Sustainable souvenirs to buy in Southeast Asia include anything that’s handmade and handcrafted, fair trade and ethically-produced rather than factory-made, and locally created rather than imported. Traditional crafts, art and artisanal wares, along with eco-friendly, pre-loved, recycled, and up-cycled things are all good sustainable choices. Elephant pants are not.

There’s a reason I’m singling out elephant pants. Partly because they’ve motivated this post on sustainable souvenirs to buy in Southeast Asia – in the same way that a trinket with a ‘Made in China’ sticker that a Bedouin girl at Petra tried to sell us as Jordanian-made was one of the inspirations for us launching Grantourismo and our ‘grand tour’ project a decade ago.

We’d been on the road for four years – living out of our suitcases and travelling around the Middle East, Europe and Latin America as guidebook authors primarily, after seven and a half years living in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – when I noticed that increasingly markets around the world were selling the same trashy manufactured Made in China/Korea/Bangladesh stuff and it was being sold as ‘local’.

From Bangkok to Bahrain, Jordan to Spain, I’d been seeing the same cheap, mass-produced, factory-made souvenirs – from machine-made ‘canvas’ tote bags to ‘Made in China’ snow domes. At the same time, I was seeing a decline in locally-created handicrafts, because handmade means they’re more expensive. Tourists were more interested in boasting about their bargains than buying local souvenirs, and their local makers and local economies were paying the price.

When we launched Grantourismo with our yearlong ‘slow, local and experiential’ grand tour way back in 2010 it was with a mission to inspire you to not only travel more slowly, locally and experientially, but to also travel more sustainably and responsibly. We saw all of those styles of travel as being interconnected and being more ethical ways of travelling, as we still do now.

On that initial round-the-world journey I was on a quest to promote ethical and sustainable shopping by encouraging you to buy handmade things, unique works of art and traditional crafts to keep local cultural practices alive; support small local businesses by buying local; to buy ethical, fair trade rather than factory-made products to protect workers; and to purchase eco-friendly, pre-loved, up-cycled, and recycled stuff to protect the environment.

Nothing has changed and I hope that it’s clear that we are continuing to do that through every choice that we make as to what we include (and don’t include) in our stories, guides and itineraries on Grantourismo.

Oh and partly because I loathe elephant pants – for reasons I’ll explain below.

Sustainable Souvenirs to Buy in Southeast Asia and Why You Shouldn’t Buy Elephant Pants

On my recent travels in Vietnam, I noticed an increasingly alarming number of travellers wearing elephant pants – the baggy “harem-style” or loose, drawstring pants bearing a generically ‘Asian’ pattern featuring elephants and other Southeast Asian motifs.

In Vietnam, as well as here in Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand and Laos, elephant pants have become the official tourist uniform. Once upon a time elephant pants were worn by hippy travellers and considered unconventional, now they’re ubiquitous and mainstream, worn by everyone from gap-year backpackers to Chinese tour groups. Well, it has to stop, people.

No matter what you’ve read about elephant pants being “authentic” and “traditional”, they’re not. While the ‘harem-style’ pants shape is vaguely similar to that of the traditional everyday pants once worn by Cambodians, Thais and Laos before their countries modernised – which are still worn at weddings and festivals – those were handmade from silk and never featured elephant patterns. Elephant pants more closely resemble trousers from ancient Persia worn in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India.

The elephant pants that you bought for a few dollars at the markets in Phuket, Siem Reap or Mui Ne are also not “handcrafted in Thailand by local artisans” as most websites selling them claim. If they were handmade by artisans I’d guarantee you that they’d cost a lot more than a few dollars.

Your elephant pants are machine-made in factories and there’s a high chance that a fair proportion of those factories are sweatshops where workers are underpaid, often underage, and working in poor conditions – a form of modern day slavery. If you only paid a few dollars and your elephant pants have gone through a few hands from factory to supplier, then the actual ‘artisans’ you believe are making them haven’t receiving very much money at all. Consider all of that for a moment.

One giveaway that elephant pants are manufactured is that they’re typically made of rayon. While rayon is not technically considered fully synthetic because it’s made from purified cellulose harvested from wood pulp, it should be, because it is chemically converted into a soluble compound and moves through a production process of some sixteen stages.

Some of those stages involve highly toxic chemical processes that are health hazards that have resulted in disability to workers, not to mention the fact that research has revealed that rayon contributes to over 56% of the total fibres found in deep ocean, along with polyester, acrylic and others.

And if you want to argue that, sure, the rayon is manufactured, but you believe that the actual pants are ‘handmade’ by local ‘artisans’, well have a think about that. Look around while you’re standing in an immigration queue or airport conveyer belt in Southeast Asia, as you line up for tickets to Angkor Wat or Ayutthaya, as you shop the night markets in Chiang Mai or Siem Reap.

Do you still think that ‘artisans’ – or even local seamstresses, because there’s no ‘art’ or ‘craft’ involved in making elephant pants – made those millions of pairs of elephant pants that you’ve seen in markets and on the streets of Southeast Asia? If the answer is ‘yes’, then think again and if you have an ethical bone in your body or consider yourself a responsible traveller, please read our suggestions for sustainable souvenirs to buy in Southeast Asia, below.

Tips to Sustainable Souvenirs to Buy in Southeast Asia

Handmade and Handcrafted Souvenirs

Seek out things that are made by hand, particularly traditional crafts or contemporary applications of traditional techniques, so that you’re contributing to keeping cultural and artistic traditions alive rather than contributing to their death by buying manufactured garbage. In Siem Reap, Nathalie Saphon-Ridel shared fantastic advice and some wonderful suggestions when I interviewed her a few years ago, including buying basketry (in Cambodia, look for basketware made near Kampot and around Siem Reap, most of which is exported to Thailand), stone carving (Artisans d’Angkor is the place to go for large pieces to order, along with Road 60 and Preah Net Preah, on the road from Siem Reap to Banteay Meanchey), and silk textiles (everything is handwoven in Cambodia, and Nathalie recommends the delicate and perfect weaving of Weaves of Cambodia in Preah Vihear province).

Locally Made Souvenirs

Locally made souvenirs don’t need to be traditional and artisanal. In the past I gave the example of the distinctive candy-striped Catalan textiles, Les Toiles Du Soleil or The Cloth of the Sun, made in Saint Laurent de Cerdans in the French Pyrénées for over 150 years. Once upon a time, the entire village was devoted to making the textile using traditional techniques, but as machine manufacturing increased, traditional production declined. When we were in the region some years ago we met contemporary designers who had ignited a resurgence of interest in this local fabric and it was enlivening everything from shop awnings to the must-buy souvenir, locally made espadrilles.

Buy Direct from Makers

I have long made it a habit of asking sales staff where things come from and quizzing them about the source if I doubted the origin. Wherever possible I try to buy locally made products direct from the artists, artisans, craftspeople, makers, and designers themselves, or from ethical local retailers who have an arrangement with them. That way I know I am directly supporting their work, as well as helping to create demand for local products when I talk and write about, and use and gift their products. Local business owners also tend to re-invest in their community, whereas foreign companies send profits home.

If you have any recommendations for sustainable souvenirs to buy in Southeast Asia and any thoughts on this subject, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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