The secret to buying souvenirs

The key to buying a great souvenir is to ensure you get something that will mean something to you.
The key to buying a great souvenir is to ensure you get something that will mean something to you. Photo: Getty Images

If you're looking in the airport, you've left it too late. Your search for a beautiful, meaningful souvenir is going to end in the purchase of a tea towel and a bottle of duty-free gin.

The airport is not the place to buy your souvenirs. In fact, any souvenir shop is not the place to buy your souvenirs.

So where is?

My big-butted ladies from Laos.
My big-butted ladies from Laos. Photo: Ben Groundwater

Everyone's heard of "take only photographs, leave only footprints", which is kind of a cute mantra, but not very helpful if you want to have a permanent reminder of that holiday you spent thousands of dollars on. The photographs only work so well – it can be nice to have a tactile momento from your visit to a part of the world you'll probably never see again.

So the hunt for the perfect souvenir continues. Do you go for kitsch and tacky, a miniature Eiffel Tower, or a Chairman Mao watch, or a bottle opener blessed by the Pope?

Do you start a keyring collection? Maybe satisfy yourself with flags to stitch to your backpack? Or indulge in a few snow globes?

Or stick to items of clothing and shoes? Or fill a shipping container with antiques? Or carry two big-butted porcelain figurines around Laos for a fortnight?

It's certainly a matter of taste. One person's tacky trinket is the next person's perfect reminder. There is no ultimate souvenir that will appeal to everyone.

There are, however, a few things I've learned over the years that can ensure you wind up with less surprise presents for family members ("Um, yeah, I got this for you. I guess..."), and more souvenirs you'll actually keep and treasure.

My first tip? Spend up on something big. When I was a truly destitute backpacker I could barely scrape together money for food, let along souvenirs, so this won't hold true for everyone, but if you've got the money, spend it.

I spent years collecting cheap little knick-knacks – bits of pottery, half-arsed stone carvings – and I don't look at any of them anymore. Mostly because they're just not very nice.

If you're going to buy a souvenir, my advice would be to spend, say, $100 on something big and well made, than spend $10 each on 10 little bits and pieces. The more expensive items will look a lot better on your bookshelf in 20 years time than the tacky stuff.

The other tip, which could potentially negate the first one, is to make sure whatever you take home truly means something to you. That's why the airport is unlikely to yield a decent souvenir – they're full of the generic stuff, the giraffe carvings and "I heart whichever place I happen to be in" T-shirts. Nothing that's going to have much meaning for you.

The secret to good souvenir buying is to capture a moment in time, to find an item that captures the feeling of being in wherever it is you are. I love my big-butted porcelain ladies because they're weird and they could only have been bought from the little antique store on the main street of Luang Prabang.

They're unique, they capture a moment in time, and they're not something I could have picked up from an airport.

I have a similarly weird wood carving of a giant-headed woman that could only have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It cost me a fairly silly amount of money, but it does capture the adventure of travel in Africa, and it gives me the chance to relive that every time someone walks into my house and says, "What the hell is that?"

The more personal your souvenirs are, the better. It might be a signed Monopoly board from a London pub crawl. Maybe some framed ticket stubs from an NY evening adventure. Or the wristband from Roskilde that's gradually rotting away on your arm.

What I'm trying to say is that the best, most meaningful souvenir from your travels probably won't end up being something that's considered a traditional souvenir. It'll be something individual, and maybe something expensive.

And you won't find it at the airport.

What's your favourite souvenir from your travels? Is it something traditional or something weird?

Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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