Bag Lady

I have a confession to make, for years I only owned two handbags. A leather one for winter and one in a lighter material for summer. At least it was a step up from my mom who insists on carrying these canvas totes, which aren’t even a proper purse. I didn’t understand the attraction to having the latest designer handbag or different bags to go with every outfit. Then I moved to Asia.

Having traveled to Asia before, I had bought more than enough silk fabric and scarves to know what to do with. I also owned enough house knick knacks , so wasn’t in any dire need to buy a Buddha head statue, coconut bowls or any other decorative items. Besides, I have learned through years of travel mistakes that these items look pretty ridiculous when displayed in your Colonial or Craftsman bungalow in a cool climate. So here I found myself in one of the world shopping meccas without a shopping goal – what was a girl to do?

One day tucked away behind all the street stalls with the usual paraphernalia, I saw it. It had glass walls and a door and looked like a proper shop with its elegant display. A display of handbags. I had heard of the brand name Coach, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. I was more mesmerized that in hot, sweaty Bangkok, this ‘store’ had a glass door and air conditioning. That instead of all the items for sale crammed into a small space, each bag was given a foot of space between it and the next arranged like rare and precious jewels. Then I saw her, a blue Coach tote and I was in love. Used to bargaining hard in the stalls, I was stunned when the shopkeeper refused my lowball offer. I pulled the usual bargaining trick of turning to walk away and she didn’t try and stop me. I wasn’t prepared for this, something in Bangkok that couldn’t be fiercely bargained down. I was told the lowest price they would sell it for and I needed to think about it. After all, I already had two handbags, why would I need another?

I came back to visit the handbag a few more times, like an adulterous lover sneaking off to an illicit rendezvous. Then I had a breakthrough, I decided I needed that bag and went back to buy it, but it had been sold! Was that a smirk of satisfaction when the clerk told me this news? If I had realized how much the real version of that handbag sells for, I would have bought it when I first saw it, but I was a designer handbag virgin.

I now had a mission; I was going to buy that Coach bag, though not from this store. My search took me around Bangkok until I heard a rumor of a place that sold clothes and bags all in an air-conditioned mall environment, though the ‘stores’ are like street stalls in that the products are knock offs and bargaining is acceptable. It’s located only a short walk away from a much larger mall named Central World, where you can buy the real thing at real prices. To find this place, go exit out the back of Central World through the Zen department store. Cross over the bridge and make an immediate left at the intersection. You will pass a department store and the next building will be this mini mall mostly patronized by locals.

This was an amazing place with several bag vendors. I quickly learned that if you don’t see the color or style you like on display they will whip out the catalog of the brand you like and all you have to do is point to one and they will get it for you. It’s where I found my brown Coach bag, as I never could find the blue one again. I couldn’t stop at just one. I next found a miniature version of a Guess bag. It’s so tiny it’s like a Doberman pinscher vs. a miniature pinscher and it makes other women coo in the voices they usually use for babies, “Oh what a cute bag!”

However, Thailand didn’t turn out to be my favorite place for bags, that would be Cambodia. In Phnom Penh there are 3 major outdoor/indoor markets in town, but I never got farther than one as I spent the whole day there. This is the so called “Russian” market. The stalls are covered and the ones facing the outside are again all about silk scarves and souvenirs, but when you head into the center of the market you will find the tiny ‘shops.’ I use the term shop loosely to refer to the fact that they have glass walls though they are usually postage size. While the Bangkok version mostly has Coach, Guess and more rarely Gucci , the Phnom Penh shops carry a wide variety of brands. I learned you can bargain, but only slightly, as the bags are already impossibly low priced. My travel companion bought a number as gifts, I only allowed myself one and of course am now kicking myself. If I have a chance to go back I will buy several.

It’s amazing how these bags have transformed my life. Since returning stateside I have received 12 compliments on the first bag from Thailand from total strangers. There was even one incident when I was walking and saw a group of teenagers who had the appearance of a rough gang. I felt the eyes of one girl in the group lock on me and I thought there would be some trouble. Instead she said, “Ma’am I really like your bag.”

Russian market - Cambodia

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