Everyday all over Bangkok, thousands of shoppers descend upon the city's upmarket malls looking for a retail fix of their favourite luxury and lifestyle brands. Even more, however, hit the city's streets looking to buy cheaper, but illegal, versions of the very same items. And not just knock-off clothes, watches, luggage, jewellery or sunglasses but also DVDs, CDs and computer software - even fraudulent documents. This counterfeit culture ranks among the city's most popular pastimes...
City dwellers who scoff at the stratospheric price-tags on genuine Lacoste, dispel their disappointment by buying a couple of replicas for a fraction of the price at a market. A backpacker arriving in Bangkok with holes in her sandals, doesn't blow her beach budget on an expensive pair. Instead, she'll score a fake pair of Birkenstocks on Khao San Road. At 200 baht a pair, she may even buy some for her friends too. Drawing more crowds now than ping-pong shows, Patpong's night market is the most famous of Bangkok's counterfeit hotspots, continuing the road's illicit leanings with a pile 'em high deluge of pirated goods, from football shirts to Louis Vuitton handbags to Cartier watches. Here, and at evening souvenir stalls along Silom and Sukhumvit Roads, it's tough to find merchandise that's not a knock-off.
You get what you pay for
It's a murky industry you won't find mention of in glossy holiday brochures or championed alongside Lanna architecture on the Tourist Authority of Thailand's website, but there's no doubting the appeal. The main reason, of course, is price. Depending on quality, a pair of Diesel jeans can set you back anywhere between 300 and 3000 baht, Nike trainers around 500 baht, and a new release DVD 100 baht - less than 10% of the cost back home.
Quality of workmanship ranges from the abysmal to the sublime, the finest counterfeit items virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. In the past Thais used their craftsmanship to work woods and stone into Buddhist images or tribal trinkets. Today, the same talent finds them mimicking with precision the very latest luxury brand must-haves. Take heed of the 'you get what you pay for' mantra - which holds as true here as in the world of legit commerce - and your end product may even surpass them in terms of functionality or design.
Thais also employ their inate flair for service to give a friendly face to this black market. Vendors have a canny knack for sniffing out what tourists will be willing to haul back home, with copies of new fashion collections or the latest DVDs hitting the shelves in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. Hunt down a decent tailor, and your 'Armani suit' will be cut with all the devotion of Saville Rowe's finest, only at a third-world price, and in a matter of days.
Too good to be true
Employing national traits to achieve subversive ends frustrates the authorities but is something shoppers are grateful for, even more so when the finished product has counterfeit authenticity. For years now travelers have cruised Khao San Road in Diesel T-shirts with designs never seen in stores, or in-your-face fake T-shirts that make a mockery of corporate slogans. On Silom Road are T-shirts with cult movie artwork or manga characters emblazoned both on them and the souvenir tin packaging they come with, giving them added collectable status. Take the catalogue of your favourite luxury brand to the shop, and get what you want custom-made, even tweak it or change the fabric to your liking.
Along with bargaining, this Thai finesse gives Bangkok's counterfeit culture an allure rarely seen elsewhere. Won over by the audacity and cheekiness of the whole enterprise, tourists see Bangkok's counterfeit culture more an innocuous manifestation of Thai people's industriousness than a crime. However, as authorities and the multi-national companies who lose out on millions of dollars of year keenly point out, it is. As they also point out, if prices of counterfeit items seem too good to be true, that's because they often are.
An appointment with the trash can
A bad buy can redefine the Buddhist teaching that nothing is permanent, leaving you aghast at the speed your purchase rushes for an appointment with the trash - at how colours run, stitching unravels, fabrics shrink or soles come lose. And there's no point trying to dig the receipt out of your handbag because there isn't one. Likewise, buy a duff DVD and if it isn't shot from the back of a cinema, complete with heads bobbing along the bottom of the screen as patrons shuffle to their seats, then after a couple of watches it'll skip so much that all its good for is a second career as a drinks coaster. Hidden costs: There's a price to pay
More disturbing are the origins of some of these goods, as well as reported links to organised crime. Some counterfeit items are thought to be pumped out by sweatshops, not only in rural Thailand, but also neighbouring China, Burma and Cambodia - places where laborers are often forced to work inhumane hours, in atrocious conditions and for a far cry from a minimum wage.
To buy fake is to buy into this multi-billion dollar industry, with all its imperfections and image damaging effects. Nearly 60% of all counterfeit apparel seized in Europe comes from Thailand (source: International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition), and the American Motion Picture Association regularly has fits about the number of films illegally reproduced and sold here. The Thai government is well aware of the negative image such figures create, and is keen to stamp out the criminal activities creating them. Despite regular raids, it's a monster than can only be temporary paralysed. The speed at which questionable goods vanish at the appearance of a uniform is commendable. More remarkable, however, is how quickly it's back to business the very moment authorities shift their focus to more important priorities.
Copycats: The darker side
All in all there seems no black and white case for or against counterfeiting. Rather there are just many shades of grey. Picking up an international student card (around 250 baht) on Khao San Road to take advantage of travel discounts, for example, may seem like forgery at its most innocuous. Consider then how these are sold alongside fake EFL teaching certificates, university degrees, driver's licenses and FBI identity cards - and the possible implications - and a darker side to counterfeit culture begins to emerge.
Experience the pushy pirates of Pantip Plaza - Bangkok's biggest IT mall - hawking bootleg computer software and you may wish the government would enforce international copyright laws to the letter. Then contemplate how many underprivileged Thai kids are whizzes at the latest advanced software applications courtesy of the very same cheap software, and suddenly being a haven for bootleg goods begins to look like not such a bad thing after all.