I used to be a huge fan of souvenirs as a kid. Whenever I traveled with my parents, I would go see whatever thing we were visiting, then head immediately to the gift shop. I just really liked stuff – especially neat stuff that I could only buy at say, the Grand Canyon.
At some point I got older and wiser. I realized that most of the stuff in gift shops was made in China, not the country I was in. Most of it was on the cheap side. And most of it just ended up in a pile at my house somewhere.
Then I learned about minimalism, which, to be cliche for a minute, changed my life and they way I acquired things forever. I realized that those cheap souvenirs I had so enthusiastically collected were not serving me – they were just taking up space. And when you move as much as I did in my early 20s, taking up space was a big issue. I took up a project to minimize my possessions and purged a lot of stuff. (If anyone has the Kokopelli miniature that I donated to Goodwill, I hope it’s bringing you a lot of joy!)
However, I still really enjoy stuff, but in a slightly different way. I enjoy owning only stuff that I use that brings me joy.
So where does this fit in with souvenirs?
If you love souvenirs like I did, you need not give up them entirely. I personally just changed my outlook: instead of obtaining stuff just to obtain stuff, I only buy souvenirs of things I can use (and are, of course, beautiful). These might be consumables, like soaps, lotions, tea or food, but more often they are little lightweight accessories that I use all the time. And since I see them so often, I’m reminded, with a smile, of the circumstances in which I bought them.
Below I’ve listed some of mine to give you some ideas:
Gold silk scarf from Siem Reap, Cambodia
This is my favorite souvenir. It was bought in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I knew the region was famous for silk before going there and I wanted a lightweight scarf made of natural materials that went with nearly everything, so I looked for a gold silk scarf. It makes an outfit instantly more glamorous and stuffs small so I carry it around in my day bag all the time.
One of my memories of this scarf was shopping for it – at the cramped maze of a market, sometimes the power would go out. That sounds like it’s not a big deal until you realize that the power was there for the fans (it was hotttttt) and the lights. So, one minute you were breezing along, looking at items, and then bam! It was super dark and the heat started creeping in. And then five minutes later it was back on again. Somewhere in this stumbling, I found my scarf.
Pashmina Scarf from Sangkhlaburi, Thailand
Pashmina scarves are awesome. I’ve definitely used mine as a shawl and a blanket on multiple occasions. I saw this one while wandering around Sangkhlaburi, which is a small town near the border of Burma. You can see the Burmese influence in the clothes people wear there – lots of bold dark colors and stripes. I wanted to bring back a piece of this particular style, and I happened to walk by a market that had this scarf prominently displayed. Once I took a closer look, I knew this was the one for me – it has a lot of red and blue (two colors I wear a lot), and gold elephants, which are a big symbol for Thailand. I use this as a cooler weather scarf and a meditation shawl.
Little Zippered Bags From Luang Prabang, Laos
I loved Luang Prabang. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Center town and it’s quite lovely. It’s small, the buildings are very architecturally interesting and beautiful, they have a great night market, and you can sit along the river, eat fish from the river, and watch the sunset. The night market had a lot of interesting odds and ends with beautiful stitching, but I was on the lookout for something beautiful and useful. I ended up purchasing several little zippered bags with loops on the ends – one with an elephant, one that was made using the material from a bag that held concrete, and a couple others. I currently use them as organization bags to hold odds and ends like stuff for my dog, but they are also really useful for travel organization!
Packable Day Pack From Bodø, Norway
I found my amazing packable day pack in a little outdoorsy shop in Bodø while I was waiting for the ferry to the Lofoten Islands. Before going on this trip, I had seen a packable day pack at REI and was thinking it might be useful, but didn’t end up getting one. About a month into my trip, I was seriously kicking myself for not getting one. I found a super pretty waterproof version at the little store. It was $50. I debated a ton before getting it, but it turned out to be worth every penny – I ended up using it all the time on hikes in Europe, but I also use it all the time at home when I just need a light pack. It reminds me of the beautiful little town of Bodø, but also of the anticipation of getting on the ferry to go to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been!
Change Purse From the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
OMG, who still uses a change purse? Well, it turns out, in many other countries, they use metal coins for smaller amounts of money. This was pretty strange for me to get used to and I didn’t have a great way to organize these coins at all. As a result, it was salvation to find a little red change purse with internal organization at a shop in Lauterbrunnen. The tiny size of the purse and the different pockets make it a great candidate for storing tiny things like SD cards while it’s not in use holding change.
Tea From Old Barrel Tea Company, Albuquerque, NM
I was in Albuquerque this past October for the Hot Air Balloon Festival. It was so much fun! I had been dying to go ever since I learned about the festival from the hot air balloon company where I worked as ground crew while living in Twisp, WA. (They are lovely people – please give them lots of business!)
I finally made it to Albuquerque and not only had a blast at the festival, but I also had a great time poking around old town…and eating a ton of food. Oh gosh it was so good. Anyway, I also love tea and happened across Old Barrel Tea Company’s shop. It’s a women-run family business and they sell so many interesting tea blends, so I grabbed several and am still going through them. I also finally found a cute little spoon there to measure my tea and use it every day! It was such a fun trip and I smile every time I use my spoon or have their tea!
Pink Knit Hat From Juneau, AK
Once upon a time, after coming back from my SE Asia trip, I had a brief stint as a glacier guide on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. I needed a warm but simple hat for my job – one that could be worn under a climbing helmet if need be (no pom poms!). I looked for a nice wool one at the local Fred Meyer. Though it’s made by Carhartt, I’ve never seen someone with the same hat. I like that it’s reversible as well. It’s been on many adventures and it’s my go-to winter hat! I also use it as a teapot cozy sometimes.
That concludes the list of the souvenirs that I still have. There were a couple others that were useful while traveling, but ended up being given to others or donated once I got home. My favorites though? Pictures. Pictures and memories.
Other possible ideas to look out for while traveling: shoes, water bottles, journals, hats, socks, and sweaters.
PSA: Please do not take natural resources as souvenirs and do not carve your name anywhere
I have to take a second here just to say this: please do not bring home plants, rocks, shells, or flowers that are on protected lands like national parks and monuments. For one thing, it’s illegal. But it’s also disrespectful to the environment and your fellow travelers. If everyone picked flowers from a meadow, there wouldn’t be any flowers there left for others to enjoy. There have been many sites that have been destroyed because of looting. Please just enjoy things where they are. Also, I hear it’s bad luck to bring rocks home from Hawaii, so if you end up cursed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Another great way to make something ugly and possibly destroy it is to carve your name on it. This includes trees, benches, sandstone, other rocks, and who knows what else. It doesn’t matter if someone else did it – destroying things isn’t cool, man. Take a picture to commemorate being there. If you want to write your name or another message, write it in the sand on a beach.
If you want to bring back a plant or rock from the place you visit, check with a local shop or nursery. They usually have a vested interest in making sure their area isn’t looted or destroyed and will not do it themselves just to sell things to you, since they have to live with it!
Do you have any souvenirs that you’ve found useful?