Shopping for the Shack

I serve on the Board of Directors for the International School of Bangkok (ISB) Network Foundation, an organization comprised of members who are devoted to serving the International School of Bangkok, its alumni and students, and the Kingdom of Thailand. We are dedicated to bringing ISB alumni together to maintain and support the unique relationships and experiences that tie us together and keep us connected to our time at ISB and in the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand. Visit the ISB Network website here. I went to this school from 1965 to 1968, and graduated there in 1968.  On the network board  I currently have  two titles — President, and Director of Technology. For the latter, my main function is to maintain the ISB Network website.  For the former I preside over board meetings and assist other board members in outreach, communications, and administrative tasks. I also participate in a variety of activities related to the bi-annual all class reunion, and to raise funds for the Network’s charitable programs. Much of the revenue for those programs comes from sales by the ISB Network “Shack” store.  The name for the store comes from the small beverage shop at the far end of the lane that our school was on, that served as a hangout for ISB students before and after school.  The “shack” also served as a landing for “long-tail” outboard motor boats that plied the “khlongs” or canals, of Bangkok. I myself rode these long-tail boats to and from school, as my house was on the same khlong, about three kilometers away.  The ISB Network Shack Store sells clothing items and accessories and merchandise from Thailand. This brings me to the subject of this blog post.

David Wilkerson — ISB Network Shack Manager

I visited Thailand last October for several reasons, one of which was to assist my friend and colleague David Wilkerson as he Shopped for the Shack.  David (shown here in the photo on the right) is a bundle of energy.  Just keeping up with him as we cruised through Bangkok and Chiang Mai was a challenge.  I had to really push my haggard body which now knows only two speeds — slow and whoa.  And since he had done this shopping trip a half dozen times already, he already knew exactly where he wanted to go and when and how to go there, while wasting no time.

Lobby of the Atlanta Hotel, Bangkok

He flew in a few days after I did.  We shared a room a the Atlanta Hotel, a throw back establishment with an interesting history, and just bare bones amenities, perfect for the budget traveler hoping to relive earlier times and experiences in Thailand. The hotel is at the end of Sukhumvit Soi Two, about a fifteen minute walk to the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) overhead light rail network, and not far from our old stomping grounds when we were students at the International School of bangkok.  (See my blog post on “My Old School” here for more on that.) On a Saturday morning we headed out after a quick breakfast at the hotel.

Scene in the Bangkok Weekend Market

Our first shopping outing was to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The market was a buzzing hive of activity and already crowded when we got there, despite a light rain that fell on makeshift tarps and umbrellas, corrugated metal and plain cardboard  protecting the wide variety of clothing and goods on display — a boundless variety, bundled in countless booths, boutiques, shops, stalls, free standing garment racks, kiosks, cubicles and huts. Shopping activities were well under way, bargaining, haggling, closing, walking away.  And why not try to get a better price from the vendor down the way, selling the exact same or similar items?

We penetrated more than 50 meters into a broadly covered area down a passageway with shops on either side, with clothing and wares literally spilling out into our path, watched casually by the vendors ever ready to engage the passers by. Then at a point where the passage we were on intersected with another, David abruptly stopped at a corner stall, as if it was the exact one he was looking for.  And there he went to work.

David and Tik Kolhitkoolkrai

It was a delight to work with a new friend, Tik Kowitkoolkrai, the lovely shopkeeper in that corner stall, who kept calm and patient throughout the whirlwind pick and choose, jump down spin — “have you got extra large”, “no one will buy those”, “we have lots of these already”, “what do you think of this color?”….  David was in his element, and in high gear.

Tik and I exchanged Facebook contact info while David finalized his selection of elephant pants, skirts, halter top dresses, tops and accessories.  Tik prepared an invoice, which we both photographed for fear of misplacing the paper copy in the chaos. After a half an hour that could have filled a day we moved on through the narrow corridors until David again lurched to a halt, like a safari guide that just spotted big game, he signaled with a raised open hand.  Something caught his eye — a panoply of beautiful embroidered and brocaded handbags and backpacks.  David’s dance commenced anew, with a review of nearly every style and version on offer. I myself could not resist and bought myself a sweet brocade backpack.  And right across from this stall was another selling small bronze Buddhas and amulets and religious icons and other brass and bronze items.  There too I succumbed and bought myself a Buddha for the spirit house I bought the other day.

I turned around and David was gone. Oh boy! Now what? The place is vast.  How would I ever find him?  I started in the direction opposite from whence we came and soon spotted him down the way.  He was well inside a shop, towering over the shopkeeper and tugging on clothing items hanging three and four deep, high up on a wall. More tops, more skirts, more bags, more sandals. He filled two large cargo bags each about two by two by two, crammed with this newly acquired loot.

And so, it was time for a break. The crowded narrow alley of the market opened into a broad pedestrian boulevard, with shops and eateries on either side. We stopped into one of David’s old favorites for a drink and a snack.  I reminisced my high school days with a “nam manao” … lemonade … while David had a coke.  And then it was back to the hotel, hauling those large cargo bags on the light rail and a samlor, as we always called the tuctucs.   Were we done? No! David had just begun.  next stop: Chiang Mai.

Miss Bee — Surinda Bee Bee Thanom

We had originally planned to take the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but demand was up due to the then ongoing activities surrounding the  cremation of the late king, and so the train was fully booked. Consequently we flew. And within hours after arrival we were shopping again! First it was to  the market not far from the hotel.  We hooked up with Miss Bee — our most delightful shopping guide, shipping agent and friend, known to many ISB alumni.  More clothing items that night.  David modeled some selections.  We had a meal in the “food court” much like you would find in a US shopping mall but, you know, with great Thai food!

The next and final day it was off to the “factory town” outside of Chiang Mai.  This town really is a marvel. with shop after shop after workshop after workshop lining both sides of a long street stretching all the way from here to there. Thai craftspeople display their work — carvings of all manner — spirit houses, Buddhas, Ganesha,  Thai folklore creatures, monkeys, elephants, and furniture.  Plus metal work — jewelry, idols, wall hangings, and on and on.  We started down the left side, from where we arrived in Miss Bee’s car.  A stream ran down the middle like a median strip, and for 200 meters or so, both side of the street were covered with a mesh canopy giving the area a mall-like atmosphere.

We stopped into at least every other shop, with David inspecting the wares and dictating instructions to Miss Bee while at the same time asking her advice and guidance on this item and that.  He and she took photos with their smartphone cameras of items that made the cut, at least as candidates for purchase, which would actually be undertaken by Miss Bee at a later date, once she and David made some final decisions on quantities.

Returning up the other side of the street we meandered into several side streets where artisans were busy with carving and decorating beautiful crafts.  We found yet more clothing shops and wonderful displays of art.  There were numerous tributes to the late king, who’s funeral services were to occur in a few short days.  David and I said farewell to Chiang Mai the next day, and returned to Bangkok to pay our respects to the late king. A few days later I returned to my home in France while David lingered on to engage in his charitable work.

It was a whirlwind to be sure, with multiple rewards of friendship, shopping goal attainment, and cultural exchange.  I was on a spiritual high for days after.

Below find two picture galleries, one for the Bangkok weekend market and the other for Chiang Mai shopping.  Click on any image to enlarge it and/or start a slide show.

Bangkok Weekend Market
Chiang Mai Shopping
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