My dead brother’s mistress’ mother, who lives in London, asked me to bring back a set of salt and pepper shakers for her from Thailand as a souvenir. I thought that would be an easy one. All I’d have to do is pocket a set from the table of any restaurant I dined at while on holiday. But it turns out there is, or was, a market for small ‘collectible’ salt and pepper shaker sets that bear the name of pretty much any place in the world you may travel to. Because nothing says Bangkok like a pair of cheap ceramic table condiment holders made in China.
Since the first caveman brought home a human knucklebone he’d found while off attacking a neighboring tribe’s cave, souvenirs have been a popular part of travel. People like to have a physical reminder, a memento, of the places they’ve visited. Even if it has nothing to do with that locale. Like a set of salt and pepper shakers. And across the world, those who make their living from manufacturing or selling souvenirs have a long history of not coming up with a better mousetrap. Which explains those stupid wooden frogs that ‘croak’ when you run a wood dowel across their back that hilltribe ladies sell all over Thailand. Although admittedly that particular purchase has more to do with paying a bribe to be left alone than picking up a cherished reminder of your travels in the kingdom. And they still beat the occasional STD sex tourists return home with.
I’m not sure when, or who it was, that decided that stuff marketed as a souvenir had to be tacky, although I suspect the popularity of those salt and pepper shakers back in the early part of the 1900s had a lot to do with it. Nonetheless, tacky is the rule wherever touri gather. Like Patpong’s night market. Because, yes, knock-offs are tacky too. Clothing brands change at Patpong, but the ‘hand-crafted’ knickknacks that make up the bulk of the souvenirs for sale are the same stuff vendors have been selling for over twenty years. Although nowadays much of that crap is made in Vietnam. The market is filled with the kind of souvenirs that gets taken home and given a pride of place on the mantle, then moved to a spare room, then to a closet, then to the garage, and eventually your local landfill. That’s if it is a souvenir you bought for yourself. When you are stocking up on souvenirs for the folk back home, it gets worse.
Whenever I traveled years ago I had a large management team, plus an admin staff, that I had to bring souvenirs home for. Tacky wasn’t the operative word, but inexpensive – okay, cheap – was. So they were often one and the same. On one trip we brought back those moldable faces made from balloons stuffed with some unidentified white powder they sell in Chiang Mai. They had nothing to do with Thailand, but were fun to play with and were a hit among my staff. Which probably tells you a lot about my hiring practices. After a few days, one by one, the damn things began to burst, shooting their innards all over the office. Which should have been embarrassing, but instead the staff started a pool on whose would pop next and little work got done with everyone sitting around watching the remaining balloon faces to see when the next would go and how big of a mess it would make. You woulda thought that’d taught me a lesson. Nope.
On a visit to New Orleans, we brought back voo-doo dolls. They were quite popular. And within an hour everyone had penned some other employee’s name on his or hers and busily began sticking pins in it. Interestingly, the women most often jabbed spikes into their victim’s heart, the men went for the groin. Which just goes to show you that even a tacky souvenir can be used as a team building exercise at work. But there just aren’t that many places in the world that have turned black magic into tourism dollars. And Customs has decided there are much greater dangers in the world anyway.
Obviously you are not suppose to return home with illegal contraband like items made of ivory. Little balloon faces filled with an unidentified white powder from an area of the world known for opium production probably isn’t a smart move either. And while size doesn’t matter to the folk at Customs, quantity does. You can bring home a knock off Rolex watch legally, but a dozen means you are trafficking in counterfeit goods. A small, tacky nightlight made from seashells is okay for yourself, a bag full requires you to have a wildlife import license. And while they should throw you in jail for bringing home one of those croaking frogs, they won’t. But may confiscate it or any other item made from local wood ‘cuz it may also contain local bugs that will quickly deforest your home country. I know that when you bring back souvenirs from your trip for family, friends, and co-workers, it’s suppose to be the thought that counts, but when that stuff doesn’t make it out of the airport, the intended recipients won’t think much of you.
I’ve never considered food to be a souvenir although I’ve returned home often enough with my bags full of some local treat that I wanted to enjoy back home too. I load up on small bags of spices from Cambodia to make AGOG with whenever I visit, and pounds of Bali coffee from Indonesia – the powdered version that leaves a mud-like 2″ thick paste at the bottom of your cup. I guess I don’t think of food as a souvenir because souvenirs are supposed to be useless. Though perhaps, if you ate something that you should not have and spent the next few days within running distance of your hotel room’s toilet a little reminder of why that was a stupid tourist trick might be in order. But according to a recent article I read, various pre-packaged snacks and foods topped the list for popular souvenirs from Thailand. And it wasn’t fried bugs as you’d assume. Larb-flavored biscuit sticks topped the list. I’m a fan of larb, but don’t know that the flavor of a raw meat salad is something I want as a munchy. But then that’s just me. Crispy durian chips also made the list, and that’s gotta be better than fresh durian even if it does miss the point – and experience – of eating durian.
Dried squid, the kind you can get from 7/11, is also a popular food souvenir from Thailand. I think they got that one wrong. I think they assumed packages of dried squid were being bought as souvenirs but were really intended as a travel snack among touri from Asian countries ‘cuz unless dried squid is something you grew up eating it’s not the kind of thing you’d fall in love with on a trip to a foreign country. Or even would try while there. Ditto for instant noodles, which also made the list. They sell instant noodles all over the world. So that’s not about being a souvenir, it’s about dinner for the first few weeks when you get home because you spent all of your cash and maxed out your credit cards buying souvenirs on your vacation.
The only non-food related souvenir on the list, surprisingly, was Naraya purses. I say surprisingly because I’m surprised anyone actually buys those things. I mean most people just ignore their elderly maiden aunts and don’t bring back a souvenir of any kind for her. Or her cats. Several years ago Naraya opened a branch in Patpong, a permanent store-front at the night market next to the bank that used to be a Boots that used to be a McDonald’s that used to be an open-air bar popular among ladyboys and the men who love them. They are tacky, so they fit the theme of the market, but I’d always assumed anyone who actually was gonna buy one probably had already done so while visiting Jim Thompson’s House. I dunno, maybe they make for a good bag to carry all of your dried squid home in. Because it can’t be that that many tourists have drag queens as friends at home.
I’ve visited Thailand so many times over the years that I’ve quit bringing souvenirs home for friends and family. If necessary, on one of these trips I’ll pick them all up replacement dowels for their little wood croaking frogs. But I still keep an eye open for the perfect souvenir from Thailand for myself, even though the perfect souvenirs I’ve found in the past have all ended up in the trash. Souvenirs are supposed to be a reminder of a place you visited, something that stirs your memories of the time spent there. And for me, photography does the same. Possibly even better. I don’t know that a wooden croaking frog will remind you of all the fun you had in Thailand as much as it will of the aggressive hilltribe woman you paid off to leave you alone. And for half the price, I’ve got a photo of one of those bitches, which is all the memories of souvenir shopping in Thailand that I need.
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