Tailor-made in Southeast Asia

Getting custom-made clothes is a popular thing for tourists to do in Southeast Asia. A whole industry has sprung up in Thailand and Vietnam. The attraction for Western tourists is that you choose from an array of local silks or other fabrics, the outfit is made to your measurements, and it’s all done so quickly. I’d thought another attraction was a cheap price, but I didn’t find that to be the case when I had clothes made there.

I wanted all the pretty dresses

I wanted all the pretty dresses

Part of the problem is that I couldn’t find reliable information on what a good price was. Or any information, really. I’m a notoriously poor Googler–when people joke that I like books so much I should be a librarian, they are misunderstanding the many research duties a librarian has and my total inability to fulfill such duties–so when I Google “prices clothes thailand” or “cost of tailor vietnam” I get a lot of posts on travel forums of people saying how much they liked or didn’t like a particular tailor. But no one seems willing to write down in black and white how much they spent, which I think must be largely because people are worried that they didn’t get a good deal, or not as good as the other guy, and they don’t want to talk about it lest they get found out.

Okay, so here’s the breakdown for me: I spent $200 on two dresses in Thailand, $25 for a skirt in Vietnam, and $50 for a shirt and trousers in Vietnam. I bought silk from a silk warehouse in Chiang Mai and used some of it for a dress I had made there, and some of it for the skirt made in Vietnam. Otherwise, I used the fabric they had at the tailor’s shop, which is how it’s generally done. Did I get a good deal? Did I get my money’s worth? Sort of.

Please invite me to lots of fancy parties so I can wear this all the time

Please invite me to lots of fancy parties so I can wear this all the time

The pink dress I had made with the silk I bought off-site turned out exactly how I’d hoped, fit well after two small adjustments, and garnered all the compliments one hopes for when one shows off a new frock and nonchalantly says, “Oh, I had it made in Thailand” when asked where one procured it. Worth it.

The purple dress, made specifically for me to wear while standing up in my sibling’s wedding, was much more problematic. I’d brought in photos of designs I liked, and I looked through the design books they had at the store. I talked at length about what kind of design I preferred, and the tailor recommended a design that seemed to fit best with what I needed. I described the kind of purple I needed to match the color palette, and he brought out just two swatches, both of similar texture. I chose one and we went from there. But he failed to mention how ill-matched the design and the fabric were. No way this kind of material could hang the way the material in the design did.

The first fitting, when I hated what they gave me

The first fitting, when I hated what they gave me. The smile is a lie.

So at the first fitting, I was horrified to see something very different from what we’d talked about. But the material had been cut, there was no turning back. I’m no fashion expert (if I were, I would’ve figured out the material/design divide), but I made suggestions on how to spice it up here, make it less scandalous there. Eventually, I ended up with a dress that I thought was okay, but not great, and not noticeably better than something I could have got off the rack somewhere. Not worth it.

The last fitting, when I was much more satisfied

The last fitting, when I was much more satisfied

I had a skirt made for my cousin in Vietnam, half from material I’d bought in Thailand, and half from the tailor’s store. I went to the slightly chi-chi place recommended by my guesthouse. It turned out beautifully, and my cousin liked it. Worth it.

Finally, I got an overnight order made my last night in Hoi An. I didn’t go to a recommended place, just chose from the many shops lining the streets of the old town. I didn’t really intend to buy anything, but I obviously looked interested enough for the tailor to give a good sales pitch, which I fell for. I got a pair of linen pants, and a linen/cotton hybrid long-sleeve shirt. I picked the designs from the mannequins lining the shop. The shirt turned out well, needed no adjustments and looked pretty good. The pants were hemmed too short and started pilling from the moment I wore them. Not really worth it.

It's not a great photo, but those are the clothes I had made in Hoi An. I'm showing them off near Ho Chi Minh's palace in Hanoi, naturally.

It’s not a great photo, but those are the clothes I had made in Hoi An. I’m showing them off near Ho Chi Minh’s palace in Hanoi, naturally.

