A few years ago, on my first visit to Nepal, I fell in love. No, not with a man… well, not with a human man. I fell in love with this pair of wooden dolls from a little souvenir shop in Pokhara; I loved them so much that I took a photo of them in the shop, just in case I never saw them again. Three days later, on my last day before returning to Kathmandu, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went into the shop, laid down the equivalent of $20, and walked out with my new purchases, clutching them to my chest.
And yes, I was backpacking at the time.
My London flat!
Some of my very favourite souvenirs, including ones from Myanmar, Mongolia, Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Guatemala, Nepal, Japan, Honduras, Bolivia, Italy, India, and Zambia.
Souvenirs from Chile, England, Wales, Indonesia, and Nepal, as well as my collection of found playing cards and a portion of my record collection.
Art from Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Nicaragua
If you follow any major travel websites, blogs, or Pinterest boards, chances are you’ve heard something along the lines of “experiences, not possessions” or maybe you’ve read about people who never buy souvenirs, preferring to travel light or to save their money.
And while I appreciate all of those arguments – I’d much rather have plane tickets than a designer purse, for example – I am one of those people who ALWAYS buys souvenirs. In fact, I’ve bought souvenirs (sometimes multiple souvenirs) in every country I’ve been to, even if it’s something as small as a thimble or a postcard. I have lugged bags full of knick knacks all over the world, sent boxes full of treasures home even when I was nomadic and that “home” was my dad’s basement, and budgeted souvenir shopping into every trip I’ve taken. Some may call that materialistic, but I just call it sentimental.
Because the fact is, I LOVE looking at the souvenirs I’ve brought home from around the world. I love walking around my flat and picking them up. I love remembering where I was when I bought it, or who I bought it with, or who I bought it from. I love surrounding myself with little memories of my travels. Of course, I have photos and journals, too, but there’s something about having a little piece of a place to yourself.
Souvenirs from Nicaragua, Russia, Jordan (a gift, I haven’t been there), and Japan. That wooden box was apparently made by a prisoner in Siberia almost a century ago – his initials are carved in the wood.
Art from Zambia, Portugal, Chile, and prints bought at the Tate Modern in London
A doll from Peru, vase from Vietnam, print from Russia, paintings from Cambodia, wooden heart from Liechtenstein, and tchotchkes from Portugal, Russia, Japan, and Bolivia. My jewellery/makeup boxes do not close properly and it pains me every day.
Art from India, dolls from Nepal, Indonesia, and Bhutan, and chopsticks from Mongolia
Not only that, I believe that buying souvenirs is a great way to give back to a local culture and contribute to the economy. The trick to finding souvenirs that are actually made in a country? Do your research. Check out what’s commonly sold in the country you’re visiting online, and what materials that country might be known for (certain textiles, metals, jewellery, etc). If the souvenir in question is made of plastic or another cheap material (or, you know, says “Made in China” on the bottom… and you’re in Spain), chances are high that it was manufactured elsewhere. When in doubt, just ask the person selling it. They will most likely say it’s local no matter what, but having a short conversation with the person about it (“Where was it made? Is this a common souvenir in this country?” etc) can give you a few more clues.
I even have souvenirs in my kitchen: painted cross from Guatemala, painting from Rome, pomegranate from Israel, enough pasta to feed a small army from Italy (food counts, right?!). Also my cookie jar is currently empty, which should be illegal.
Glass fish from Cinque Terre, salt and pepper shakers from Botswana. I think I need to clean my kitchen.
And that’s the other beauty of buying souvenirs – you get to talk to people! I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with artists, salespeople, shopkeepers, and so on. That painting from Rome near my microwave? I bought that off a man on a little bridge; we talked for about half an hour about his life and what brought him to the city. Each painting I have on my walls, minus the prints of famous art? I’ve talked to each of those artists, learned a little bit about their style, their background, and so on. I was once invited to an art gallery opening in Porto because of my conversation with an artist. An artist I met in Colombia, Guillermo, inspired this post AND led to a friendship (hi Margaret!). I told a funny story about a painting I bought in Chile in a recent Facebook live video, and there are many more where that came from.
