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Shopping is an adventure in Bangkok’s markets

There are plenty of bargains to be had, and cheap spas to unwind in later
The Chatuchak Weekend Market is a vast, chaotic maze of at least 8,000 stalls that bills itself as one of the largest markets in the world.
The Chatuchak Weekend Market is a vast, chaotic maze of at least 8,000 stalls that bills itself as one of the largest markets in the world.David Longstreath / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They're crowded, sticky and sweltering hot, but when it comes to bargain-hunting, Bangkok's markets are well worth the effort.

Scout for that dream table lamp, wooden chest or Thai silk scarf at dirt-cheap prices, and after a hard day's shopping, revive those weary bones with a great value massage at one of the city's many day spas.

For a mind-boggling array of goods, hit the Chatuchak Weekend Market — a vast, chaotic maze of at least 8,000 stalls that bills itself as one of the largest markets in the world.

There's so much on sale — clothes, jewelry, handicrafts, "antiques," orchids, pets and even army surplus — that you could spend all day here and still not hope to have explored everything the market offers. As for those who aren't that keen on bargain-hunting, gawking at the mayhem and jostling with the locals is reason enough to visit.

All the goods come at low prices that could go much lower, provided you bargain hard and prepare yourself for the claustrophobic sauna that the tiny inner alleys typically become after noon. Arrive early — ideally before 10 a.m. — to avoid the heat and crowds. And just remember to keep an eye on your handbag or wallet, as you would in any crowded urban setting.

To go, take the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit station, go down the stairs at Exit 1, walk straight ahead for about 5 minutes and you'll arrive at the market's main gate after going under a footbridge.

Chatuchak is a nightmare to navigate, so don't plunge in without looking at a map of the market first. Animal-lovers should steer clear of the central section where they keep puppies and squirrels for sale in shabby conditions.

Food stalls selling cheap Thai food and refreshments are everywhere in the market, open all day on Saturdays and Sundays.

And here's a tip for good quality clothes and fashion accessories. Turn immediately left from the main gate. Heading farther left will take you to the corner of the market and the new Kamphaemg Phet MRT station. From there you should see central stalls labeled Sections 24 to 26, which offer silks, fabrics and lots of other home decoration choices.

If you can't make it to Chatuchak, the new Suan Lum Night Bazaar is another shopper's paradise and a good place for a leisurely post-dinner stroll. This market is more touristy and prices are slightly higher than what Chatuchak offers, but it's cleaner and easier to navigate, and you don't come away as sweaty.

Like Chatuchak, the Night Bazaar is a grid of stalls selling local artists' paintings, souvenirs galore, plenty of home decor, and decent quality T-shirts from just $2.65 each. There's also a beer garden and plenty of food stalls.

The market is right outside the MRT (underground) station Lumpini, open 6 p.m. to midnight daily.

Haven't had enough and ready to venture out farther? You might like to check out the Jim Thompson factory outlet, which sells discounted Thai silk and fabrics manufactured under the name of Bangkok's best-known American.

The building's first three floors offer fabrics for curtains, couches and other upholstery, while the top two are filled with ready-made cushion covers, bed linen, and gift items such as sarongs, tote bags, silk ties and scarves.

It's at 153 Sukhumvit Soi 93. To get there, take the BTS Skytrain's Sukhumvit Line to the terminal On Nut, then flag down a taxi. It's useful to get your hotel concierge to write down the address in Thai on a slip and show the driver.

Shopping aside, Bangkok is one of the world's best places to be pampered with a relaxing massage and top-quality service - and it won't burn a hole in your wallet.

Massage parlors and day spas are a dime a dozen here, but locals and travel guides alike gush about Ruen Nuad, a homely, unpretentious two-story shack tucked away in a quiet courtyard in the busy Silom area.

If you're sweaty from shopping, hop back to the hotel for a quick shower before heading here — there are minimal amenities and rooms are as spartan as a monk's quarters, though everything is sparkly clean.

Enjoy an aromatherapy oil massage that costs as little as $17 an hour amid the soothing white interior, or go for the Thai massage if you're up for stronger healing hands.

Ruen Nuad is at 42 Convent Road - exit BTS Skytrain Sala Daeng station towards Patpong, then turn left away from the main Silom Road into Convent Road when you see the California Fitness Center. The spa is five minutes down the road, across from the BNH Hospital. They do not appear to accept credit cards so remember to bring cash.

The Divana Spa is a more luxurious choice but just as good value. A 10-minute walk from the BTS Asok station, it's a haven tastefully decked out in chocolate wood, rustic Thai furniture, and dimmed lighting.

Guest rooms are large, soothingly dimmed and fitted with a steam room for one, as well as a small bath tub. It's immaculate, and service is immaculate. Guests are welcomed with a scented cold towel and lemongrass tea upon arrival.

Try the 90-minute traditional Thai herbal compress treatment for under $53 or splurge on the three-hour steam, scrub, massage and bath packages at about $92. You'll feel terrific and ready for your next shopping spree.