Part of the appeal of these places is that you can get custom-made clothes in just a few days, before you go back home or move on to your next tourist destination. But how is that possible, unless an army of seamstresses sews overnight to get it done? It’s very like most of what we consume, actually; you pick out what you want in a comfortable environment, with a salesperson eager to make you happy, and then you go off to have a nice dinner while underpaid workers labor ceaselessly to make what you require. I definitely should not have bought anything at that last place, where it literally had to be done overnight because I was leaving the next day. Possibly I shouldn’t have supported the other places either, but I feel more okay about those, because they had 3 days to make the skirt, and 7 to make the dresses. That seems like a fair expectation of labor. And the quality from those places was better, too, which is not a hard equation to figure (more time = better quality).

Did I overpay, though? I talked to a few fellow tourists who had more clothes made, for less money than I’d spent. I don’t know what the quality was like, and I don’t know if the clothes were more complex than mine. My shirt and pants started falling apart quickly enough that I think I did overpay for them. The purple dress has a bit of a shine on it from bad ironing after one of my fittings, but it’s otherwise good, and the pink dress and the skirt are great, so maybe I paid a little more than I could have elsewhere, but maybe it was for good reason.

Despite the photos of Daniel Craig with the cheesy tagline "Be James Bond!" outside, this was a good shop.

Despite the photos of Daniel Craig with the cheesy tagline “Be James Bond!” outside, Kimmy Custom Tailor was a good shop.

This turned into a very long post on what I bought on my trip, but I am hoping it’s helpful for others who plan to get tailor-made clothes in Thailand or Vietnam. (Keep in mind, too, that although I say “tailor” throughout, the person you talk to is usually not the person actually sewing the clothes. They are the salesperson, with a good understanding of the process, and the best English out of everyone in the shop.)

Price:
I don’t know what a “good” price is, but this is what I spent: $200 for two dresses (one that I was also buying material for and one I wasn’t), $25 for a skirt, and $50 for a shirt and trousers. Probably your Googling skills are better than mine, so you can find better info that way. Prices were given to me in baht in Thailand and dollars in Vietnam, and I could pay in either dong or dollars in Vietnam.

Here’s where I went:
CM Tailor in Chiang Mai. I went to the branch off the main road, but by the third round of fittings for that tricky purple dress, the tailor took me to the main shop (on Rajchapakinai Road) so his boss could oversee things. It was an all-male operation, while everyone was very cautious of my modesty, they were definitely flirting in a persistent way, and telling me how great I looked in a way that seemed disingenuous and not helpful in figuring out the actual issues of the dress. A lot of the reviews online (which is how I decided to go to this shop) were by men who got suits made, and probably that’s a very different experience. The problem dress was made from their fabric and the good dress was made from mine, so maybe go to the main branch to see the full selection of fabrics, and bring your own if you don’t like what you see. They did as many fittings as I needed for me to be satisfied, they were not pushy in the sales pitch, and they do offer to ship anywhere in the world. Recommended, with reservations.

Kimmy Custom Tailor in Hoi An, on Tran Hung Dao Street. Super busy shop, designs displayed on fancy tablets and computer monitors, fitting room upstairs. I was a little rushed here, but they did seem to grasp what I wanted right away, picked out a complementary color for the skirt immediately, and had it ready as scheduled. Recommended.

Anh Thang in Hoi An, on Tran Phu. Lots of cool examples to choose from. Pushier sales pitch than anywhere else I went, which made me uncomfortable but also worked on me. It is easy to see how well the end result turns out when you have the 3-D version of the design right there in front of you, so I liked that. Not great quality and I probably could have used more fittings, if I’d allowed the time. Not recommended.

Is the answer to go to the big-name places that have all the Trip Advisor reviews? Can you trust your guesthouse to give you a good recommendation, or just a place they get a kickback from? What’s been your experience having clothes made in Southeast Asia?

My final tailoring experience in Southeast Asia

My final tailoring experience in Southeast Asia

Do’s and Don’ts at Angkor

I went to Angkor, World Heritage site and location of dozens of ancient temples renowned for their architecture, carvings, and historical importance, in March of this year. I read up a little on what to expect before I went, but was still tripped up by a few things I discovered on the ground. Here’s my advice for how to visit the temples with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment. Share your own tips in the comments!

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

DO:

Buy the 7-day pass for $60, if you have a flexible schedule and at least four days in the area. I bought the 3-day pass for $40, intending to use every day in full, but then I stepped outside and almost fainted from the humid heat (we’re talking over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day). If I’d had the 7-day pass I could have done half-days in the mornings and escaped to air conditioning in the afternoons, but as it was I had to push on through the heat. I still didn’t fit in everything I wanted to see, so I had to buy a 1-day pass for $20 for my last trip out there. If I’d spent that $60 upfront, I’d have had more time in the park for the same amount of money.

angkor

Bring at least a liter of water to drink and plan to buy at least another liter while at the park. It is 40*C/104*F on a regular basis here.

