I often wonder about souvenirs.
In this increasingly globalised world of ours, purchasing a memento from a known tourist destination can often mean buying a mass-produced, “made in China” T-shirt with that destination’s logo brightly emblazoned across it. Which I guess would make perfect sense, if that destination was in fact in China.
Don’t get me wrong, I have bought many a tourist t-shirt (or fridge magnet or key chain) from places that I’ve visited, knowing that it probably was not made there… and they were not always purchased just because I had run out of clean clothes or gift ideas.
But for the most part, I prefer to bring something home from my trip which is a little more unique to that place, and preferably produced by its locals.
Pasalubong is a Filipino word which describes the tradition of bringing back gifts to loved ones from a place one has visited. Where the word souvenir refers to a keepsake from a place, a pasalubong is specifically the gifting of that souvenir to someone else. So whether you’re after souvenirs for yourself or pasalubongs to bring back to friends and family, here are some ideas of what to shop for during your travels through the Philippines in order to really bring home a remembrance of the islands.
Filipinos love sugar. And why not, we do grow a lot of sugar cane here after all. You will notice a heavy hand of sweetness even in the savoury dishes as it is not uncommon to add Sprite or some other sugary soft drink to a main dish during the cooking process.
I could go on and on about Filipino food (and I did, in a previous post, so check it out here if you’re a foodie). But for now, I’ll keep the list to the easily transportable packaged goodies that make great “pasalubongs”.
You can also find dried banana, dried jackfruit, dried papaya, etc but mango is really what the Philippines is all about. Sweet and chewy, biting into these will take you right back to the times you had them fresh in the Philippines.
Made from powdered milk, toasted flour and sugar, held together by melted butter and then packed into little moulds and released into paper wrappers. These little treats crumble when you bite into them. Not ideal for the lactose intolerant. You can find these in classic or with added pinipig (rice crispies) and a multitude of other flavours.
A golden baked biscuit made from puff pastry with a spirally oval shape and sprinkled with granulated sugar. Crunchy, light, sweet and brittle, it originated in Cebu but now available everywhere.
Chocolate was introduced to the Philippines by way of the galleon trades from Mexico to Manila. With tablea, cacao beans are roasted and ground are formed into balls or tablets. Later on you put these into a pot with milk and sugar, dissolving and cooking them into a thick hot chocolate.
Another cookie native to Cebu, this one is made from flour, eggs, butter and sugar. It has a distinctive shape: circular with scalloped edges and a hole in its centre. My grandmother used to spread a little butter on her rosquillos and dip it in her coffee.
Unleavened flatbread with a muscovado sugar and glucose syrup filling. Not surprisingly, it originates from Negros Occidental, the sugar capital of the Philippines.
Hopia, another favourite afternoon snack is essentially mooncake, which was introduced to us by the Chinese. It is flaky pastry traditionally filled with sweet mung bean but also comes with other fillings such as ube, camote and even pork.
Pastillas de Leche
Candies made from milk and sugar, cooked and then rolled, sometimes coated in sugar and individually wrapped. My favourite are the ones made from carabao’s milk; though be warned these do not have a long shelf life and should be eaten right away (not a problem for me).
This purple root vegetable makes itself known in a range of edibles, from ice cream to chips and different kinds of cakes. It doesn’t have a strong flavour but that bright, punchy colour adds a festive touch to whatever it is in. Ube flavoured candies or pastillas or how about some ube jam?
There are several regions of the Philippines successfully growing coffee. Robusta and Excelsa varieties are also grown here, but Arabica and Barako would be my picks to bring home.
Mango and pineapple are my favourites to give as little gifts; also calamansi marmalade. Tropical sweetness in a jar.
Hand crafted products
There is no shortage of Filipino artisans creating hand made unique items that would make ideal gifts or mementos. And it is so much nicer to directly support an artist and his or her family.
Baskets and containers in different sizes and assorted patterns made from varied materials. So many appealing designs to choose from. Something for everyone.
Woven from dried leaves and often dyed in various colours. Traditionally used as sleeping mats, they also make great decorative floor or wall coverings.
You can also get smaller items made with this same material, such as place mats, purses, etc.
