Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shopping in Southeast Asia

I promised Leslie an entry about shopping in Southeast Asia. Why not post it on one of the busiest shopping days of the year?

Funky lanterns for sale

On our first morning, we set off to explore the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The goods available to purchase range from misspelled sports jerseys to carved wooden furniture to sharpei puppies. The market is enormous and labyrinthine but it was fascinating to visit, especially the pet section.

Siam Center's Funky Look

The Siam Square neighbourhood of Bangkok features narrow arcades and streets of fashion boutiques. I didn't have much luck buying clothes here on account of my average Western physique, but I enjoyed looking around anyway. There are also three or four large shopping complexes, including the Siam Centre and Siam Discovery. What a delight it was to find a branch of Japanese all-purpose store LOFT on the 3rd floor of Siam Discovery! I was so happy to be able to introduce Antoaneta to the joy that is LOFT.

This is Cambodia???!?

The shopping in Phnom Penh was surprisingly awesome. I wasn't expecting to find such stylish designs, many made by hand with handspun fabrics. Several stores are clustered on 240 Street, east of Nordom Boulevard. Jasmine is the most beautiful of the upscale boutiques. I could easily have spent my entire travel budget on floaty silk and organza. In the end, I bought a pin-tucked silk Nehru blouse in a warm peachy colour. It was made to my measurements for no extra charge.

Kashaya Silk is just down 240 Street at number 55. I bought a stunning emerald green and charcoal black raw silk wrap there, among other things. I have yet to have an occasion to wear it out but I keep it draped on my couch just so I can admire it every day.

I had heard about Ambre before I even got to Phnom Pehn: Romyda Keth designs dresses for the Cambodian royal family. The fine old restored colonial mansion store makes for a distinct landmark on garbage-strewn 178 Street. Antoaneta and I each bought gowns which were hand-tailored for us on site. We sat on the sun-drenched balcony sipping citron pressé while the army of seamstresses worked. Yeah, Cambodia is like that.

Here I am in the dress. I was so paranoid about losing it if my luggage went missing that I had this voluminous thing in my carry-on for six flights. I think it was worth the hassle.

Cambodian Style from Ambre

In Siem Reap, there are branches of several of the finer Phnom Penh shops. The Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor has a row of tasteful little stores, including another Jasmine Boutique. The Artisans d'Angkor shop by the main entrance of Angkor Wat has beautiful silk scarves and carved goods but they cost more than I could afford. Otherwise, there's no shortage of tourist tat to be found in the markets and in the souvenir supermarkets that cater to bus tours. I was able to get a couple of traditional gauzy blouses for $4 each at the central market, as well as some raw silk scarves for gifts. The market sellers are extremely aggressive. I'm very happy to buy from a market stall instead of from a hotel store but the unbearable pushiness put me off casual browsing. If I had been left alone to shop in peace at a single market stall, they would have turned a good profit off me. I'm just not up to the exhausting intensity of Southeast Asian-style market shopping.

Pick one!

Honestly, I found central Hanoi to be overwhelmingly touristy and I was bored of shopping at that point so have little to report. I did have a rubber stamp made for me on a street corner and I got an ao dai, which I love. I also picked up some gifts bearing colourful nationalistic logos from the funky Propaganda Art Shop on the 2nd floor of 8 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem District.

Quyen & Andrea

In Ho Chi Minh City, I went to the two big markets (Ben Thanh and Binh Tay) but again, I was turned off from buying much by the brazen shop-keepers. At Binh Tay Market, I even had women grabbing my arms, digging their nails deep into my bare skin in an effort to drag me towards their merchandise. That's just not cool. As much as I love buying unusual items in foreign countries, I don't think I'll ever be one for bargaining and haggling.

slightly faded merchandise

There are other options, however. The endless posh shopfronts of Dong Khoi Street display silk shirts and dresses that are anything but tourist trash. There's also plenty of tasteful ceramic and lacquer tableware (cheap-o versions of the same are at the markets and the junky souvenir stores). I particularly liked the Chi Chi Group of five little boutiques scattered through District 1. The shop assistants at these places were really welcoming and helpful. At Du Du' (78 Dong Khoi Street), there are modern-cut fashion items made from traditionally pattered fabrics. Bon Mua Hoa at 78 Mac Thi Buoi Street sells hand-embroidered clothes and housewares. I bought an earthy brown blouse with bold black needlework around the square neckline. It's a unique piece of clothing so people ask me about it whenever I wear it. This gives me a chance to tell them about my trip and I get to relive it for a moment. Really, this is the true motivation for my travel shopping sprees.

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