How to Shop for Souvenirs Like a Local

I hate shopping, and I’m not alone. The sensory overload, the paralysis of too many options, the stress of haggling — it can all be overwhelming. But when I’m traveling in a new place, I admit to getting outsize satisfaction from unearthing just the right souvenir. I generally don’t look for fancy items, but rather something functional and frugal that’s representative of everyday life in that place. (More often than not, it’s also tasty.) The best way to find these gems, I’ve found, is to immerse myself in a destination and seek out the unusual. With that in mind, here are three strategies for thinking like a local — avoiding the usual suspects to discover something memorable, and well priced, to take home.

Every place has a specialty, often one that makes for a great deal. Some are well-known: tailored clothes on the cheap in Southeast Asia, vividly hued leather slippers in Morocco. But seek out less obvious items, and you might find even better deals. Even products that might be expensive at home can be found cheaply at the source — small factories or farms, for example.

Kampot, Cambodia, is known among foodies for its quality peppercorns; cooperatives like FarmLink have made it easy and affordable for tourists to buy them from local farms to bring home ($4 for 40 grams of the spice — half of what it costs when purchased abroad). Though FarmLink was founded to help farmers prepare their crop for export, it now offers free educational tastings and tours of its facility, which farmers use to process their pepper.

“Pepper is the No. 1 spice in the world, and yet people know so little about it,” said Christophe Lesieur, an owner of FarmLink, who points out that Michelin-starred chefs are ardent champions of Kampot pepper. “Coming to learn about pepper in Kampot can be compared to visiting a vineyard in Bordeaux.” (I’d add that it’s a lot cheaper.)

Other sources for insider knowledge on what’s available where you’re going and the best way to get it are local expat magazines and websites; you’ll often find these publications in English-speaking hotels or cafes. And don’t forget to ask around, Mr. Lesieur said. It takes a bit of work, but a little conversation can yield valuable tips on saving you money — how to ask guides to take you to “real plantations” instead of “tourist farms,” for example.

“Many guides will prefer to bring you to the ‘tourist farms’ because they get commissions on the sales from the tourists,” Mr. Lesieur said. Ask for alternatives, and they “will bring you to more secluded areas, where you have the chance to meet and discuss with local family farmers, in the heart of their pepper gardens.”

Elsewhere, the right guide can mean locating a community-run textile factory in Laos or finding the best coffee beans grown and roasted in northern Thailand.

When we were in college, my Honolulu-raised friend Ken used to buy Hawaiian macadamia nut chocolates for mainland friends at Longs drugstores. His rationale: Why spend more than double the price at the airport or elsewhere, when the neighborhood convenience store always had the best price and selection?

Look for where locals buy ordinary, everyday things: pharmacies, corner stores, supermarkets. Chances are, they carry geographically specific items that are great gifts. During a recent visit to Honolulu, I followed Ken’s advice and visited the Longs Drugs location on South King Street. I was pretty excited to find that aisle 9 was dedicated entirely to “Hawaiian Candy” and “Baking Needs.” Small packs of Maui Caramacs (my favorite) started at 69 cents — I picked up a handful of these for my husband and sons, who all have sweet tooths — and boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolates of every variety were on sale for $2.49.

According to Frugal Traveler readers who weighed in on Twitter, the same strategy works everywhere from Kazakhstan (caviar-flavored potato chips!) to Cape Town (packs of biltong, or South African jerky) and Austin, Tex. (bluebonnet wildflower seeds), where all manner of intriguing local items are carried at convenience stores — even the 7-Eleven.

Bonnie Tsui - October 2014 'Frugal Traveller', New York Times