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Chiang Mai sunday night market

Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market spills over into the plaza at the Tha Pae gate.

I’m not sure what it is that resides in travellers’ souls that requires purchasing mementos of trips made, but souvenirs are a de rigueur part of the travel experience. Whether it is for bragging rights or a need for a physical reminder to help stir memories, everyone seems to need to buy at least one small keepsake from the places they’ve visited. That so many souvenirs on display at markets heavily trafficked by visitors qualify as tacky makes me wonder why in the world is it that a four foot tall carving of a frog holding an umbrella over its head is what stirred your soul and promised to provide memories of your trip to Bali? I just don’t get it.

Anywhere you go in SE Asia where touri congregate there are hundreds of souvenir stands huddled together offering a wide range of tchokies that would make any self-respecting gay man shudder at the thought of having on display in his home. Straight touri don’t seem to have quite as high standards. It’s almost as if visitors don’t have a mind, or will, of their own and instead believe the best choice of souvenir must be whatever it is the locals have decided to try and sell you.

Elephants are big in Thailand. Because the Thai people love elephants. And so they assume everyone else in the world loves elephants too. Granted, I doubt if there is anyone in the world who hates elephants, but gluing an elephant’s likeness on any and everything you sell to tourists? I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been perusing merchandise at a market in Thailand only to have the vendor pull out a sample of whatever it is I’m looking at and exclaiming proudly, “Elephant!” And yup, sure enough, there’s an elephant someone’s glued to what might have been a decent souvenir. Thanks for that. No sale.

Don’t get me wrong. Elephants are cool. They are part of the Thailand travel experience. And I have an official elephant souvenir. On a trip up north with friends we visited one of the elephant camps where the pachyderms paint pictures during their show and I bought one. Tacky? Maybe. But I don’t have kids and so don’t have bad drawings or paintings to proudly display on my refrigerator. Substituting a painting done by an elephant for one by an offspring appealed to me. And say what you will, but that damn beast did a much better job than anything I could have whipped out in five minutes with nothing but a few jars of poster paint.

chiang mai elephant painting

Elephant Artesian

Whenever I visit Chiang Mai I spend at least one night roaming the Night Bazaar. It’s what you do in Chiang Mai. Any of the other night markets – the Sunday Night Market, Saturday Night Market, or either of the Friday Night Markets – offers a better selection of merchandise and cheaper prices. But still I end up at the Night Bazaar at least once on every trip. With the exception of the fake Tiffany/fake silver booths, the merchandise offered to touri has not changed since my first visit over twenty years ago. I have a strong suspicion some of the items on display are the same pieces I saw over twenty years ago too.

I was with my friend Ann the first time I visited Chiang Mai. Between us we had three to four dozen people for whom we needed to buy a souvenir. While I can somewhat understand the desire for a memento from places you’ve visited, I do not understand why there is a need to bring something home to friends, family, and co-workers. It seems almost cruel to me to give them a physical reminder of your good fortune in flying off to some exotic locales while they stayed at home and worked. But try and not make those purchases, try and not bring everyone back a souvenir They’ll all be pissed at you.

Rather than buy something different for each person on our combined list, we decided to buy a bunch of the same small gift. Souvenirs are cheap in Chiang Mai and even cheaper when you are buying by the handful. I suppose we could have gone with the traditional whatevers with an elephant glued to it, but instead opted for some small colorful little rubber heads you could mold into various shapes. Other than coming from Thailand, there was nothing Thai about them. But they were good for a laugh and we figured the lack of a glued on elephant was a plus.

balloon head souvenirs

Looks Thai to me.

If you haven’t seen these little critters before, meaning you have never been to the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, they are balloons that have been filled with a dense white powder. Rather than elephants, they have a pair of eyes glued on them, and usually a sprig or two of yarn as hair. They are kinda stupid. So is bringing fifty small balloons filled with a suspicious white powder back into the US from a visit to an area known for producing the majority of the world’s heroin supply. Yup, the guys at Customs saw a promotion in their future when we arrived at immigration in Honolulu.

