Monday, October 3, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A MALLRAT: HOW SOUTHEAST ASIA NEARLY TURNED ME INTO A FASHION VICTIM

It happened somewhere between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. I became the type of frequent traveller I used to love to hate.

You know the type. They arrive in new cities and descend upon the shopping scene like vultures, treating stores like museums -- a gateway into the culture and heritage of the locals. For a traveller like myself, one who prefers to do as the locals do, my turnaround may have been inevitable. As my Malaysian friend Neo explained while we drove by a conglomeration of malls in suburban KL, shopping is what so many people in major Southeast Asian cities seem to live to do. Singapore even has a 24-hour electronics mall -- just in case you get the urge to buy an iPad at 4am!

And in central Bangkok, the network of malls and outdoor markets is so vast that if you laid out the maze of walkways as a straight one-way road, it would probably take you all the way to Seoul, which, incidentally, I hear has an equally must-experience retail scene. But then, what major Asian metropolis doesn't?

Oops, there I go again, putting the shopping cart before the horse!

Getting back to Bangkok (a city where you're more likely to see an elephant -- or a statue of one -- during a shopping excursion than a horse), near National Stadium, you can take a covered overground path from supermall to supermall to supermall (from Central World to Siam Paragon to MBK, with seemingly countless shopping stops in-between) without once stooping to street level.

The names might change, but the stores within always seem to be the same: Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Zara and on and on. One day a few weeks ago, I was supposed to join a friend for a Sunday afternoon mall trek, and we agreed to meet at the Mac counter on the fourth floor of Central World. When he still hadn't shown up 15 minutes after the appointed time, I sent him a message.

"Where are you?"

"I'm at the Mac counter on the fourth floor."

"But I'm at the Mac counter on the fourth floor, and I don't see you. Are you sure that's where you are?"

Sure he was sure, but as it turned out, he was at the Mac counter on the fourth floor, only in a completely different part of the massive Central World complex, whose layout turned out to be as complicated and confusing as that of Bangkok itself. If Silom Road can have a 7-11 on practically every corner, why can't Central World have more than one Mac counter on more than one fourth floor? The more the merrier, which seems to be the general attitude when it comes to all things mall-related.

In Kuala Lumpur, malls are an even greater source of national pride and obsession. But here, the aloof retail employees make it harder for me to stay away. While Thais are trained to kill you with kindness and attentiveness, Malays have perfected the art of pretending that you're not there. It's a quality that might not work in the hotel industry, but in retail, it creates the optimal environment for my shopping pleasure. I like to be left alone while I browse!

Today as I was being left alone while browsing in KL's grand Pavillion, I thought about my life in malls. Though I'd grown up on a steady diet of them, by the time I left Florida for New York City, where malls are a rare breed, I'd learned to loathe them. No self-respecting cool person would be caught dead hanging out in the stomping ground of bored adults and clueless kids who thought pop music began and ended with Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block.

When I moved to Buenos Aires after 15 mostly mall-free years, I rediscovered the shopping mall, not as a retail mecca but rather as an architectural wonder. Galerías Pacífico on Avenida Florida -- Ground Zero on BA's retail scene -- is more notable for the palatial Victorian facade and ornate interior design than for anything on sale. The building is as artistically significant as anything you might find hanging on the walls of Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA).

In Southeast Asia, the facades and interior designs are more similar to what you get in the States -- smooth, slick, sterile and blindingly white -- with little variation from mall to mall. Since I couldn't tell myself that I kept wandering inside of them to enjoy the architectural splendor, I blamed it on the heat. I was looking for a cool haven from the scorching summer sun, which is now officially the scorching autumn sun.

Today as I gave in to temptation and walked into yet another Topman, this one in Pavillion, I was escaping an afternoon thunderstorm, but deep down, I was grateful for the perfect excuse to check out what was on the shelves. Never mind that I'd already bought six V-neck t-shirts from Topman in Central World (two for 750 baht, or about $25!), I convinced myself that I needed two more -- after all, there was a buy-two-shirts-get-20%-off sale!

Hmm... But what colors did I already have? I was wearing the burgundy...? That dark blue -- I loved it, but didn't I buy that one last week? While I was having this conversation with myself in one part of the brain, another was telling me that I needed help. I'd spent the last year and a half divesting myself of belongings, spending $500 last year for 1-800-GOT-JUNK to come to my Brooklyn storage space and take off my hands all of the possessions that for three and a half years I'd been spending more than $100 a month to hang on to.

I'd arrived in Southeast Asia with a bag that weighed less than 15 kilos, and somewhere between Manila and Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok late last week, my checked baggage had doubled in size. (On the plus side, unlike the mid-'90s when I used to stalk Kings Road and Kensington High Street in London, I'd spent relatively little money on my purchases.) I thought about my ballooning luggage (I'd already had to buy a suitcase in Manila to carry everything I've acquired since July -- it was more expensive than anything I put in it!), and the idea of dragging more stuff through airports, train stations and bus terminals, forced me to drag myself away from the t-shirts and out of Topman. Though it was still raining outside, and I had to wait 30 minutes before I could walk back to my hotel, I managed to walk into only one other store. Shopping mission: Not accomplished!

As I walked home empty-handed, I felt a twinge of pride over my small victory. After four days in KL, the only thing I'd bought was the Thai tourist visa I'd come here to get. Was I cured of my shopaholism? It might be too soon to tell, but writing about it is so much more gratifying than giving in to it.
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