Myanmar’s traditional arts and crafts have experienced a sharp revival during the recent tourism boom. Lacquerware, carved wood, metalware, marionettes, brocade embroidery, and colorful cloth paintings fill stalls and shops around the country’s main attractions, creating vibrant photo opportunities and a mouthwatering prospect for lovers of authentic Southeast Asian crafts. In the big cities, meanwhile, multistory malls are where the affluent middle classes shop for modern, imported consumer goods. For fresh produce, covered and street markets are still very much a staple throughout Myanmar, and provide an enthralling spectacle for foreign visitors more accustomed to super markets. The one common denominator, regardless of the size and kind of shop, is the politeness and good-natured demeanor of the vendors. Although haggling is very much the norm, it is unfailingly conducted in a relaxed spirit, often over a glass of tea and plate of nibbles.
Most city shops are open from 9am to 8 or 9pm. Yangon and Mandalay malls open by 10am and close around 10pm. It is worth keeping in mind that staff frequently begin closing well before the appointed hour if trade is slack. Traditional zeis, or markets, generally operate from sunrise to sunset. Some zeis also host busy night markets in the surrounding streets, which run until midnight, or later. Virtually all shops open seven days a week, except during the annual New Year festival of Thingyan (April), when they close for four or five days. Bargaining Apart from stores in shopping malls, high-end tourist shops, and food and drink outlets, where prices are by and large non-negotiable, the first sum quoted is almost always far higher than the final one the seller will accept. To reduce the amount, the buyer has to be ready to haggle. Effective nego- tiation requires three things: patience, persist ence, and a sense of humor. Maintain a pleasant attitude throughout – remember that this is a social encounter as much as a com- mercial transaction. Don’t rush the process – driving down a price may take 10 minutes or longer. And if all else fails, try walking away, which tends to prompt a drastic reduction.
How to Pay
Only a handful of the high-end boutiques and emporia in Myanmar accept credit or debit cards; the others accept pay- ment only in cash, with mint condition, or nearly new, unfolded US dollar bills (see pp232–3). For big-ticket items, such as objets d’art or pieces of quality lacquerware, paying with high-value bills will bring the price down a little as the rate of exchange offered will be more favorable. Change is always given in Myanmar’s currency, the kyat. Kyat can be used to purchase low-priced or everyday items, such as cotton clothing and simple souvenirs. Receipts tend to be issued only in higher-end handicraft shops and modern malls, but they are available on request almost everywhere.
Rights and Refunds
As a rule, sales are final. Although modern shops in malls may have a returns policy, on the whole, once the money has changed hands, there’s no going back. Guarantees tend only to apply to imported electrical goods, and cover replacements not refunds.
Packaging and Posting
When shopping in tourist souvenir emporia, visitors will commonly be offered export packaging. Goods will be wrapped very well for safe transport on a plane, with layers of newspaper and padding in the case of more expensive or fragile items. This service is always included in the price. With larger, valuable purchases, such as furniture or rugs, some kind of international shipping service may also be offered.
Crafts, Antiques, and Souvenir Emporia
The widest choice of traditional and antique Burmese items is offered in large emporia located at major tourist centers and in the big cities. Wonderful storehouses of hand-crafted woodwork, palm-leaf etchings, handwoven textiles, paintings, stone figurines, and Buddhas of bell-metal, bronze, and brass, these emporia tend to stock both antiques and recently made items – although it can be difficult to tell the two apart, as newer objects are often distressed or artfully worn. Lacquerware (yun-de), in the form of round boxes, pedestal dishes (kalat), stemmed rice bowls with spired lids (hsun ok), tea trays, stackable tiffin carriers (hsun gyaink), trunks, screens, and polygonal tables, domi- nates the showrooms, along with walls of colorfully attired string puppets and kalagas, panels of velvet elaborately embroidered with gold and silver thread, showing Hindu or Buddhist mythological scenes.
In Yangon, one of the oldest established and best-stocked stores is Nandawun, on Baho Road, which also has a branch in the National Museum . In a similar vein is , run by the owners of the popular Green Elephant chain of restaurants, and Augustine’s Souvenir Shop in Kamayut Township, one of Myanmar’s foremost antique specialists. In Mandalay, Aung Nan Myanmar Handicraft Workshop is a great one-stop souvenir shop, as is Shwe War Thein Handicrafts, near the Tharabar Gate in Old Bagan, where visitors may watch teams of artisans at work. Most of the five-star hotels also have quality, on-site Burmese handicraft boutiques.
Many stores offer traditional Delta parasols for sale, but for the widest selection it is best to visit the workshops in Pathein or, failing that, the delightful Shwe Pathein in Yangon, where handmade parasols are displayed in a wood-lined showroom.
Intricately decorated string puppets (yok thei), depicting characters from Burmese mythology and folk history, make popular souvenirs. They may be seen on sale at emporia, shops, and stalls across the country, and come in a range of different sizes and levels of detail. Most expensive of all are the large antique marionettes embellished with sequins and brocade. A huge selection is available at the shop attached to the Mandalay Marionettes theater in Mandalay.
