Cambodia’s temples of consumerism

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Street vendors at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 17 2010
By The Mystery Shopper
Financial Times (UK)

After a recent spate of work-related visits across south Asia – five days of conversations with bankers, lawyers, union leaders, politicians, activists and salespeople – I decided to reward myself with 48 hours in Bangkok. But then, having landed at Suvarnabhumi airport, our huge commercial jetliner came to a halt on the runway to let pass a tiny turbo prop plane ferrying a handful of people to ... Cambodia. At first I glared out the window but eventually I had to smile at the moxie of the pilot and crew in holding up a much bigger aircraft. They must have been in a pretty big rush.

And I knew why. Hundreds of thousands of khaki-clad visitors flood the city of Siem Reap during the dry season, armed with guidebooks, sunscreen and professional-grade cameras. At the risk of sounding heretical, most soon realise that if it’s the temples at nearby Angkor Wat (6km north of the city) that draw you in, it is the shopping that brings you back.

It was then that I realised that I could just as easily (and much less expensively) spend my two-day holiday in Cambodia as Bangkok and, in the time it took to taxi to the terminal, I said a mental sayonara to the malls in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area, scooted to the Bangkok Airways ticket counter and reversed course on to a 35-minute flight to Siem Reap.

I’d been to Siem Reap before so this time I wasn’t even going to pretend to be interested in the 12th-century religious monuments. You can use rickshaw transport but Siem Reap is a small city, and most of the shops and markets are within walking distance of each other.

The best place to start is in the Old Market, or Phsar Chas. While hundreds of sellers offer neatly arranged and affordable items such as wood carvings, paintings, jewellery and ready-made clothing, if you can get past the $3 Angkor Beer T-shirts and traditional costumes, the locally produced garments are worth a second look. I found a pair of black lightweight cheongsam-style silk pajamas for $10 and a $5 washable black silk shirt with a mandarin collar and froggings, which reminded me of more casual and machine-washable versions of styles from luxury brand Shanghai Tang, with a Khmer flair. And though bargaining is welcome, it felt a little ridiculous to negotiate beyond the advertised price.

In an alley one block west of the market is Wanderlust, a wee boutique run by Elizabeth Kiester, the founder and former chief creative director of LeSportsac. who came to Cambodia on a visit in 2008 and decided to stay. Her hybrid designs are very wearable. I bought two cotton dresses; the black gingham Kyoto ($68) with a deep V-neck, waist pleats, wide three-quarter length sleeves and patch pockets; and the black Palm Springs ($78), with more of an A-line shape, a square neck and ruffly sleeves. They had sold out of my size in the Tunisia tunic: a lightweight black cotton number with tiny white stars. Still, I felt pleased, if slightly confused about the names, since I’ve never encountered gingham anywhere in Japan or starry-patterned fabrics in Tunisia. (I have, however, seen plenty of ruffles in Palm Springs.)

An $8 pair of espadrilles replaced my dusty flip-flops and transported me to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, home to Eric Raisina, Siem Reap’s high-fashion flagship store, as well as all-you-can-drink icy pitchers of sangria. Having once had his silks used in an Yves Saint Laurent bustier, the Madagascar-born Eric Raisina can claim the title of Cambodia’s most famous couturier. His “haute texture” designs do not resemble any other fabric I’ve ever seen: a lemon bolero jacket looking as if it was covered in feathers that turned out to be tiny shreds of yellow silk, and an orange-and-fuchsia stole whose furry edges were actually made of thousands of strands of silk.

After a valiant excavation of the tiny store, however, I had found no items in my preferred colour palette. But when I steeled myself to ask for black, the designer himself led to me his dark “silk fur” stoles ($179).

In the same FCC shopping centre is Jasmine Boutique, but you can also find her collection in the gift shops at some of the finer hotels in town. I bought a crisp black silk shantung wrap shirt with a high pointy collar ($85) as well as a sleeveless black and white balloon dress ($130).

I stopped at Angkor Candles to pick up a stash of aromatherapy candles in the shape of some of the temple ruins. And, rather wonderfully, the team at the Amansara provides hotel guests with photo mementos of the more famous wats upon checkout, so no one ever has to know how you really spent your time.

The Mystery Shopper is a globetrotting executive who reveals her international shopping discoveries


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