If nothing else, I recommend wandering around a local market and trying to look for even a tiny souvenir – a ring, or a small bag of spices, or a few postcards – to give you the chance to speak to some local people. In my experience, most people selling souvenirs will speak at least a little bit of English as they’re used to tourists, although it’s also a great opportunity for you to try out some of the local language; not only does learning a few phrases in the local language show respect, but it might convince someone to give you a small discount.
The real winner in this photo is the embossed “yak” skull (pretty sure it’s just a goat) that I bought on the streets of Kathmandu many years ago. Yes, I carried that in my backpack until I could ship it back to Canada, and yes, I then carried that in my suitcase from Canada to the UK. Hey, I’m not saying you have to have the same tastes as me… Also, The Rosie Project is one of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life and I don’t even know why it’s in my bookshelves – it was a desperate airport purchase – so if you’re sneaking a peek at my books, ignore that one.
Despite the fact that I am not religious, I do like to collect religious icons. I somehow accumulated a collection of glow-in-the-dark figures from around the world. Again, I didn’t say my tastes were for everyone.
Assortment of tchotchkes (what a great word) from around the world, including a beer stein from Austria, a matchbox from Iceland, and knives from Nepal and Morocco. I once jokingly pointed out those knives to a date and… well, I’m single, aren’t I, so no need to tell you how he reacted. I also may need to dust.
In terms of how to find the best souvenir markets or shops in the place you’re visiting, again, the internet will be your friend, as will guidebooks. Most guidebooks will have sections in each chapter about where to buy the best souvenirs, but I find that speaking to the staff at my hotel or hostel about where to find good, authentic souvenirs is also a great way to source items. Again, saying that you are looking to buy genuine souvenirs is very helpful. Note that some cities or countries simply don’t have a lot of souvenirs for sale – for example, I only found one official souvenir market in Bhutan (although there were plenty of makeshift stalls at popular tourist spots, and many expensive souvenir shops in the bigger cities) – so doing your research ahead of time is vital.
It’s also crucial to suss out if any souvenirs are deemed illegal or unethical – for the love of all that is holy, steer clear of any endangered animal products – or if your country won’t allow those particular souvenirs into your home country (g’day, Australian readers!). When in doubt, avoid anything made of natural products, including wood or seeds. If possible, it’s also good to ask for receipts, especially if the souvenir in question is expensive. This isn’t always possible, especially at markets, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. My mum once had all of her souvenirs that she had collected in China, Mongolia, and Russia confiscated at the St. Petersburg airport because she didn’t have the proper receipts/documentation for them (whereas I got through with no issues).
Art and other artefacts from France, Israel, Germany, Russia, India, Bhutan, Mexico, Botswana, and London (including that violin I scored for £5 at a local market). Crooked frames by me. Level, what level? I have eyes!! *cough*
Phrenology head from Portobello Road Market in London, because I believe everyone should own a phrenology head. Opium pipe from Laos, see previous reason. Another fantastic souvenir idea? Vintage books or pamphlets. They are certainly heavier items, but I have bought a lot over the years, even in other languages – these ones are from Slovenia and England.
Souvenirs from India, China, Wales, England, Croatia, Portugal, and my very first souvenir purchase ever – one of those cheesy Eiffel Towers I bought my first time in Paris at age 17. Worth every franc (yes, France still used francs when I first visited, let’s not dwell on it, OK?).
Something you may have encountered when travelling, specifically if you are on a tour, is the dreaded “And now we’re going to stop off at a local shop/market for you to browse”. Most likely, your tour guide will get a commission of any purchase you make at that shop. Also something to keep in mind is that you have probably been brought to a very expensive shop – I’ve often been taken to carpet shops, silver shops, and so on – and you will definitely be paying tourist prices. My advice? Don’t purchase anything from these shops, unless you’ve specifically discussed shopping for souvenirs with your tour guide at a prior time, or, of course, if you totally fall in love with something and feel it’s a reasonable price (I once bought bedding in India while on a tour… yes, bedding. I have a problem, all right?!). You may feel pressured to purchase something, but you are under no obligation to do so. I simply say something like, “The shop looks nice, but no thank you.”
