What seems ordinary to some may hold special values to others. What’s mundane to a local may be seen as precious by a visitor. What souvenirs tourists take back from Thailand are often things that locals see as unexceptional — think of orchids, Thai boxing shorts, Red Bull T-shirts, fishermen’s pants, silk products and dried fruits to name a few popular takeaways.
For Chinese tourists, making up a large chunk of visitors to Thailand, shopping is a big part of traveling. In Bangkok, the sight of Chinese tourists crowded into medicine shops and tucked into snack stalls is a familiar one. They like to buy medicinal balm, liniment, cough-relief tablets and nasal inhalers, often in large quantities. As for snacks, they tend to go for the crispy snack Bento, Ko Kae peanuts and Mama instant noodles. Most Thais would view these as quality products, but nothing worth swooning over. But for tourists, especially those from China, these products are seen as treasures.
As key customers in the Thai economy, the consumption patterns of the Chinese are increasingly redefining the retail industry; a trend observable in many popular shopping malls and outdoor markets. According to a survey by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chinese tourists use 41% of their travel budget for shopping, while reserving only 4% for food, although they won’t hesitate to dole out money on tropical fruits. Bangkok was visited by nearly 20 million tourists in 2016.
The capital was also ranked in the top five cities where tourists spent the most money, with over US$14.08 million found to have been spent last year. It’s safe to assume a sizable slice of that was spent on purchasing souvenirs. The behaviour and preferences of tourists are worth studying, as they play an important role in the economy. Being attentive to tourists’ taste pays off. Here are some products that rank as favourites among Asian tourists in Thailand.
Thailand has an abundance of tropical fruits, holding a special place in the hearts of Chinese visitors. Durian, the king of fruit famed for its strong smell and sweet taste, reigns as the number-one choice for these tourists despite its infamous stink. Shopping for durian is a must-do activity for Chinese group tours, with vendors strategically setting up shops or stalls nearby the places where these tourists flock. In Chiang Mai, visitors can indulge in a fruit buffet – of course, with plenty durian on hand – that specifically caters to the tastes of tourists from East Asia. These buffets also serve up twists on traditional Thai sweets. For instance, the crispy Thai crepes known as kanom bueng replace the usual plain cream with a durian flavored cream.
Durian smoothies are also a regular menu item at several tourist spots now. Since the strong smell of durians can make them a pain to carry around in public, dried products have been developed as a solution. Durian is the most popular of dried fruit, alongside mango and mangosteen. Fried durian is also well liked, as it retains its good taste without any lingering smell. Durian chips, toffee and other snacks also decorate the shelves of souvenir shops everywhere now.
Although these products are more expensive than the fresh durian found at the market, they are easier to take back home, without spreading any smell on the plane.
BALM, LINIMENT, MEDICINE
Many balm and ointment brands are sought-after products by Chinese tourists, sold at pharmacies located at tourist markets.
For some of these businesses, selling these “souvenirs” can be more profitable than selling actual drugs for treatment. “Sometimes, one Chinese or Hong Kong customer spends over 10,000 THB on balms and medicine,” said Thanit Sermlekavilat, owner of Sappaya, a pharmacy at the Asiatique. “And many times they spend thousands of baht on these products. For the Chinese, buying medicine as souvenirs for family members is a tradition. They also believe that Thai medicine is of higher quality than Chinese medicine.” The Thai balm brands topping the list of Chinese purchases are Wang Prom, Golden Cup and Monkey (the last one has an iconic image of a monkey holding a peach on it). Salet Pangpong is another popular green balm made of barleria plant. Although it comes from Singapore, Tiger balm is a popular souvenir purchased in Thailand. Then you have nasal inhalers and liniments. Brands like Poy-Sian, Siang Pure Ew (known as Siang Pure Oil to the rest of the world) and Peppermint Field are the top products. East Asian tourists also like herbal powder and tablets, or yaa hom and ya luk klon.
The old-school brands seen as most fashionable among visitors include Five Millepedes (yaa hom takab ha tua), Five Pagodas (yaa hom ha chedi) and Lee Buan Suan, with its iconic logo of a Chinese fisherman on a boat.
SUAN DUSIT MILK TABLETS
How milk tablets from Chitralada Palace, or Suan Dusit Milk Tablets, got so popular among Chinese visitors is a mystery to many Thais. Once seen by most as a casual snack for children, the Chinese can now snatch up these at posh supermarkets like the one at Central Embassy.
The milk tablets were not always so popular among tourists. Some say that tour guides used to pass the snack around in their groups. Since then, Chinese visitors have come to view it as a premium product. The packaged snacks most prized by visitors are clear — Koh Kae peanuts, Pretz “Larb” flavour biscuit sticks, Bento seafood snacks and Tao Kae Noi seaweed. Pretz is a stick biscuit brand produced by Japanese company Glico.
In Thailand, however, the local larb flavor has gained something of a cult following. The spicy minced pork flavor from the Northeast is a hit among Chinese and Japanese tourists. Finally, Bento, a crispy squid snack, is popular among Chinese and Korean tourists due to its hot taste. Besides food, Chinese tourists like to buy Naraya and Jim Thompson cloth handbags as souvenirs. Many purchase them in bulk due to their classy designs and decent price.