Paete, Laguna in the Luzon region of the Philippines is famous for its wood carving artisans. These master craftsmen have had skills passed down to them over generations; it is in their blood. The elaborate furniture they produce may be too big for your suitcase but perhaps a statuette, an ashtray, or some tableware would fit in somewhere.
Paypays or Abanicos
Hand held fans are useful and practical in The Philippines. There are varieties ranging from simple ones made from woven grasses to the more ornate Spanish abanicos that open at the flick of the wrist.
Guitar, Ukulele or Bandurya from Mactan
There are a few guitar factories in Mactan. Most of them are family owned and use traditional hand making methods to produce quality instruments.
The national dress shirt, comparable to the guayabera of the Central Americas; oftentimes with some embroidery. You can find these made from interesting fibres such as Piña (pineapple) and banana.
Tribal Design Fabrics
The patterns and materials vary depending on what region they hail from. They can be intricate and colourful.
In the Philippines they are plentiful and inexpensive and vary in quality, size and even shape. Colour-wise, they can come in cream, silver, champagne, gold, pink etc. If you want excellent quality and are willing to pay for it, go to a reputable dealer rather than the souvenir stalls.
handmade and in various styles
Made from coconut sap (tuba) and then distilled.
Ex-pat Filipinos will often bring a bottle (or two, depending on customs limits) of Tanduay back to the country they have moved to. In the Philippines, it is inexpensive and available everywhere. Most commonly mixed with cola or on the rocks
Don Papa Rum
This rum is produced in Negros, has a distinct vanilla aroma and unlike Tanduay is not so easy to find. Made primarily for export and packaged beautifully, you will have to search the better liquor stores to find it.
The Philippines is one of the largest producers of coconuts. The industry is very important to the national economy. A countless number of products can be derived from the tree, its leaves and fruit, from food to clothing and everything in between.
Virgin Coconut Oil
To put on your skin, in your hair, in your mouth.
Soaps made from virgin coconut oil. Plain or infused with other natural fragrances
Coconut Jam or Matamis Na bao
Made from coconut cream and panocha (raw brown sugar), this rich, sweet brown spread goes well on some hot pandesal
Coconut Shell products
Less tangible things
Ok so this is the part where I get a little corny.
When buying souvenirs, you’re not just bringing home some cool new possession; its also about the memories that those items (or photos) conjure up. So my first UN-tangible thing to bring back from the Philippines is the memory of those moments. It happens anyway, right, that we go back to our homes and reminisce about even the most annoying things that happened during our travels, Oftentimes romanticising them. But I find that if you’ve journalled an incident or taken a snapshot of a moment, they are great triggers to re-live the moment that you might otherwise forget. You get more bang for your holiday buck when you’re still enjoying it long after the trip is over
a healthy glow
Whether its from all the outdoor sightseeing or relaxing on the beach or just having a break from work… coming home with a happy, well-rested look or sun-kissed glow is the best tell that you’ve been on vacation. So show it off and spark a little good natured envy from your friends (who’ve probably been stuck in a dreary winter working their 9 to 5s while you were out discovering the world).
an understanding of the culture and a love for its people
Most seasoned travellers will agree that visiting other places and opening yourself up to the differences in culture makes you a more open minded, compassionate person. Sure its fun to just relax at the beach and enjoy you resort but you would be doing yourself a real disservice if you did not make attempts to speak with the locals and understand more of their way of life. One awesome thing about travelling the Philippines is that most Filipinos can understand at least a little English. And especially in the tourist areas, its very easy to communicate. They might be a little shy at first but most do appreciate when visitors make efforts to get to know them.
What to leave behind
Now back to the practicalities,..
Find out what the Customs laws of your home country are before bringing items back from the Philippines (or any other country you travel to), especially perishables and things made from wood or animal products. You wouldn’t want to spend a lot of money on something, transport it all the way home and then find out you are not allowed to bring it in. Or even worse, cop a huge fine.
Be aware of what species of flora and fauna are protected and keep well away from them. Although there are lists or protected species’ in the Philippines, it is not easy to police. Unfortunately, too often products made from these are easily available. So if in doubt, do some research and if you’re still unsure, leave it behind. You can always bring home the memories (or a made in China t-shirt 😉 )