I feel genuinely happy for friends when they travel to Asia because they come back slightly wiser, slightly calmer, and with a slightly different perspective on life.
One of the more interesting phenomena that occurs in the mysterious Far East is how even crappy souvenir stores are somehow imbued with an ethereal, mystical quality that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else. I can quite happily travel to the Grand Canyon in America, for example, or Ayers Rock in Australia, or the Pyramids in Egypt, peruse the cheap, badly-made dross on display in a local souvenir store and stifle a smug chuckle as the less-seasoned travellers coo and delicately hoist aloft the objets d’art for closer inspection. The rarified light at this moderately elevated stratum apparently illuminates the delightful sweatshop ‘craftschildship’ in sharper, more exquisite relief.
However, push me into a Phuket gift shop and I’m drooling over the equivalent knick knacks, trinkets and bric-a-brac as if they were cobbled together by the Lord Buddha himself. I’m a sucker for an eastern bauble. Why is that? How is it I seem to think Asia owns the copyright on spiritualism?
Show me a native American Dreamcatcher on my odyssey around a souvenir store and I snort and mock at the naiveté. Show me a set of Bagua Health Balls and I halt rigidly, vibrating gently like the stiffening flutter of a strummed ruler clamped firmly to a school desk, and listen intently to the vendor’s sales pitch. Of course, when I say the word “vendor” in this case, I actually mean “exalted guru”.
I’m fully aware of the incongruity. I know my perception has been tempered by the popular western perception of the East as the epitome of philosophical enlightenment; more than likely influenced by too many martial arts movies or the muddled, breathless pontifications of self-righteous, crystal-slinging California hippies espousing their ideologies through a cloud of billowing smoke suffused with the sweet tang of hemp.
Intellectually, I comprehend the underpinnings of these behavioral spasms, but somehow I still seem to sway to their siren call. Does this mean there’s some elemental truth to eastern philosophies, one that resonates on a fundamental, personal level? Something that western cultures simply cannot grasp with our materialism, our heavily structured religions, and our rigorous dismissal of the arts of meditation and deep personal contemplation? Probably not. I can, however, appreciate it is, more than likely, a load of old hooey. This still doesn’t make it any less cool, though.
Of course, probably the most common items brought back reverentially from Asia are swords and mini statues of the Lord Buddha. When someone shows you the katana they have bought, it’s more of a ceremonial presentation than a “here, mate, have a gander at this” as if they’re unveiling a new bruise. There’s so much prestige and ritualistic baggage attached to a katana we don’t seem to be able to detach the item from the mysticism.
Katana-worshippers will conspiratorially inform you the blade is folded 1,200 times in order to impart the sometimes magical qualities they believe it possesses, like cutting through anvils as well as entire armies of non-katana-worshippers. Indeed, I was once told a story by a katana disciple of how an oversensitive car alarm was keeping everyone in the neighborhood awake; when they woke in the morning, he found his sword missing and impaled in the hood of the car, disabling the alarm. He claimed the sword had acted alone. After a prolonged moment of awed, awkward silence I moved to another barstool.
As something of a history buff, I know that eastern swords were repeatedly folded in such a manner to counter the inadequacies and inconsistencies in the poor quality of the iron and steel they had to work with. The attaching of ritual and mystique to the techniques probably evolved organically over the centuries as a way to ensure the consistency of skill levels among practitioners. The same methods were used in both Europe and the Middle East, ergo there’s nothing special about them. (Which either says something about the West, or something about the East). But I still want one.
Presents that last
The best souvenir I ever brought from Thailand, and still use to this day, is a set of wind chimes made from bamboo. (I am, of course, being generous with the word “use”; one simply strings them up from a porch beam and leaves them alone). In addition to their visible charm, the soft hollow peals that lightly emanate on a breezy day cause me ceaseless auditory pleasure. So much more so than the tinny affects of their metal contemporaries.
The Thai gift that gets most play in my house, however, is a one brought back for me by a relative; a pestle and mortar with a collection of Thai spices bought at a street market, along with photos of the stalls they were bought at. Nice touch. As an avid cook, I constantly use the pestle and mortar, and Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. Typical Thai spices include turmeric, cinnamon, galangal, dried chilies, star anise, cumin, coriander and cardamom; shop around while you’re there and investigate the ingredients of the dishes you enjoy. Chuck in a bottle of tamarind sauce and we’re ready to get some Thai on!
Another gift I lavished on myself is the aforementioned mini statue of the Buddha, which currently adorns a side table in my hallway. I still “use” it in the same uninvolved manner as the wind chimes, though this is a visual decoration rather than acoustic. My particular choice of statuette was an especially fat one; not all imagery of Buddha depicts him as overweight, but I wanted one that made me feel better about myself when I look in the mirror. This is likely not one of the primary Buddhist paths to happiness and enlightenment prescribed by the tenets of the ideology, but it definitely puts a smile on my face.
Often it’s as important to know what NOT to buy as it is to chose your perfect souvenir. Here are 5 absolute no, nos.
- Think about how odd it would be for Asians to gift their friends with rosary beads and Jesus statues after a Euro trip. Buddhist images and statues make ok gifts for devout friends, but countries like Thailand have limitations on what can be taken out of the country, as well as the quantity.
- Unless they’re collectors, most people do not care much for keychains or refrigerator magnets that boast the name of the country where you went and they didn’t.
- Supporting the local hilltribe economy by purchasing colorful handwoven items are great, but put some thought when purchasing the item – if a gaudy skirt will only gather dust in the closet never to see the light of day, then it is by definition a failed souvenir.
- Products from endangered, not to mention illegal, animals, such as ivory carvings or pelts.
- T-shirts with the local language might look cool, but if you can’t read it, get a local to read it before you brand your mother as “Laotian wife”.