Many travelers devote some of their time and luggage space on souvenirs for themselves and gifts to bring home to their family and friends. Indeed, one of the most important things upon returning from a holiday is reuniting with your loved ones and giving them a token of your travels.
One of the world’s most exotic countries, Thailand, is a true shopper’s paradise. It’s easy to find a wide variety of gifts that will please your family, buddies, and co-workers. In fact, the most difficult aspect of souvenir hunting in this country is finding the time to explore the numerous markets, huge malls, and street stalls you’ll find here.
Before hurrying off to buy gifts for the folks back home, keep this in mind while you shop for souvenirs:
- Always carry enough cash with you. Sometimes, the most interesting stuff is found outside the malls, and flea market or street stalls don’t usually accept credit cards.
- Don’t buy cultural artifacts. Isn’t it a bit confusing that they allow the sale of knock-off items here, but buying an authentic piece of Thai history is prohibited? Well, it is. Everyone wants to bring home something old and authentic, and as most collectors know, the older the piece, the better. If you do happen to buy something that really is as old as the vendor claims it is, chances are it’s illegal to export it from Thailand. The issue doesn’t come up too often, and not too many people have been stopped by customs. Probably because there are so many fake artifacts in the country that some people can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. However, if you’ve got your heart set on bringing home some pricey antiques, make sure that you buy from a reputable dealer who has a license to export.
- If you’re thinking about bringing home some of those cute triangular pillows and mats that are sold all over the country, think again. They do make good souvenirs, however, U.S. customs officers don’t like to let them in the country. These items are made of mostly natural fibers, which can harbor insects. In fact, some countries have totally banned them. There’s no consistency on how customs officials in the U.S. will treat these items. Some of them flat out refuse to let them in, while some will insist on a thorough inspection which calls for ripping them open, and others won’t even blink an eye and will let you through.
- Some tourists consider Buddha figures as perfectly fun souvenirs, but for many Thais, they are revered objects of worship and their export is limited. Only newly made figures of the Buddha may be taken out of the country, and only for the purpose of worship, cultural exchange, or education. Anyone who wants to take home a Buddha from Thailand is required to obtain a license from the Department of Fine Arts. If you attempt to bring home a large Buddha without the necessary papers or if you’re unlucky enough to have your bags searched at the airport, your souvenir will be confiscated.
Here are some souvenirs that you should definitely buy for your loved ones back home:
1. Dried spices and bottled sauces
Wish you could make some pad thai that would taste just like the real thing that you had in Bangkok? Well, you can, if you brought home some dried spices and bottled sauces. Don’t try to sneak through customs with a packet of fresh herbs, because this will be confiscated. But dried spices in vacuum packed plastic bags are fair game. For a few dollars, packages are available that contain up to a dozen different typical Thai spices that will be sufficient for a month’s worth of Thai meals. Thai hot sauces and sweet and sour dipping sauces are also a nice gift for your mom or your neighbor who watered your plants and fed your pet fish while you were away. If you’re craving for the taste of Thai curry, you can buy packets of Thai curry paste which you can mix with coconut milk, veggies, and meat once you get home.
2. Anything with an elephant on it
Everyone knows that an elephant is a symbol of Thailand. You can find images of the beloved pachyderm everywhere—on fabric, carved onto pieces of wood, crafted into jewelry, appliquéd or silk-screened onto handbags, and in a thousand other guises. On a trip to Thailand a couple of years ago, I brought home the cutest elephant earrings which made me the envy of a lot of teenage girls in my hood. And of course, I couldn’t leave Thailand without buying a pair of miniature elephant statues to put on my knick knack shelf.
Here’s another idea: how about buying a painting, not of an elephant, but made by an elephant? Before you think that I must have had too many bottles of Thai beer, elephant-made art is actually a big deal in the country. At the Elephant Stay program in Ayutthaya which is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ruined temples outside Bangkok, elephants are coached to paint pictures with their mahouts, and the results are surprising and hauntingly beautiful. These paintings can be bought as souvenirs. I’m planning to get one for myself, just to see the look on my friends’ faces once I tell them that an elephant made it. It’s sure to be a conversation starter on my next dinner party.
You can buy fabrics anywhere in Thailand. Take your pick from bolts of fabric to finished products. Personally, I think carrying bolts of fabric, however nice they may be, might be a bit unwieldy for me especially once I get to the airport. But silk scarves make beautiful, inexpensive, and perfectly portable gifts for everyone, especially for the fashionable members of your clan. You can also find a wide selection of silk clothing, fabric purses, and neckties. When it comes to fabric, there’s definitely something for everybody in Thailand.
You can find real Thai silk in Chinatown. Cheap souvenir stands will label everything as “Thai silk” so be aware of what you’re buying. For ready-made, high quality Thai silk items, head on over to the Jim Thompson shops. They’re found all over Bangkok, and there’s even a Jim Thompson shop in the airport.
4. Spa Products
Pomelo, lemon grass, coconut, mangosteen, and rambutan scented soaps and lotions make great and exotic gifts to give to your girl friends or female co-workers. I am a big fan of these items, and they smell so good, it’s tempting to buy several sets to give as gifts and to keep for little old me. If you’re on a budget, most Thai supermarkets carry a line of locally produced bath and body products. Or you can buy them at one of the high-end beauty supply shops throughout Bangkok.
5. Silver Jewelry
For the people in your life who can’t resist some new bling, get them authentic silver jewelry from one of the many silver shops in Chiang Mai. Aside from jewelry, you can also buy silver plates and cups to take home with you.
The next time you’re in Thailand and you’re looking for gifts to bring home for your family and friends, consider the things on this list for gifts that will delight your loved ones. Though it’s the thought that counts, a little creativity and a little time spent shopping for the perfect gift will be much appreciated.