When traveling abroad, we often bring back souvenirs for friends, co-workers and family. This is especially so when they’ve had to cover your responsibilities while you’ve been away. The key is to buy something simple yet unique, preferably unbreakable, so that it won’t be a burden carrying them home.
Here are exotic, unique, representative, meaningful and practical must-buys from all-time popular travel destinations that won’t break your bank!
Prague, Czech Republic
This European nation is famous for its garnets and Bohemian crystals, and many stores in Prague sell them. If you’re stopping by Charles Bridge (and you should as it is a stunning bridge and often touted as one of the top places to visit in Prague), then you can enjoy a wide selection of original crafts by the local craftsmen and artists, including paintings of all sizes, jewellery, puppets and wood carvings. For your alcohol-loving friends, look out for Becherovka, a traditional light, herbal liqueur (which you can try out at any bar in Prague before short listing as a gift). Spa wafers (lázeňské oplatky) are made in the spa towns, and mostly come in a variety of sweet flavours like vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate. You can get them pre-packed in the grocery stores. Opavia is a brand that comes well-recommended.
You can’t walk around Istanbul without seeing The Evil Eye, or Nazar Boncugu. The Turks believe it wards off evil presence and thoughts, and they inculcate its design in charms and ornaments for display in homes, offices, cars and shops. Some common forms you can purchase it in includes jewellery, charms, key rings and ceramic ornaments, easily found in most shopping areas including the popular Spice Market and Grand Bazaar. Other recommended gifts include Turkish delight or lokum which is a gel of starch and sugar. Spices, ceramics and copperware from Turkey are also very unique. Turkey is known for top-quality hand-woven carpets and placemats, but it is easy to fall prey to fakes if you lack the expertise.
Rome is one of Italy’s top art cities, so what better souvenir to bring back than a piece of art? You will find street artists everywhere, at popular piazzas and tourist attractions like Piazza Navona and Spanish Steps. The watercolour paintings come cheaper than oils, and you should definitely bargain if buying more than a piece. You may also find hand-painted ceramic kitchenware, an Italian tradition.
For more practical gifts, go for dried pasta and amaretti biscotti (Italian almond cookies) for the foodies. Italy is famous for its good quality clothing and leather goods, so if you’re feeling a bit more generous, some scarves, ties, and leather wallets and purses make great souvenirs without weighing down your luggage.
London, United Kingdom
The English are big on tea, and they have some very fine ones. Harrods and Fortnum & Mason have teas packed in beautiful tins that your recipient can keep as a souvenir after drinking. You can also get tea from the markets like Borough’s Market and Coventry Garden, albeit less posh, but you can find out more about the tea from the friendly stall holders and possibly even do some sampling.
The gift shops at the London museums are also interesting places to find enticing souvenirs. Many museums in London are free, and these gift shops are their main source of income, spurring creations of distinctive souvenirs from stationery to antiques to clothing. Depending on the nature of the museum, the general theme varies. The London Transport Museum shop for example, has a Christmas bauble in the appearance of a London taxi while the British Museum has rubber duckies designed with the headwear of a Roman soldier or Egyptian sphinx.
Hong Kong is famous for traditional Chinese bakery items like Lao Po Bing, literally translated as “Old Wife Cake”. A few boxes of authentic Lao Po Bing from Hong Kong would be a treat for your colleagues and guests. This delicacy can be easily found all over Hong Kong, but for quality assurance, Kee Wah Bakery and Hang Hueng Bakery, which have branches around Hong Kong, have sound reputations.
For mementos, the popular markets like Temple Street Night market, Stanley market and Jade market are chock-full of interesting knick-knacks. Some items that would make fine souvenirs include traditional paper-cuts, Chinese paintings and calligraphy scrolls, souvenir chop sticks, tea sets and Chinese tea (there are flavours that will be difficult to find in Singapore), and jade accessories from the Jade Market. Jade is a very meaningful gift is thought to protect its wearer. If you plan on investing in good quality jade, do your research so you don’t get scammed.
