Souvenir shopping in Burma

I am not a shopper. I basically start zoning out after the first 15 minutes in a shop and desperately start looking for a coffee shop, preferably with good desserts. Sometimes I bring one or two small souvenirs back from a trip abroad. Usually none. Generally, I like practical things or silver jewellery. When I arrive in new places, I always have plans to go shopping and then after seeing the same things again and again I just get bored and then don’t buy anything (very often regretting it months later). Sometimes I just love the place and I know I’ll be back which means that I put off shopping until ‘next time’. And sometimes I only have a small backpack with me and simply don’t have the space.

Anyway, after first two weeks of the photography workshop in Myanmar, Bartek asked me about souvenirs and what I bought so far. Truly, until then NOTHING! I actually could swear that souvenir shops were scarce in Burma. Oh boy, how wrong was I.. I guess I didn’t ‘see’ the shops as I was so focused on taking photos, looking for scenes or people to photograph or just simply too tried and more interested in finding the next tea shop to sit down in. I was completely oblivious to what were popular tourist souvenirs.

However, after two weeks of traveling with Bartek I feel like an expert! We came to a new discovery: he can shop like crazy, and I am very good when it comes to bargaining (only for his stuff when I don’t care). Our system worked perfectly. He found what he wanted (I think he bought something AT LEAST once a day) and I bargained for him. It was fun. He went ‘all in’ in terms of buying gifts and supporting local trade. Let me tell you about his shopping: he started in Bagan. On our first morning, of course. There were many sellers around the stupas selling lacquerware and sand paintings. Both got ticked off the list several times during our stay in Bagan. Later he bought a traditional Marionette puppet (or was it two?), jade jewellery, wooden Buddha figurines, traditional handbags, sandalwood carvings, an iron mask and more… I am still amazed he managed to pack it all in his backpack. It was a real experience to shop with Bartek. I loved it. He shopped and I bargained for him while taking photos.

The place were I actually enjoyed shopping the most and even bought a few things myself was on the way to Shwe In Thein Paya in the village of Inthein (Inle lake). Hundreds of meters of covered stairway with many stalls but not many tourists. There was a great selection of souvenirs, a nice atmosphere and fun people to banter with. If I go back I would do most of my shopping there or in Yangon at the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market (70 years old with almost 2000 shops). Most of the things we saw in Northern Burma you can find at this market. If you are prepared you can spend hours there. Yangon was the last place on our itinerary and Bartek had bought most of his things by then, but it was great to just look around, bargain down whatever we paid previously for the same items and pick up a few forgotten gifts.

I actually saw lots of things to buy in Burma which I haven’t seen anywhere else in South East Asia. There are no ‘Made in China’ products in the souvenir markets yet.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Sand paintings in Bagan. Most of the sellers had different sets of paintings so there’s a lot to choose from. Lots of them were pictures of monks on U Bein bridge and around Bagan or scenes from Inle Lake. Some were copies of what you can find on the walls of stupas.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Beautiful colourful textiles. Pashminas, scarves and of course Longyi (traditional skirts worn by men and women ( different pattern and design depending on gender). Burmese women looked stunning in them and they look very comfortable. I wish I had bought some in the first two weeks. Will definitively buy some next time (same as with Indian sari prices starting at a few dollars and going to hundreds if not more).

Souvenir shopping in Burma The best place for shopping: the covered walkway to Shwe In Thein Paya.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Miniature of Golden Rock.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Sandalwood Buddhist Mala (rosary) with 108 beads.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Bartek and his iron mask.

Souvenir shopping in Burma There are many silverware workshops around Inle lake. During our day on the boat we were approached several times by ladies selling jewellery directly from teak boats.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Carved images of the Buddha.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Bagan made lacquerware.

Souvenir shopping in Burma Wind chimes and bells. The prettiest I saw were in Bagan.

Souvenir shopping in Burma For smokers: handmade sweet cigarettes (rolled inside the tobacco leaf: honey, tamarind, brown sugar, rice wine, dried banana and pineapple).

Souvenir shopping in Burma Bartek picked up 17 books during our two weeks together. Most of them about the history of Burma, Bagan and Mandalay. Several of the books he bought from museums were actually in Burmese! Books, like the ones above, are sold in most cities, are inexpensive (before bargaining: 5USD) and in several languages.

What about me? What did I buy? Not much.. I saw on the evening before we left as were packing. I had a few presents for my family and girlfriends (mostly Bagan’s lacquerware and jewellery) and for me a set of lacquerware coasters, a silver bracelet bought in Mandalay and five antique (hmm, not sure about that part, but they do look old..) Chinese cloisonne bracelets. I regret not picking up some of the sand paintings as gifts, at least one longyi to wear while there (instead of my cargo pants) and a wooden Buddhist figurine which I really liked and planned on going back for but got distracted and forgot about until the next morning when our plane was taking off. I wasn’t really shopping by then as I already knew that I will be heading back to Burma sooner rather than later and didn’t feel the pressure to pick everything I liked. Still.. I should have listened to Bartek and shopped!

One last thing I want to mention. We had one rule: no buying from children. No matter how young, cute and well spoken. I would happily buy anything from families and single mothers, but not kids. To tell the truth I am still very confused about the whole issue. Sometimes I thought that it was a good decision, and sometimes I got very upset not knowing what to do. I spent time with kids, played with them and it felt like I should buy something, but I resisted. I always tried to explain why I don’t buy from the kids, but I am sure they did not understand it.

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