10am to 7pm daily.
A smaller factory outlet at 149/4-6 Surawong Rd (opposite Tawana Ramada Hotel) stocks mainly fabrics.
'Bangkok scores because of its 'What's new, what's up?' appeal. It cultivates uniquely Thai home-grown private labels like Jaspal and Defry by supporting the work of budding designers. This allows its retail scene to hold up better since it has its own brands.
Designs for home furnishing as well are young, fresh, funky and affordable. Retail overheads are low, so there are minimal entry barriers for budding retailers. It is also a low-cost base for garment production. Altogether, it's a good place to try out and launch retail innovations without having to pay high prices.
And Thais are warm and hospitable and naturally willing to provide service. Bangkok is ranked high not only because many have been there but the fact that they keep returning. With the emergence of Siam Paragon and Central World, it can only get better.' -- Dr Lynda Wee