Shopping in Myanmar
Bustling, often borderline chaotic, markets (zei) provide the centrepiece and heartbeat of virtually every town in Myanmar.
Larger markets or those in tourist areas usually sell traditional handicrafts and other souvenirs – great places to spend your money, as you can be sure it will benefit local people. In addition, nearly all upscale hotels have souvenir boutiques, selling more upmarket merchandise, although often at inflated prices.
Another great place to hunt for souvenirs are the shops which line the stairways leading into the many Buddhist pagodas. These specialise in quintessentially Burmese religious paraphernalia, from incense to mini Buddhas and prayer beads. Visit Bagan on Insight Guides' Off the Beaten Track in Southern Myanmar trip to explore the ancient city filled with crumbling temples and pagodas.
Among the well-heeled middle classes, modern air-con, multi-storey malls are the preferred places to shop, with an increasing number in Yangon and Mandalay, although most of the merchandise on offer is pretty uninspiring unlike the cities themselves which you can tour on Insight Guides' Myanmar Discovery trip.
Prices in mall and hotel shops are fixed. In markets bargaining is the order of the day: start at roughly 50 percent of what the vendor asks and work up from there; don’t be afraid to walk away (or even feign walking away) if you think you’re being asked for too much. Smaller shops will generally have fixed prices, although there might be some scope for bargaining, especially if you’re buying an expensive item, or making several purchases.
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For sheer variety, you can’t beat Yangon’s Bogyoke Aung San Market, whose myriad shops offer a massive selection of antiques, arts, handicrafts, jade, jewellery, clothes, shoes, souvenirs and collectables in all price brackets. It’s open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.
Just a block south of the Bogyoke Market is the even bigger – and considerably more downmarket – Theingyi Zei. The biggest and oldest market in Yangon, it sells all sorts of clothes, household items, hardware, toys and much more, while the northern end of the market, opposite the Sri Kali Hindu temple, has a decidedly Indian feel, with stalls full of spices, herbs and traditional medicines. The Thirimingala Market in Ahlone Township at the northern end of Strand Road sells fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and provides some good photo opportunities. There’s also a Chinese Market at the corner of Mahabandoola Street and Lanmadaw Road. Separate night markets are open on specified streets after dark; the best ones are in Yangon’s Chinese and Indian quarters. Explore Yangon and its extensive markets, being guided by a local, on Insight Guides' Love Yangon trip.
The stairways leading to the Shwedagon Pagoda are packed with shops. The one at the east entrance is the most interesting; among the items frequently sold are puppets, drums, masks, toys, brassware and metal goods, including swords. The bazaar at the pagoda’s south entrance is notable for wood and ivory carvings; check before you buy that you are able to take these items home as many countries ban the import of ivory.
At regional markets across the country, particularly those in eastern Shan State, you may come across parts of endangered animals for sale, such as rhino horns, ivory and tiger claws. Bear in mind that the purchase of such items is illegal and that you may face a stiff fine, or worse, if any are discovered in your luggage on arrival back in your home country.
Traditional puppets for sale in Bagan. Photo: Shutterstock
A number of towns around the lake host a series of peripatetic markets, which move from town to town on a five-day cycle (there are usually markets in three separate places every day – all local hoteliers and boatmen will know the latest locations). The touristy Ywama floating market is the best known of the various markets, but it’s a lot less authentic-feeling than the ones at Kalaw, Taunggyi, Pindaya and Nyaungshwe. Local specialities include Shan shoulder bags and textiles made from lotus silk. Visit traditional villages and local markets at Inle Lake on Insight Guides' Myanmar's Ancient Treasures trip.
Most of Myanmar’s best lacquerware is made in Bagan, particularly the village of Myinkaba, which is home to dozens of workshops and showrooms – the Golden Cuckoo is particularly good, with informative, free guided tours, while Tun Handicrafts down the road in New Bagan has an excellent selection of upmarket lacquer artefacts. Sand paintings are another local speciality – roving artists can be found hawking their creations outside all the more touristy temples. Spend days exploring the temples of Bagan, take a hot air balloon ride over the kingdom and visit the markets of the new town on Insight Guides' Myanmar Highlights trip.
This article was originally published on 27 June, 2016
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