We lost one to inspection. And everyone laughed. The Customs Officers chuckled over their stupidity, we laughed at ours. Someone on our list didn’t get their official souvenir from our trip to Thailand. My office staff wasn’t as lucky.

All my employees made appreciative noises over the gift the boss brought back from his travels and proudly displayed theirs at their desk. Not much else you can do with a tacky piece of rubber your idiot boss has given you as a gift. I’m sure after a week or two they all would have started disappearing, shuffled into a spare drawer with hopes their absence would go unnoticed. But they didn’t last that long. The balloons used were not industrial strength rubber. Within a week, after a bit of play, idly sitting next to computer screens, they all began to explode. White powder flew, coating everything with a few feet. So those were souvenirs that just kept giving.

I bought another handful on my most recent trip, the perfect souvenir to hand out to my new circle of friends.

Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.

Buddhas and bags at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.

Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, is big on souvenirs. Anywhere we go, he needs to buy a remembrance of our trip. Even if that trip was only to MBK. Or the corner 7/11. Bona fide trips, of course, require a bit more consideration over the appropriate souvenir. And there is a tier to the souvenirs we buy for others, too. Papa always gets something nice, specifically geared toward his taste. Then there is a group of like items for other family members. His ex-wife doesn’t get anything, but his daughters do. Those used to fall into the larger ‘family’ group until he fessed up to having progeny. Now I make him pick out something a bit nicer for his kids. He also needs a handful of small gifts for co-workers and friends along the soi. Cheap seems to be the operative word in that selection. And the heart of those gifts isn’t “I thought of you” but rather, “I went to (Fill in the blank) and you didn’t.”

Noom is as fond of the word ‘souvenir’ as he is of buying them. For some reason though he can never remember what the English word is. So on every trip we play twenty questions when he tries to get me to furnish the word to him. That used to be a frustrating chore, it’s not an easy word to provide appropriate clues to. Now, after a stab or two he just says, “You know. Before.” And then happily repeats the word a few times to sear it into his consciousness. It’s a word he needs to remember; he’ll use it often during our upcoming trip.

Noom knows, within reason, anything he sees that he wants I’ll end up buying for him. He’s not greedy about it; if it is for him it always is something that speaks to his soul. Still, he doesn’t like to take chances, so to ensure he doesn’t get a turned down, he always prefaces his request with, “Souvenir.’ I’m not sure why he’s decided that means I can’t say no, but then again I never have, so he may be onto something.

Luang Prabang’s Night Market

Luang Prabang’s Night Market

Flying off to some foreign land has become routine for him. We’ve travelled enough together that the plane ride is no longer a special experience. Still, he has some of the child in him and has to check everything out. On our trip to Laos, he found the barf bag in his seat’s pocket. That was new to him. And confusing, too. He held it up with a questioning look, waiting for me to explain. I did. And he carefully folded it up, tucked it into his bag and proclaimed “Souvenir,” I hoped the barf bag was for him and not for someone else on his list.

Our first night in Luang Prabang, Noom’s head busily swiveled back and forth as we walked through the beginnings of the night market on our way to dinner. The shopping bug was biting, but from experience I knew if I let him run free we’d never make it to dinner. I kept walking at a clipped pace repeating the mantra, “We eat” over and over while he followed along trying his damndest to remember where each stall was that offered something he was interested in. Admittedly, I was curious too, but a quick perusal seemed to suggest what was on sale were the same trinkets available pretty much anywhere in Thailand. Which means trinkets made in Vietnam.

After dinner, and no longer being denied, Noom got busy souvenir shopping. But now that he could actually shop he too realized what was being offered was all available back home. There’s not much else to do in Luang Prabang at night so everyone in town shows up for the night market. It’s a large market spread out along Sisavangvong Road. Like night markets geared toward touri in Thailand, there are maybe a dozen different booths. Repeated endlessly. And every vendor will proudly claim they personally make whatever it is you are thinking about buying from them, ignoring that the same exact item is for sale two stalls away. The pickings were slim, Noom was disappointed and decided to wait for the morning market to see if he could find something more original. Or at least something not from Thailand. But that’s a different tale.

foul souvenir

Luang Prabang’s morning market offers a different type of merchandise.

