LET THE BUYER INQUIRE
A good travel agent can help you sort through the bazaar of cheap package offerings. Here are things to keep in mind:
- A trip's duration may be stated in days, but find out how many nights you'll be in Asia. Some tour operators count air-travel days in the total to make it seem longer (this explains such anomalies as a "10-day/8-night" package).
- Many operators are hyping under-$1,000 air-and-hotel deals, but these are mostly for a week or less. Ask what it will cost to add extra nights.
- The advertised prices of most packages are based on departures from Los Angeles and/or San Francisco. If you need an add-on from another airport, be sure to find out what it will cost.
- The cheapest packages generally won't have you sleeping at luxury properties, but upgrades are often available for a surcharge. If the hotel isn't one you've heard of, ask for details about its quality and exact location.
- Look for a package that includes extras, such as airport transfers and sightseeing tours. Remember: it's a buyer's market.
There are big bargains everywhere, and especially in countries where the currency has dropped dramatically. We've listed some great shops, but you may also want to talk to your hotel concierge, who can give advice, organize shopping trips, and arrange shipping. (Be sure to insist that you want the best deal.)
THAILAND In Bangkok, Michelle 2 (Amarin Plaza, Ploenchit Rd., second floor; 66-2/256-9047) looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but many of the city's women swear by the tailor. You can get a silk skirt and dress, within 48 hours, for $94. Another good fabric shop is Shinawatra Thai Silk (94 Sukhumvit Rd. 23; 66-2/258-0295). Bangkok is also a real bargain for jewelry. While many jewelers have files of designs, it's best to come with a picture of what you want copied. Lambert Holding Co. (807-809 Silom Rd., Soi 17, fourth floor; 66-2/236-4343) has been run for 30 years by David M. Glickman, a former Californian and lawyer (he dispenses both gemological and legal advice). A copy of the Cartier Ellipse ring with a two-carat sapphire and two small diamonds was quoted at $650. Also recommended: Uthai's Gems (28/7 Soi Ruamrudi, Ploenchit Rd.; 66-2/253-8582) and Venus Jewelry (167/1-2 Wittayu Rd.; 66-2/252-6468). In Chiang Mai, you'll be spoiled with choices. The Night Bazaar (corner of Chang Khlan and Loi Khro Roads) is a good first stop. Bargaining is always acceptable, but be courteous. On the antiques trail?Stop by Thai Imports (42-46 Tambon Nongtong; 66-53/832-694); its owner makes regular runs into Burma. A number of celadon factories are based here: Sansai Celadon Co. Ltd. is one of the best (160 Moo 13, Tambon Pa-Pai; 66-53/498-412).
VIETNAM Traditional silk ao dai tunic-and-trousers outfits are available all over ($10-$20), but some of the country's best tailors and seamstresses are in Hoi An, a picturesque town not far from Da Nang. Hoi An's few streets are lined with boutiques, and the central market is also a good place to buy fabric or to have something made or copied. Two excellent options: Thinh (stall No. 4), in the Hoi An Central Market (no phone), where silk blouses (from $8) and dresses (from $10) are made to order by a friendly staff; and the slightly classier Nguyen Tao (88 Tran Phu St.; 84-510/862-511; suits from $25, gowns from $45). Hoi An is also an artist's haven. Unframed oil paintings are sold for less than $20, and smaller watercolors and paintings on silk can be had for as little as $5. Standouts: Thanh Lich Gallery (1 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St.; 84-510/861-967) and Hoi An Painters Rendezvous (72 Tran Phu St.; no phone).
MALAYSIA The decline of the ringgit, down some 30 percent from last year, makes for built-in discounts at local markets. One of the best places to browse for Malay crafts and clothing is at the Central Market, an enormous colonial structure in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. You'll find a vast number of merchants peddling all sorts of batiks, with high-quality dresses ranging from $20 for cotton to $80 for top-end silk.
SINGAPORE Electronics are still a relative bargain in Singapore. Locals shop at the Sim Lim Tower and Sim Lim Square malls. Compare prices, and bargain like crazy. The Jewelry Mart at Pidemco Centre has the largest collection of goldsmiths and jewelers. For Indonesian, Nepalese, and Indian objets d'art, head to Barbazar (31A-35A Cup).
PHILIPPINES Crafts are inexpensive in the Philippines under any circumstances; look on the bottom of a trinket purchased in Spain, Argentina, or Japan and chances are it was made here. Inexpensive, however, doesn't have to mean shoddy. The Philippines are famous for delicate fabrics woven from fibers of the banana tree (jusi) and pineapple plant (piña). At Tesoro's (1016 Arnaiz Ave., Makati; 63-2/844-4143, fax 63-2/893-7417), just outside Manila, a set of six embroidered jusi place mats with coasters, napkins, and runner costs $86, versus $125 a year ago. More whimsical local products can be found nearby at Balikbayan Handicrafts (1010 Arnaiz Ave., Makati; 63-2/734-9040, fax 63-2/734-9044), where a beach chair made of coconut wood and native fabric goes for $27.
BALI Furnishings, textiles, ceramics, jewelry—you'll find it all here. Haggling is permitted (with a smile), though some of the larger shops insist on fixed prices. Stop by Lotus Studio (Jalan Raya, Ubud; 62-361/975-363) for crafts such as carved buffalo-horn salad servers and batik boxes. Saru (Jalan Raya, Ubud; 62-361/975-879) has clay teapots and banana-leaf baskets.
HONG KONG The city long ago gave up its status as Asia's premier shopping destination. Electronics have been cheaper in New York for years. Still reasonable, however, are items made in China proper. Shanghai Tang's seasonal sales slash clothing prices in half (161 Hollywood Rd.; 852/2543-8022). Antiques, while not as cheap as those in Macao, are still good deals. Unless you're an expert, don't buy for investment reasons—much has been heavily restored. Chine Gallery (42A Hollywood Rd.; 852/2543-0023) has a hand-picked selection of chests, wedding beds, altar tables, and carpets. At the bottom of the price scale is the One Price Shop (47 Hollywood Rd.; 852/2544-4235), where you can find Mao badges, buttons, and mementos. The Stanley Market is still amusing, and while most of the items on offer are junk—no need to fly to Hong Kong to find a pair of irregular J. Crew chinos—there are a few finds: Chinese silk brocade totes ($5), funky fringed lanterns ($25). On a rainy day, tourists are few and far between, and the salespeople are eager. Be aggressive!