Bring a bandana or handkerchief. You’ll use it as a sweat rag during the amazingly humid days, and also as a face mask during your tuk-tuk rides on the often dusty roads.

Bring snacks, and a full lunch if you can swing it. Unlike in town, no one’s pulling a food cart all over the parks, and there are just a few places where restaurants are set up. I got hungry climbing up and down the many stairs of the temples, and was glad of the fruit and granola I had in my bag. Of course, your driver will know of the perfect little place to take you when it’s lunchtime, and they all seemed more or less the same to me, so why not say yes and let him have his commission?

Plot your trip ahead of time. If you’re just going for a day and you want to catch sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat and maybe see the Tomb Raider temple, then you’re fine and your tuk-tuk driver will have no trouble getting you to each place with plenty of time. However, if you have more time and want to explore the temples in more depth, work out with your driver ahead of time exactly where you want to go and in what order, and generally at about what time. My driver thought I would take less time than I did at each temple I went to, so he was surprised I couldn’t do his normal itinerary in one day, but I know I take a long time seeing sights, so I wasn’t surprised. I should have communicated better with my driver about timing, though, so that we both knew what to expect.

Bring a proper cardigan or long-sleeved shirt when going to Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng. I had a scarf to cover my shoulders as a sign of respect, which was fine at other temples, but at Angkor Wat and Bakheng I was turned away. I was told I needed to have a proper shirt–because a scarf is too easy to take off? I’m not sure what the reasoning was, but the guards were absolutely strict on this, despite there being no warnings about such rules at the ticket office or anywhere else, and as a result I never got to climb to the very top of Angkor Wat (yep, I planned to do it on my last day there, oops).

Plan more than one sunrise at Angkor Wat, if your schedule and sleepyhead ways can swing it. I only made it to one, and it was gorgeous, but I was torn between staying by the pond with the hundreds of other visitors to see the full sunrise, and scooting into the temple after a few minutes to explore while it was mostly still empty. I ended up doing the latter, and I do not regret that at all, but it would have been nice to have gone another time and just relaxed for sunrise.

angkor

DON’T:

Lose your pass. That ticket just cost you at least $20, and they won’t replace it. At nearly every temple I entered, I needed to show my pass before I could climb the steps of the actual temple, so don’t think you only need it at the entrance, either. They take your photo and put it on the pass when you buy the ticket, so there’s no mistaking whose ticket is whose.

angkor

Pay attention to guidebooks that say you need a special ticket to get non-consecutive passes. That may have been true in past years, but not anymore. If you buy a 3-day pass, you can use it on any three days in a week, and you can use a 7-day pass any seven days in a month.

Forget to bring or buy a guidebook. There are no helpful placards here, no clear markers next to exhibits of note. You can hire a guide for the day, and I overheard some great guides sharing in-depth information, but I also heard some impenetrable accents and bare-bones introductions to the sites, so the quality of the guides varies and it can get pricey to hire one if you’re on your own. I bought Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, and it proved pretty useful. There’s a lot of history up front and then the sections on specific temples focus more on the architecture. It was last updated in 2003 and there have been improvements to the park since then, so some of the info on what is accessible is outdated. I got the book for $8 at a bookstore in town, and then six different touts tried to sell me the same one for $1 at the park itself. You can go that route, but realize it’s probably an illegal copy so the publisher isn’t getting paid, and of course the tout sees maybe a few pennies of that money.

angkor

Stress about getting from Siem Reap to the park. Your guesthouse/hostel/hotel will have tuk-tuk drivers they can call, guaranteed. The only thing you’ll need to do is negotiate price, which you can prepare for by looking online to see what other people have paid in the past. If you’re fancy, you can take an air-conditioned car, but tuk-tuks are much more affordable and perfectly comfortable (see above about a face mask, though). Hopping on the back of a motorcycle is even cheaper, but if you’re fat they might not let you, even if you’ve done this before and you know it’ll be fine. You can also bicycle there, if bicycling in 90% humidity at 100 degree temperatures appeals to you. Pretty decent roads, not sure where you’d lock it up, scary drivers to share the road with, but you do get to set your own pace and schedule.