Still souvenir-less, we hit the night market again on our last night in town. Purchases had to be made even if what was available to buy barely qualified as something from Laos. Tradition dictates that Noom finds whatever it is he wants to buy, barters heavily with the vendor to reach a mutually agreeable price, informs me of the finial price (because even though I’m standing right there I obviously can’t hear the discussion), reminds me why the purchase needs to be made (“souvenir”), and then waits patiently for me to get the cash out to hand to him to hand to the vendor. A rather drawn out process. I decided to cut a few steps out and instead started the night off by handing him a wad of kip.

“This for you to buy souvenirs with,” I told him as we headed to the $1.25 buffet dinner soi.

Change isn’t necessarily a good thing. Noom’s forehead scrunched up, not quite understanding the new paradigm but happy about having a wad of kip in hand. At the food stall he tried to pay for his own meal but I explained the cash I’d given him was just for souvenirs, not his entire budget for the rest of the trip. His forehead unscrunched a bit. And he filled his plate, adding a few hunks of meat at an additional charge now that their cost wasn’t coming out of his pocket.

Hitting the market after dinner, however, was a whole new world. It wasn’t just that a list of souvenirs for him and the people in his life needed to be bought, but that now he had a specific amount to spend. And he went about it with a fierce determination. My role changed little. My primary purpose stayed the same: to stand by and watch as he haggled over price and over selection of goods. But our money, or my money, had all of a sudden become Noom’s money and the bartering took on a new light.

Thai silk umbrellas

Thai silk umbrellas, made in Vietnam, for sale in Laos.

There is nothing more heartwarming than watching a Thai barter for goods with a Laotian. Every kip, or baht, counts. On both sides. Earlier in the trip I’d gotten Noom to move away from baht pricing after showing him on my calculator that by dealing in kip instead you got a better deal. Still, it was in baht that his value laid so as he bartered he’d constantly wait for me to calculate out what the kip figure translated into baht. He’d wait impatiently for me to provide the figure, then snort in disgust and offer another lowball figure to the vendor.

No Laotian went home rich that night.

Noom bought his papa a new bedspread, his daughters dolls. He bought a mass of fake silver trinkets for his friends on the soi and some worthless knickknacks for various family members. He haggled fiercely over the price of a T shirt and then once the deal was made had me pick one out. He hadn’t forgotten me and bought me a souvenir too. That’s the kind of thing he does that makes me love the dude.

And then he began shopping for himself.

noom shopping

Noom barters for his final souvenir.

I haven’t a clue as to how much he had left when he started finding the perfect souvenir for himself but watching him was a riot. It wasn’t just about what he wanted and how much he could buy it for, but how much would then be left and what more he could then buy. But he did good. And we ended up at the last booth closest to the hotel at the end of he evening with the vendor wanting to pack up and go home while Noom tried to spend the last few kip burning a hole in his pocket. The vendor soon caught on that the muscled Thai boy had a specific amount of kip to spend and started showing him which items he could select from that he’d be willing to let go at that price. It became a question of quantity rather than quality and he ended up getting three small items, the most heavily haggled souvenirs he’d bought that night.

Noom was pleased with his haul and took great care in packing it all away for the trip home. Even the barf bag from the plane. The next morning we got to the airport early. With time to kill we went across the road to check out the airport’s souvenir shop. They followed the SE Asian tradition of trying to make their profits off of one customer because so few potentials wandered in. Noom found most of what he’d already bought. At three times the price. Which increased the value of what he had bought by tenfold. He scoffed and snickered in delight at the high prices.

On board the plane a momentary panic ensued when there was no barf bag in Noom’s seat pocket. I surrendered my official Bangkok Airways souvenir for the cause, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Evidently the new one along with the inbound one were in fact intended as mementos of his trip for someone he knew. And I considered a handful to pass out with my little exploding balloon heads might not be a bad idea either.

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