Shopping in Myanmar is a wonderful experience. Not only can one bargain with storeowners as one would in many countries, but bartering is acceptable and recommended. Often, merchants are more than happy to trade their wares for some of your own personal items such as designer watches, calculators, jeans, T-shirts and so on. In the larger towns, bargains can be found at public markets, known as zei or zay or at main central markets in most areas known as zeigyo or zay-cho.
There are lots of things to buy in Myanmar including antiques, but be aware that there are strict regulations regarding their export. The same restrictions apply to archaeological artifacts. There are some wonderful items made from bamboo available. Coconut masks make for interesting decorations and come in all shapes and sizes and are popular gifts to take home. The most sought-after embroidery is the Kalaga, a traditionally crafted tapestry depicting Buddhist scenes.
Folk Dolls reflect the numerous national races in Myanmar, they come in many different varieties and are a popular souvenir. Teakwood furniture is made by local craftsmen and can be made to order. Burma's red rubies are among the worlds finest. These high quality stones are now rare but are sometimes available from reputable shops in Yangon. Jade and sapphires are more widely available. Don't be tempted by friendly street vendors offering stones, they are likely to be fake.
Gold is sold in Yangon’s reputable jewelers. A wide variety of silver (of varying quality) is available in many tourist shops, from beads to intricately designed boxes and bowls. Tribal jewellery is more valuable and rare. Though design and workmanship is not generally up to international standards, there are some unusual and attractive pieces. Gold needs to be checked to make sure that it is not merely gold plated silver.
Gold embroidery is expensive, but some very fine pieces can be found throughout the country, though the larger cities have more variety. The manufacture of gold leaf is concentrated in Mandalay as a cottage industry. It is sold in little packets and is used as an expression of reverence for temple images but is popular with overseas buyers for handicraft work back in their homeland. Older pieces of silverware are particularly attractive and are more plentiful in the main cities where the choice is better too.
For those who are interested in handicrafts, the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon or the Zeigyo Market in Mandalay are good choices to shop. The array of goods for sale is huge and cheap. You can purchase just about anything you want from these two markets. Bagan is the center of lacquer-ware production, with a range of pieces available. Scott Market in Yangon sells similar pieces. Most designs are based on religious scriptures.
Attractive items from small purses to large leather bags which will last for years are available in most areas. The men's traditional longyi is a much more comfortable alternative to tight jeans or trousers when travelling through Myanmar. Delightfully styled marionettes of all sizes dangle at market stalls. Superbly woven items from baskets to placemats are available throughout Burma. Shan style shoulder bags are both an attractive and practical buy.
Stone carvings are lovely pieces for the house or garden, but shipping can be complicated and the advice of a local person is advised. Kalaga embroidered tapestries are the ones to look out for. These beautifully ornate creations make magnificent wall decorations when suitably framed, though quality can vary greatly and older pieces tend to look more aesthetic.
Thanaka paste can be seen being worn (mainly by women) across Burma. It controls oiliness, tightens pores, cools the skin and acts as a sunscreen. Beautiful high quality silk and cotton longyis are found countrywide. These are well-priced and easy to pack. The famous Shan shoulder bags are popular gifts and can be bought throughout the country. Many wooden carved pieces are available, both old and new, in different woods. Avoid purchasing any teak products as this is an endangered hardwood.
Do be advised that there is no trading standards authority in Myanmar, so check the quality of what you’re buying very carefully, especially if there are safety concerns involved. Don’t expect to get your money back if you change your mind after making a purchase, or even if you realize that the goods you have been sold are not as advertised.
Tips to smart and savvy shopping
- Check everything you can check before handing over your money
- Always ask around to get an idea of basic prices for common necessities. For more important purchases, try and get a local friend to go along with you, or better still, let them do the buying without you
- Don’t feel awkward or rude about bargaining, everyone bargains in Myanmar and you’ll look like a green tourist if you don’t
- Don’t look happy or resigned to paying what you’re asked, always begin by showing your gentle disapproval
- Walk away if you cannot agree on a price, either they’ll come after you or you’ll find the same thing on sale somewhere else
- Buy ethnic products directly from ethnic people, if at all possible, rather than from shops run by other ethnic merchants
- All gem and jewellery purchases need to be made through a government-authorized dealer, who must issue an official receipt - this is required for export of such items
- Exercise care when buying jewellery and gems as there is no guarantee on quality even when issued with a certificate from authorized shops.