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Jet Set-back of the Week: What’s a Wat Gotta Do With It?

April 18, 2010

New temples of consumerism: Wanderlust Cambodia

Let’s get one thing clear: I like to shop when I travel.  I love finding those unique things that ‘you would never see at home’.  Some mornings when I get dressed, I run a mental check of where I have purchased the components of my outfit and then silently congratulate myself for my worldly style.

That said, this week’s set-back is detouring from image to word precisely because this weekend, FT’s Mystery Shopper got under my skin in precisely the way an ugly jet-setter would.

Apparently in need of a weekend of retail therapy following a whirlwind business trip through Asia, Ms. Mystery detoured from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia, a place in which, she tells us, “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.”

The Mystery Shopper is clear about her interests: she’s seen the magnificence of the World Heritage site wats and she has returned for the retail. I find it slightly disturbing when the desire to acquire becomes the sole goal of travel, but given that the Mall of America consistently ranks as a top US destination, I guess I will have to accept this.

Moreover, the fact that Siem Reap can now fill the need of a world-class shopper in need of a hit shows just how much change the aughts brought to the sleepy little town I visited in 1998.  Then, there were no boutique hotels much less boutique shopping.  Needing camera film (yes, this was back when even the wats were new), I hit the local market only to come home and find that my Kodak box held a little rock where the film should be.

But what irks me about the described treasures that MS reaps from her Cambodian canter is that almost all of them are from Western stores parachuted into the landscape.  There is a plug for the local market’s cheongsam-style silk pajamas, yours for $5-$10, but mostly she speaks of stores the likes of Wanderlust, run by New Yorker and former creative director of LeSportsac, Elizabeth Kiester. Wanderlust sells boyfriend shirts (borrowed from the guys— but just for us!) and clothing with names like the ‘hamptons halter dress’, the ‘malibu shirt dress’, the ‘tulum tie back top’ and the ‘oslo cardi’. If you can’t make it to Siem Reap for your shopping extravaganza, you can visit their website (, which would not be complete without a visit to the ‘my cambodia’ page, that details the story of Wanderlust’s founder:

girl lives in new york. girl loves fashion, color, art, 5 inch heels and travel.

oh yes, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

girl works at big fashion mags and later, huge global fashion design companies. girl travels around the world in search of the cool and the new. girl grimaces every time she sees a tourist jamming a conical hat, a cheongsam, a fez or kimono into the overhead compartment. girl knows that these coveted souvenir-y items will never see the light of day once unpacked (except maybe at halloween).

girl resolves to open a shop someday in some cool place that carries only clothes that speak a global language, stuff that translates everywhere and anywhere.

Angkor Candles: of the temples she didn't see

To wit, at the end of her weekend, there is no cheongsam or conical hat to be found in the Mystery Shopper’s bag. Rather, some silk pajamas, a Kyoto and a Palm Springs dress, a pair of espadrilles, a black silk stole, a wrap skirt, a balloon dress and aromatherapy candles in the shape of Angkor temples.

Perhaps, like me, Mystery Shopper likes to mentally catalog the origins of her assembled outfits each morning.  And perhaps she secretly likes to pat herself on the back for her global resourcefulness.  But with stores that have become equally global in their outlook— and look— it is a secret she will likely be able to keep quite easily.

Thank goodness she has the candles to remind herself that she was there.

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