The one exception I have to this is if I have spent time with a group of people/a group of people have helped me, and at the end of the day or the experience they present some souvenirs for sale. Off the top of my head, I remember this happening in Vietnam (when local Sapa women helped me and other tourists on a hiking trail) and Botswana (when local people took me and other tourists on dugout canoe rides in the Okavango Delta). In both cases, women sold either small baskets, purses, or jewellery at the end of the day, and I personally bought quite a few trinkets in each scenario. I understand that some people feel like they’re being ripped off – “I already paid for the experience, why do I have to feel pressure to pay more?!” – but honestly, I’d feel embarrassed not spending a few extra dollars in a situation like that.
Always remember: in your mind, you might be a broke backpacker or budget traveller, but if you’re travelling for pleasure, you’re one of the richest people in the world.
When I was writing this post I suddenly had a realisation that, geez, I have a lot of weird stuff. Like, wait, doesn’t everyone have drawings of human teeth from Berlin and a creepy old photograph with a cow’s skull painted on top of it in their bedroom? No?? Also, that little fish dish is really for olives, and that little green thing is a massage tool, the only souvenir I bought in Brunei. My favourite souvenirs, however, are always items of jewellery, and I recommend taking a look at what local women are wearing in order to get the most authentic pieces, whether it’s silver, brass, beads, and so on.
Finally, how the hell do you know if you’re getting a fair price? Here’s the deal: if you’re happy with how much you’re paying, and you feel that the item is worth the money you’re spending, then that is a fair price. You will definitely encounter some ridiculous sales pitches when you shop for souvenirs, but I try not to barter too much; as I insinuated above, at the end of the day, an extra dollar or two won’t really affect my life that much, but it may affect the person selling me the souvenir. If it’s too expensive for me, I simply cut my losses and move on. The general rule, when bartering, is to ask for half of the initial offer and then go from there, but again, it’s really up to what you’re comfortable paying. I’m going to post an article on best bartering tactics very soon, but this post is all about trying to convince you to buy souvenirs in the first place. Is it working?! *perspires nervously*
And one more thing: buying souvenirs doesn’t make you any less of a traveller. We can’t all be some weathered adventurer carrying only his leather journal and a spare t-shirt. There can be a lot of snobbery in the travel world sometimes (see: “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller”, “people who go on cruise ships/stay at all-inclusive resorts aren’t actually travelling”, “people who count countries are superficial”, “Oh, you only went to the Moroccan Sahara? Well, that’s not really the Sahara” – for real, someone said that to me – and so on, and so on, until UGH) but honestly, if you want to fill your house with souvenirs, go ahead and do it. It’s YOUR money, so you can do whatever the hell you want with it (well, as long as it’s legal). For all of the souvenirs I’ve purchased over the years, I could have bought a bunch of flights instead, but I LOVE the things I’ve collected from around the world. They make me happy, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.
To reiterate: buying local souvenirs means I support the economy, get a chance to speak with lots of different people, get to own a beautiful item that brings back memories whenever I see it, and validates the fact that I have a goat’s skull displayed in my bookshelves. I mean, C’MON. Buying souvenirs is awesome.
Do you know how happy walking into this flat makes me? Fun fact: I’m sitting on that couch right now as I write this, how very Twilight Zone. Oh, and those flowers have since died.
And look who stands on my desk…
If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out Cheap and Easy Souvenirs to Collect, where I showcase some of my favourite collections (coins and corks and vintage photographs, oh my!).
Do you buy souvenirs? Why or why not? What is your favourite souvenir you’ve purchased?