Elephants are cultural and national symbols in Thailand, and chances are, you’ll find many practical, lovely and economical products in all manner, bearing the image of elephants or made in the appearance of an elephant. For something really one-of-a-kind, get a painting made by an elephant, while helping to fund the Elephant Stay programme at Ayutthaya. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a short train trip from Bangkok.
Thai cuisine is popular in Singapore, making dried Thai spices and vacuum-packed dipping sauces delightful gifts. If you want to look for tshirts and other apparels, you will be spoilt for choice in Bangkok.
Taipei, with its bustling street markets filled with food stores, is a food paradise. While it’s regrettable that one can’t bring back most of it, there are pre-packed delicacies that you can easily bring back. In Singapore, most of our braised meat can only be found in variety during Chinese New Year, but in Taipei, you can easily find them any day at the street markets, vacuum-packed for the tourists.
The pineapple cake is an iconic Taipei souvenir, and the good ones are tangy and fibrous with a suitable mix of sweet and sour. Most of them have interesting fusions with other flavours like cranberry, melon and walnut. Famous bakeries include SunnyHills and Chia Te Bakery. If you think its too mainstream, then for novelty’s sake, head to大雕燒A Piece of Gayke in Shilin Night Market for phallic-shaped ones, which are bound to amuse your receivers to no end.
Seoul, South Korea
Dojang, or Korean seals, are perfect for personalised gifts as they are essentially stamps bearing your Korean name, usually written in Hangeul. You can get some made in Insadong, but for more economical options, try the Hongdae Free Market where the stallholders are indie artists who participate just to share their art. Incidentally, this is also a nice place to shop for some creative souvenirs.
With the popularity of Korean beauty products in Singapore, you might also want to consider bringing some back for your friends in Singapore, as they’re really cheap over there. Generic face masks going for a couple of dollars in our local beauty stores are being sold by the carton in Korea with each mask averaging a few cents. Gifting them could help your friends save some money. Korean seaweed is always a safe and healthy choice, available in large varieties of packaging and flavours in the local grocery stores, and very light to bring back.
Wooden handicrafts are a reflection of the rich culture and heritage of Bali. You won’t go wrong with a hand-crafted wood display piece or accessory. These products are often of good quality, with a smooth and glistening finish. Animals are popular designs for these works of art. Balinese batik is also highly-revered, comfortable on the skin and affordable, which makes batik clothing a thoughtful gift. As batik is manually dyed, this means that no two pieces of fabric will look identical.
If you’re overwhelmed by the wide selection of traditional snacks, Rempeyek is definitely one that you should bring back. A Javanese cracker containing peanut and anchovies, it is a crispy savoury snack that is highly addictive. The Balinese really know their spas, and you can expect to find plenty of body scrubs and aromatherapy products, made from natural ingredients.
During the Hari Raya festivals, many Muslims, including Singaporean Muslims, would flock to Melaka for Malay goodies, and little wonder it is for Melaka sells so many of these goodies for cheap. Best of all, they are practically available all year round. Tan Kim Hock Product Centre is a one-stop shop selling food specialities of Melaka such as Dodol (a chewy, sweet cake), belacan, durian cake, coconut cookies and various other snacks that you would be hard-pressed to find in Singapore despite our close proximity.
For cultural mementoes, you can find many traditional artworks and crafts along places like Temple Street, Jonker Street, Jalan Tukang Besi and Heeren Street. Head to Jalan Tokong for bound feet shoes. These are handcrafted shoes worn by women of aristocracy, whose feet are only about 4 inches long due to being bound from a tender age. Despite being a practice that originated from feudal China, it spread to other parts of the world and was deeply rooted among rich and powerful families in Melaka. The story behind the bound feet may be somewhat grotesque, but the shoes are really cute and exquisite.
– This article first appeared in a lifestyle magazine