Multistory shopping malls are springing up in all of Myanmar’s major towns and cities, but particularly in Yangon and Mandalay. Air-conditioned and impeccably clean, with multiplex cinemas and Western- style food and drink outlets, they can be great places to recuperate from the heat of the streets, although the shops, which sell mostly imported consumer goods and modern fashion clothing, tend to appeal less to foreign visitors than the souve nir emporia. In Yangon, Parkson FMI Center on Bogyoke Aung San Road is the largest mall located downtown. Blazon Shopping Center offers brand-name stores. Farther north, the Taw Win Center and Dagon Center are both more recent additions. Visitors to Mandalay are spoiled for choice when it comes to malls. The downtown Mann Myanmar Plaza and Diamond Plaza are among the largest in the country. 78 Mall is also worth a browse.
Burmese zeis, or markets, come in a variety of different forms, but the main ones, in big towns and cities, are nearly all covered, and divided into separate sections for fresh produce, clothes, hardware, and so on. Bordering on the scale of a mega mall, but with a distinctly old-fashioned Burmese feel, Bogyoke Aung San Zei (open 10am–5pm Tue–Sun) in down- town Yangon is Myanmar’s largest covered market, with around 2,000 retailers packed on two floors of a huge, pink, colonial-era building. Cheaper than the emporia and tourist shops, its stores sell a full range of tradi tional Burmese arts, crafts, and antiques, in addition to regular local goods. The equiva lent in Mandalay is the sprawling Zegyo Market , ranged over four stories.
Each town also has municipal markets where everyday goods and fresh produce are sold from dawn onward. In Yangon, Theingyi Zei near Mahabandula Road is the largest, with an extensive covered section that spills into the surrounding streets. Mani-Sithu Market in Nyaung U (Bagan) offers a range of fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as clothing and collectibles. In Shan State it is worth making time for one of the “five- day markets,” held in specified towns every fifth day according to a rotating calendar. Local travel agents and guides will know the full schedule.
In Inle Lake, the two main ones are at Nyaungshwe next to the main street, where a scaled- down version functions daily, and at Inthein . Both attract large numbers of mino- rity people from the surround- ing hills, and are prime sources of authentic souvenirs, such as cheroots, hand-woven head- scarves, Shan jackets, Intha paja- mas, and other traditional attire.
Some streets around large zei also double as night markets. In Yangon, barbecue bars spring up after dark on 19th Street in the heart of Chinatown (also known as Tayote Tan). Popularly called Beer Bar Street – or occasionally Myanmar Lan Kwai Fong – it attracts diners from across the city with grilled meat skewers, steaming bowls of dumplings, and exotic Chinese delicacies, including toasted grasshoppers. In Mandalay, a similar night market operates in the roads around Zegyo Market.
Zaungdan, the covered, stepped approaches to large pagodas, are usually lined with brightly lit, beautifully arranged market stalls specializing in religious paraphernalia such as incense, candles, floral offerings, and ritual utensils. These little shops are also good places to pick up Buddha figurines in wood, stone, and metal; sequin- encrusted ensembles worn by young boys at their shin pyu ceremonies; and various musical instruments, especially temple bells, drums, and wind chimes.
The largest such bazaars radiate from the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, whose eastern entrance, spanned by sumptuously carved and deco rated roof beams, is arguably the most attractive. In Mandalay, the Mahamuni Temple’s four entrances are also lined with stalls selling crafts, textiles, and clothing, as well as religious offerings. Two other noteworthy temple bazaars, both specifically aimed at foreign tourists, are those held on mar ket day in the village of Inthein , on Inle Lake, and at the Ananda Temple in Bagan.
Gemstones and Jewelry
Myanmar is the source of the world’s finest jade and rubies, as well as many other precious and semiprecious gemstones, although buying them is probably best left to experts – jade is notoriously difficult to value accurately. That said, most of the jewelry shops in Yangon’s Bogyoke Aung San Zei are reputable, as are the pieces of inlaid silver on sale at upscale hotel boutiques and emporia. Nearly all of the jade mined in Myanmar passes through the fascinating Jade Market in Mandalay , where pieces both large and small are bought, sold, and polished.
Clothing and Textiles
Traditional Burmese longyis and htameins are sold at shops and market stalls around Myanmar, along with more contemporary fashions. For luxury versions in silk, worn for special occasions such as weddings, visit the large malls in Mandalay and Yangon, or Bogyoke Aung San Zei. Some of the finest Myanmar silk is woven in work shops on Inle Lake, where thread from the stems of lotus blooms is spun and transformed into shim- mering garments, both pure and mixed with standard silk and cotton. The workshop most famous for lotus silk weaving is Ko Than Hlaing Silk and Lotus Weaving, in Inpawkhon village, where it is possible to watch the manufac turing process in action, and whose showroom is lined with longyis, blouses, shirts, and scarves in a variety of colors. The five-day markets held in towns and villages are also good places to find local clothes, especially the Thai fisherman-style pajamas tradi- tionally worn by the Intha, and vivid yellow and red scarves favored by local Pa-O women. Mandalay, Sut Ngai is a famous source of traditional Kachin costume, including the button- and silver-adorned black velvet jackets, and the handwoven sequined hats worn at festivals.
Books and Art
Yangon is by far the best place in Myanmar to stock up on English-language books. Bagan Book House in the downtown area is a city institu tion that stocks an unrivaled selection of specialist guides and other titles on the country, as well as a great range of paperback fiction. Myanmar Book Center and Monument Books are two other excellent bookstores that cater mainly to students and expatriates, and have branches in both Yangon and Mandalay. For an excellent selection of contem porary Burmese sculp- ture, painting, and photography, visit Yangon’s Pansodan Art Gallery, River Gallery, or Gallery Sixty Five. Pansodan also has old advertisements, posters, and photographs.