What to buy in Myanmar? Lacquerware, textiles, precious stones and thanaka powder should all be on your shopping list.
Bring something home from this fabulous destination for all curious travelers, as a memento of an unforgettable trip. Myanmar, however, doesn’t try to disguise itself as a souvenir gift shop, and it definitely takes some expert insight to know what best to buy. Shopping is always fun if you do it the right way.
Department stores, supermarkets and duty-free shops can only be found in big cities such as Yangon and Mandalay. If you are looking for something more local, small local markets and cute boutique shops around Bagan and Inle Lake might tickle your fancy, with friendly prices and a wide range of choices.
Purchases can be made either by cash or credit card. For safety reasons, it is better to use cash for shopping in Myanmar. Most products worth buying are handmade and produced in small amounts, such as jewelry, textiles and wood carvings.
While bargaining works in some circumstances, some merchants tend to stick to their labeled prices and are unlikely to offer big discounts.
Lower Burma (the Irrawaddy delta area, including Bago and the Yangon region, as well as coastal regions of Rakhine and Mon States and the Tanintharyi region) is the major shopping area for precious stones and handicrafts.
In Upper Burma, from Mandalay to Shan State and the border regions, you will find some exquisite textiles, wooden carvings, pottery, lacquerware and silk.
Top Things to Buy and Where to Buy in Myanmar
Here is a list of things you might consider purchasing while in Myanmar.
The production of lacquerware was made into an art form between the 9th and 13th centuries. Unlike in neighboring countries where lacquerware can also be found, this art form occupies an important place in the history and even in the daily lives of ordinary people in Myanmar.
The upper classes store their jewelry, letters and Buddhist items in lacquer vessels. Lacquer boxes make great presents for foreign envoys or among the privileged. For ordinary people, lacquerware is more typically used for everyday food and clothing. In mountainous monasteries lacquer boxes are used for storing the monks’ food.
Making lacquerware demands much skill and time. Wood or bamboo is the base material and it is carved or reshaped before being glazed with a paste mix of lacquer and sawdust.
The base is placed to dry in an underground brick cellar for 5 to 10 days. Then the craftspeople take it out for polishing with dried leaves of the dahat tree and it is again pasted with the mixture of lacquer and sawdust, before going underground for another 10 days.
This process is repeated several times until the exterior exudes a dark yet lustrous brightness from the final coat of best-quality lacquer.
Manufacture of lacquerware reached its zenith during the Pagan dynasty, so the best place for fine laquer artwork is in Bagan. Most villages around Bagan rely on this industry and the process can usually be observed on site as a sightseeing event.
Lacquerware for sale varies in size and style. The most popular items include small jewelry boxes, bowls, table trays and tea sets.
Recommended places for buying lacquerware in Bagan:
Ever Stand Lacquerware Workshop
Location: Between Old Bagan & Nyaung Oo, Wetkyi-in Village, Bagan, Myanmar
Golden Cuckoo Lacquerware Workshop
Location: Myin Ka Par Village, Bagan, Myanmar
Across most SE Asian countries, such as Laos and Thailand, weaving for the family is still a vibrant tradition that lives on among the hill tribes. This is especially true in the mountainous Chin and Shan States of Myanmar.
It is believed that weaving pre-dates the Baptist missionaries, who documented it in the Chin and Shan States during the early 1900s. During your Myanmar trip, you will have a chance to observe local women weaving on a wooden loom in some hill tribe villages.
For textile and silk making, only natural materials are used. Dyes are extracted from plants such as the Burmese lacquer tree, wild almonds, mahogany and indigo. Fabrics are hand-spun from either cotton or silkworm silk.
One interesting thing about textiles and silk in Shan State is that people use lotus bud. Textiles made from this kind of fabric surpass regular silk products in being soft to the touch, naturally stain-resistant, waterproof and wrinkle-free. Thus their price is higher and they are produced in relatively smaller amounts.
From traditional longyi dresses (one-piece, skirt-like garments) to table runners, textile and silk products can be purchased right across the country, with the best place being around Inle Lake. Most pieces are dark-colored: blue, brown, black and brownish-yellow. Exquisite embroideries can also make a great present.
Recommended places for buying textiles and silk at Inle Lake:
Khit Sunn Yin Lotus Weaving Center
Location: Nyuangshwe Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar
Ko Than Hlaing
Location: Inn Paw Khone Village | Inn Paw Khone Village, Taunggyi, Myanmar
The industry involving precious stones, including jade, ruby, sapphire and gold, has been a strong economic resource for a long time in Myanmar. Corundum is also found in many different areas all over the country.
Local people see these precious gifts from the earth as sacred offerings to the Lord Buddha and you can see layers of gold being placed progressively year by year at some major religious sites, such as Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon and the Golden Rock in Kyaiktiyo.
Since the first discovery of ruby during the Middle Pleistocene age, the country has been a primary source of high quality precious stones. Mogok in particular sat for over 800 years on the world’s best source of rubies.
In addition to the world-famous “pigeon blood”, the great variety of gemstones available here is likely to strike your fancy, with pride of place going to apatite, scapolite, moonstone, zircon, garnet, peridot gemstones, and jadeite.
The best places to buy precious stones, without doubt, are legitimate gem stores complete with license and certificates. Don’t be tricked by street-side stalls or you are highly likely to bring home just a stone, not a precious stone.
Recommended places for buying precious stones:
My-Hoya Gem and Jewelry Shop
Location: No 25/26/47/48/23/140, Nawarat Building | top floor, Bogyoke Aung Sang market, Yangon, Myanmar
Mandalay Jade Market (for gemstones from Mogok)
Location: South Mandalay along 86th Street, Mandalay, Myanmar
Longyi, thanaka powder (local sunscreen), paper umbrellas, sand paintings, wood carvings, local snacks (such as tamarind flakes and fish cakes) and other handicrafts would be great presents to bring home.
Bogyoke Aung Sang Market in Yangon and Mingalabar Market in Mandalay are both great one-stop shopping destinations, if you have your mind set on something special.
Things to Know before You Shop
Let’s not forget that this country is adapting to international commerce. On the shopping front, there are still certain things you should know before paying.
Whether at department stores in big cities or local markets in villages, most goods are reasonably-priced and bargaining won’t go a long way, yet it probably won’t hurt to ask for a first-timer discount of 10% off.
Check before you leave
Double check the items you purchase, as well as your change. Never buy precious stones or jewelry if the shop owners cannot offer you a certificate.
Be aware that diamonds haven’t entered Myanmar on a big scale so it is unlikely that you find a real deal at a very low price. Once you have left the shop, return and refund of purchased merchandise will not be possible.
You may need to declare some special items, such as precious stones, antiques or important Buddhist scripts, at customs when leaving Myanmar. Knives, swords and other weapons cannot be shipped abroad.
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