Archive for the 'Christmas Lights' Category

I have CLA (Christmas Light Addiction) in Bangkok

Those of you who know me know about how I’m addicted. Some of you even endured my requests for help in raising the 35-foot Star Pole at the annual “Erection Party” each November on Kauai. Thank you… those were the days! Now that I live in Thailand, going about putting together an over-the-top Christmas Light Display has it’s challenges. I can’t just run to the nearest WalMart, Home Depot, Lowes, Costco, Ace Hardware, etc., because they don’t exist here. Tesco Lotus and Carrefour (two “Big Box” chains) and the larger department stores display some seasonal items in November, but if you’re looking for more than simple decorations, ornaments, or cheap mini-lights, forget it.

I so miss being able to run to Home Depot. Here, my favorite store is Home Pro. It could be compared to a small Sears… hardware, tools, bath and plumbing, electrical, appliances, home entertainment electronics, some MDF furniture, bedding and decor. Unfortunately the selection is very limited. And the electrical department – outside of a massive collection of CFL’s – is pitiful (as is most everything electrical in the Land of Smiles!) So what does a diehard do-it-yourself handyman/Christmas Light enthusiast in the Big Mango do short of ordering online and paying exorbitant shipping fees you ask? The answer: Go shopping!

Ban Mo Sign

Saturday I ventured out in search of a good soldering station. I will be building quite a few printed circuit board kits, the hardware to run my computerized Christmas Light Show – more on that later – but the little pencil-type soldering iron I have just won’t cut it.

Ban Mo (pronounced bahn MAW) is a subdistrict near Chinatown in the old part of Bangkok. Originally a village of Vietnamese immigrants who made earthenware and pottery, you can still see pottery designs on the gable ends of some of the old shophouses. (Click on the thumbnail pictures to see them big.) Ban Mo changed over the decades to a center for gold and jewelry shops. It’s famous today as the place to go for electronic parts, custom audio and DJ/theatrical lighting.

So off I went in a taxi, and got dropped off at the intersection opposite Old Siam shopping center. (Yes, we DO have lots of Mickey D’s in the Land of Smiles!) I walked left into a small soi or side street. This is a notorious place… you’ll want to keep your eyes open and your wallet secure. You can read more about it at Bangkok Adventurers.

I avoided the touts and headed past the street stalls to a popular electronics parts shop, but they carried only run-of the-mill solder irons and guns… not what I wanted. Back out on the soi I mentally flipped a coin and turned in a direction never before traveled, feeling adventurous. I came upon a dark alley – literally! – that had been converted into a warren of little shops. The entrepreneurial spirit of Thai people never ceases to amaze me. Everywhere you go in Bangkok there are places like this with tiny stalls, or street vendors, or push carts selling their wares.

I was tempted to stop at this cart for some ice cold watermelon, guava, or pineapple… but I was on a mission! On one side of the soi some neo-ROTC students had just come out of a shop that lured customers with it’s impressive LED display.

No doubt they had bought some kit or another for a school project. I have no clue though as to what Grandma – with her voluminous blue plastic shopping bag – was stooping over for. On the other side of the soi I walked into the “dark alley” shops, attracted by one vendor’s LED’s and the overhead fluorescents… this must be a good sign!

Down on the left I came across a guy who displayed more of the cheapo blister-pack soldering irons. It’s always a challenge for me to communicate because my Thai allows me to give directions to taxi drivers, order food and drinks, and bargain when out shopping… but not much more. So with a lot of hand signaling and a few common phrases, he eventually got the idea of what I was looking for, and pointed me in the direction of another shop at the back of the alley…. and I struck gold!

I had gotten many different recommendations about good soldering stations from the Forums at and researched websites… but when I got to the shipping charges it always killed my idea of ordering one from USA, Oz or EU. Same with ones I found on eBay. So when I walked into this shop (after removing my slippers of course) and found what looked like a Hakko 936A, my spirits soared. (Do you get the idea that I’m easily amused?

Well it turns out that this unit is a Chinese-made Hakko clone. Spendthrift that I am, however, I couldn’t resist the 850 Thai Baht price tag, bargained down to 800 THB because of my good looks. (Yeah, right!) At about US$24, it’s a far cry from a genuine Hakko at $100 + S&H anywhere else. And the good thing is it uses genuine replacement tips and ceramic heating element from Hakko, and operates on 220V 50Hz.

I loaded up with a pound of 60/40 solder, some paste, a solder sucker and few small tools, smiling, and said Khob Khun Krup (thanks!) to this young man for all his help. (He spoke not one word of English.) Well, I’m patting myself on the back about now for the good solder station find, but there are a few more things on my Ban Mo shopping list… so off we go for more exploring.

Never one to be satisfied going back the way I came, I headed out of the “dark alley” in a new direction, always trying to keep oriented by counting 90 degree turns so as not to get too lost! I’m looking through more small shops for ABS rainproof boxes for my yet-to-be-built boards; also some C9 light sockets for Curtain Strobes, more wire numbers… always on the lookout for good prices on 100-ct 5mm LED light strings too… and not having much luck. But I know I can get most of those items at another area called Klong Thom, and that story will be another post. My luck improved, though, just before I completed the circuitous journey back to where I started. I stuck my head in another electronics parts shop and was greeted with a cheerful “Hello!” Well, I’m a sucker for good customer service – in English! – and this was all I needed to step inside and browse.

Another thing I’ve been looking for is ferrite chokes for all the Cat5 cables I’ll be running to the boards in my “decentralized” controller network. I had seen how IXMUS recommended using them in one of his “How To” videos on YouTube. With more hand signing, some basic English and perseverance my friendly greeter found what I wanted in a box buried six deep in a dusty corner of this shop. Ferrite chokes… ten for 100 THB (about US$2.95!) Smiles all around… priceless! My second big score of the day!

An interesting observation here… in all of these shops I’ve visited the guys are the ones who work the floor and do all the salesmanship. It’s the gals who write the bills and collect the money. You’ll find this division of labor even in the big department stores.

Just before leaving I asked my new friend if he knew where I could find ABS project boxes… “Oh, you want pu-las-TIC bok!” Yes, yes… I can’t find the right size. Ok, I’m directed up the street to a shop the name of which I can’t understand, but it’s on the right. Off I go… and walk right past the “Supermarket of Electronics Electric and IT.” And then here comes my new friend running a hundred meters up the soi after me, gesturing me to follow him back to the entrance I had passed. Whereupon he waltzes me up the escalator, shows me the self-storage locker to stash my bags of goodies, points me to the “supermarket” entrance and says goodbye with a respectful wai. Only in Thailand!

Well, NPE Best Buy didn’t have the boxes I was looking for, but I did pick up more great stuff to set up my hobby workstation in the guest bedroom on the third floor of the townhouse. Happily I found my way back to the intersection at Old Siam and hailed a taxi for the 15-minute two dollar ride home. Not a bad cloudy afternoon at Ban Mo… not a bad haul for 2700 THB. It pays to get off the beaten path and go local, even for a farang (foreigner) in Bangkok afflicted with CLA.

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