Thrifting in the third world

Early January in my native state Minnesota means cold winds and piles of snow. But in Cambodia, the weather is perfect for a trip to the beach.

I moved to Cambodia in August for a year of volunteer service, with one suitcase of clothes in tow. Yep, one. During my time in Cambodia, one of my aims is to adopt a lifestyle of simple living.

Simple living can take on a variety of meanings, from using more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation to cutting unnecessary spending on monthly media subscriptions. For me, living simply is limiting my wardrobe to functional — not fashionable — clothes.

I only packed eight outfits, comprised of pieces that all match. They are also modest, to match the cultural expectations of appropriate clothing. In daily life, that corresponds to camping pants and Goodwill polos, which is certainly not my normal style.

However, I made plans with friends for a weekend trip to an island off the Cambodian coast for a post-New Year’s retreat. I hadn’t packed much beachwear with me, so I was in need of a dress for the occasion. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I was so ready for a little shopping.

I’m all about the art of thrifting at home. After a few months of searching, I was able to find a thrift shop not too far from my house in Phnom Penh. Stepping into the Cambodian thrift scene, I learned most second-hand stores are called “Recycle Shops,” and their merchandise is shipped in from wealthier Asian countries such as Japan.

My usual approach to thrifting is to search through clothing racks for inspiration. I let the clothes speak to me, listening for whispers of a grandmotherly floral that needs to swap its shoulder pads for some love. I’m not typically a thrift shopper in search of one particular thing. If I want something specific, I go to a traditional store. Thrift stores are where I hunt for one-of-a-kind, signature pieces.

But, here I was, in Cambodia and in need of a summery dress. It was time to try thrifting with purpose.

Walking into the store, I felt a sense of home. I LOVE thrifting, and I think there was something about the shelves of unwanted home goods, piles of accessories and rows of clothes looking for a new home that felt familiar.

Going through racks of hangers, I found myself drawn to pieces I have in my closet on the other side of the ocean. I noticed I was leaning toward blue tones and florals, which is consistent with my style, and in line with the beach-y vibe I was going for. I wanted a piece that was flexible and could merge into my limited, neutral wardrobe here with multiple looks, even after my beach trip.

Meanwhile, I prayed for patience until I can get home and open my closet doors and have my clothes back.

For a place where the coldest time of year is mid-70s, there was an absurd lack of summery dresses at this thrift store. I pulled some dresses and a few long tops that could work as cover-ups.

After finding the sketchiest fitting room of my life, I pulled nearly a dozen articles of clothing over my head in the non-air-conditioned space. It was sweaty business, but a good trial for comfort at a warm beach.

I deliberated with myself a bit, going back and forth on patterns and cuts, but ended up settling on a gray knit, athletically-shaped dress. I knew I could pair it with sneakers and a ponytail, a traditional Khmer scarf or leggings. Versatility is a must when living with so few clothes.

Then, I got trapped in that sketchy fitting room, jiggling the handle that apparently served only a decorative purpose.

Thank goodness I finally managed to escape, because the island beach was calling!

My weekend on the island was a DREAM. We’re talking literal rainbows and glowing water and sleeping feet from the sand. Our open-air housing didn’t have any electrical plug-ins, so phones died in a few hours, but we did manage to snag a group pic first.

The dress was perfect for the beach, and my friends were surprised to learn I had only bought the dress at a thrift store a few days before. I was jazzed to be in something “cute” after all these months of functional wear, and even more excited at the potential of future buys from Cambodian thrift stores.

My name is Chelsey, and I'm a traveler running on coffee and aspirations. Minnesota is home, but my feet have touched the ground in more than 20 countries. I've got big dreams and a small budget – so thrift shops are where I thrive. My closet is full of floral-print, cozy sweaters and clothes that tell their own story. I'll walk a mile in someone else's skirt, while following my own path.