Friday, April 23, 2010

Nine Awesome Souvenirs from Mainland Southeast Asia

You have just spent one, two, or ten weeks in Southeast Asia; Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, you’ve traveled the roads, seen the sights and mingled with the people. As you prepare to take the long flight home, you might have trouble thinking of ways to take the experience home with you. Here are ten souvenirs that will remind you of your travels and impress your friends and family.

Cotton shirt

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand
Price: $4-$12

Coming in a large variety of styles, cotton shirts in Southeast Asia are light, cheap and comfortable. Both hand-made and mass produced shirts are available and you can also find brand names from back home for dirt cheap. The real bargains are the shirts made for the sweat drenching climate of the region, which are light and breezy. Complement them with Thailand’s fisherman’s pants, or Burma’s longis, both perfect for hot climates. Unfortunately, these latter two won’t be the most fashionable back home.


Where to Buy: Laos, some tourist places in Thailand and Cambodia
Best Place to Buy: Vientiene, Pakse, or anywhere near Mekong River views
Price: $.70-1.20

One of the cheapest beers in Asia, Beerlao is also one of the best. Light and fresh, Beerlao lends itself well to hot Lao days. It also has a huge domestic following, having captured 99% of the Lao beer market. While it may seem silly to take a bottle home in your crammed baggage, the general consensus seems to be that Beerlao directly bought from Laos is better than the more expensive bottles back home (if you can find it). Beerlao isn’t just a great beer, it’s a life-style.

Paper Money

Where to “Buy”: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Everywhere
Price: Varies

Perhaps the souvenir that is easiest to get your hands on is currency. The images on the paper money of Southeast Asia countries tend to be unique, well-drawn, and culturally instructive. Some examples are the portraits of the tremendously influential and respected figures King Bhumibol and Ho Chi Minh on Thai and Vietnamese money respectively, and the image of a mythical lion that covers all of the Kyat notes of Burma. Common motifs include contrasts between tradition and modernization (such as pictures of temples vs. those of new highways), and local history and legend.

Something Elephant-y

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok or Chiang Mai, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Yangon, Burma
Price: $1.00-$12.00

Elephants are revered throughout southeast Asia with some examples of their popularity being the sacred white elephants of Thailand, the name of a former Lao kingdom, Lan Xang or “Land of a million elephants,” and Thailand’s popular Chang (elephant) beer. Traditionally used for both general labor and warfare, elephants are an enduring symbol of Asia. Elephant souvenirs are among the most common in the region, and include die-cast miniatures, wood cuts, embroideries, paintings, and any other medium you can think of. Elephant souvenirs are well beyond the point of being cliché, but this just means there is a larger selection to choose from, and who doesn’t love the world’s largest land mammal?

Hand-Rolled Cheroot

Where to Buy: Burma
Best Place to Buy: Inle Lake, Burma
Price: $0.50-$6.00 (for a pack)

If you’re the smoking type, consider the traditional cheroot of India and Burma. Some are rolled with paper and others with leaves, but either way, they’re dirt cheap alternatives to cigars or cigarettes. In Burma they are commonly hand prepared, and one can watch the whole process in workshops in Inle Lake. Extra bonus, the smoke of a cheroot works as an extremely effective mosquito repellant!

Tailor Made Clothes

Where to Buy: Thailand, Vietnam
Best Place to Buy: Bangkok, Thailand or Hoi An, Vietnam
Price: $8.00-$40.00 (shirts/pants), $20.00-$150.00 (dresses), $80.00-$350.000 (suits)

If you’re looking for tailor made clothing at a fraction of the Western price, look no further than Southeast Asia’s Thailand and Vietnam. Metropolitan Bangkok and the much smaller coastal Hoi An, are especially packed full of tailor shops. Quality and price can vary drastically from shop to shop, but in these two locations, vast competition has made the general price to quality ratio very reasonable. Before you go on a crazy shopping spree, remember these three guidelines; Shop around, inspect, and haggle. Make sure to look out for cloth quality, workmanship and price. Recommendations from other travelers are especially valuable.

New Light of Myanmar Newspaper

Where to Buy: Burma
Best Place to Buy: Yangon or Mandalay, Burma
Price: $1.00

The national mouthpiece of the military junta, the New Light of Myanmar would be a hilarious Orwellian parody if it wasn’t a legitimate attempt by the government to convey the news. The domestic news mostly comes from the state-run Myanmar News Agency (MNA), and international news is carefully selected and edited by censors before appearing in the bi-lingual daily. The result is domestic news of official inspections and general “progress” contrasted with mostly negative international news that would imply every country but Burma is falling apart. I think I remember a “scientific” article entitled, “Botox moves from face to brain.”

Cambodian Silk Scarf

Where to Buy: Cambodia
Best Place to Buy: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Price: $1:50-$15.00

If you’re looking for a cheap and beautiful gift for someone, seriously consider a Cambodian scarf. Commonly made from silk or fine cotton, many Cambodians wear scarves not to keep warm, but to keep out dust. The scarves are light and covered with assorted patterns and colors. There are a million varieties, so you’re sure to find something unique for yourself or anyone else.

One Crazily Marketed Product

Where to Buy: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
Best Place to Buy: Who knows?
Price: Varies

Ever seen a product placement that just didn’t make sense? Maybe it’s just culture shock, but Asia seems to have a plethora of hilarious ad campaigns. Scour the shelves of stores, examine the newspaper stands; the gem you are looking for could be anywhere. My favorite discovery was a box of condoms covered in “scantily clad” humanoid fruit.

And There’s More…

If none of these ideas appeal to you, be creative! Check out ornate boxes, wall hangings, lacquer ware, even weird looking rocks. The key to a great souvenir or gift is to find something that will remind you of that “feeling of travel”.

-Ted Gault, former hostel intern

1 comment:

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