Try to go against the grain on the prescribed routes in the temples. There are no markers telling you what you’re looking at, as I mentioned, but there are plenty of signs telling you which way to walk once you’re in the temple. These are set up to manage the flow of the crowds, and are really helpful. You can always dart off to the side and come back or take a seat if you need a breather, but try not to turn around and head the opposite way everyone else is going. You’re gumming up the works. Of course, some temples don’t have a prescribed path, so you can hop about all you like there.

angkor

Three Steps to Keeping Your Belongings Safe on the Road

Or: I Did NOT Leave My Wallet in El Segundo

I’m paranoid about losing my keys or having my wallet stolen, especially since I’ve lived on my own and faced the prospect of being unable to get into my apartment if my keys go missing. So I’ve developed some overly paranoid steps to minimize the risk of these things happening. Most travel guides and websites will give you tips on how to keep your things secure when you’re in a foreign place (get a bag that zips, carry it across your chest instead of at your side, etc.), but the truth is that the same strategies work anywhere, whether at home or abroad.

Step One: Run “Ready, Set, Go”

Every single time I leave my house, I run a “ready, set, go” check. Look in my purse for keys, wallet, phone. With those three things, I’m good anywhere I end up. The one time I didn’t check, of course, my keys were still in my bedroom, and that was when I lived in a place with automatically locking doors. Not a pleasant realization, when I ran the ready, set, go after I’d already let the door close behind me with a sharp click.

Step Two: Develop a New Plane of Awareness

The CTA posts ads with tips on deterring pickpockets, including a recommendation that you not check for your wallet in your back pocket, or run a finger along your phone’s outline in your purse, or in some other way indicate to a thief the exact location of your valuables. But I don’t feel comfortable not being able to check up on things, so I’ve developed a a system of constant movement that allows me to check on things without being too obvious about it; I shift my purse from one arm to the other, and do a quick tactile check on its contents, or open it up to take out my chapstick or iPod, and do a quick visual check that way.

Step Three: Be Lucky

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, since the very definition of luck includes being unable to control it, but I think it’s important to recognize the crucial role luck plays in keeping our belongings secure and our persons safe. There are a lot of steps we can take to protect ourselves, but sometimes thieves succeed or accidents happen, and all the precautions in the world can’t help in those instances. I mention this because I think it’s easy to blame people for not being careful enough with their things, and that’s not helpful. Especially when you’re traveling someplace new, it’s easy to get disoriented and lose track of your usual habits that keep your things with you, and if you get separated from those things, you won’t want it to ruin your trip. Do what you can to keep your belongings secure, but if misfortune strikes, remember that they are all replaceable, unlike the more pleasant memories you’re forming while traveling, so do your best to focus on those instead.

Any other suggestions?

Share the World: The Suggestions Page

Hello, dearest fellow travelers, and welcome to a short post that is INTERACTIVE. Exciting! In the 6+ years I’ve been planning this trip, I’ve received numerous suggestions from many people on specific places I should visit, restaurants I should eat at (or at least food to try), and bedbug-ridden hostels I should absolutely avoid. I welcome all of this advice; I’m fortunate to know so many people who’ve traveled and lived abroad and who have insight into what to do and where to go in places as diverse as Tibet and Cape Town. But it’d sure be helpful to have all that advice in one centralized spot.

Lucky for you and me both, I’m brilliant, so I’ve put together a couple tools to aid in this venture: the Suggestion Box and the Google Map. Head on over to the Suggestion Box (which is now the first tab at the top of the page, on any page on the blog) and leave a comment with tips on what to see, where to stay, etc., and then go to the Google Map and mark the spot. Now I can keep track of all these great suggestions, and when I actually go on my trip, I’m going to mark out my route on the map too, so you’ll be able to see where I go and how I get there in just about real time.

Here’s an example of what the map looks like so far:

See? It’s all bare and sad, with just a few sights and sites, and not a single eatery to be found. Don’t let this map continue in this way — adopt it today and shower it with love and helpful icons.

Suggestion Box: https://lisafindley.wordpress.com/suggestion-box/

Google Map: Lisa’s World Trip 2012-2014: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=110828102940815708391.00048a592ae072ccc0b8e