In Bangkok, Fitting Right In

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2004

Bangkok, listen. Bangkok, no. I said no.

I do not want a suit that's specially made. I rarely tie a tie. My wife may gawk at fitted Oriental dresses, she may stroke their smooth silk. She will not buy. When we travel to this city famous for its silks -- where everywhere we look tailors are at work behind glass doors and flaps of exotic fabric are pinned up like flags above sidewalk stalls -- we are firm with everyone who sells.

This lasts for about three-quarters of an hour. Then we are at the famous Jim Thompson Thai Silk Co., and while I am weakening slightly over a display of tropical shirts, Kathy pulls out a card for a shop called Queen Thai Silk in a place called Ruamchitt Plaza.

Where did you get that? I ask. "I am going," she replies. "Remember 'The World of Suzie Wong'? Even you noticed her dress. We may not come to Bangkok again. I'm going to see if I can have a dress made here while I can."

When I catch up with her outside, I am counting the bahts in my wallet. What about other souvenirs? I ask. Celadon bowls, Singha beer, I don't know. What about lunches and dinners and, um, late-afternoon snacks?

I find out that the friends who are traveling with us, Kevin and Martha, are on her side. Nobody listens to me as Kathy leads the way upstairs to Bangkok's Skytrain for the ride to Ruamchitt.

Kevin is so far gone he wants to have a tuxedo made here for himself. "Don't be a jerk," he tells me. "I read in Worth Magazine that some guy figured out it's cheaper to fly to Bangkok for seven suits, a tuxedo and 20 shirts, all custom-made, than to buy those same suits and maybe a dozen shirts at the mall."

"Yep," says Martha. "And Bangkok silk's a million times better than at home. It's better than Hong Kong's."

I'm beaten, so I sulk and look around the Skytrain as we ride. Walls and seats and shoes and shiny toenails in stylish flip-flops: Everything has a sheen. Is this why people want clothes made here? There are a dozen or so supermodels pretending to be regular people in my car.

Fifteen minutes later we reach On Nut station. Out on the street, dancing dogs (a sidewalk show) block knots of people caught in smoke clouds from the grills of lunchtime stands. We find the plaza, a mildew-speckled building with a dividing hall. On one side are respectable stores; on the other is a sky-lit bar with women in hot pants, guys clustering and touching, and drinks with splayed toothpick umbrellas in puddles on the floor.

Queen Thai Silk is as quiet as a museum. Kevin and I look longingly back at the bar, but Kathy and Martha force us to focus on the dress patterns in a book. The dress I pick causes both of them to smirk.

What does Kathy want? A mandarin dress with a collar, suggests the quiet shop owner, who tells us her name is Toy. "I am only part-owner," she corrects. "Only 99 percent is mine."

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