MYANMAR TRAVEL TIPS

What not to buy in Myanmar

What Not To Buy in Myanmar

A guide to what not to buy in Myanmar. Avoid scammers and fake souvenirs and spend your precious money on souvenirs that won’t leave you disappointed

Part of the fun of going abroad to new destinations is bringing back a souvenir to remind you of your trip. I used to buy a souvenir for every member of my family in the past, but it quickly became an expensive exercise and required valuable space in our suitcases. So I began collecting postcards since they were relatively small, lightweight and could be pressed within the pages of my guide book to keep safe until my return home. But like always we always came home with more than we wanted to buy, and we wasted a considerably amount of money on fake souvenirs. Partly because of our ignorance and naiveness and partly because we were hassled into purchases. So here are a few tips on what not to buy in Myanmar.

SOUVENIRS IN YANGON

Like many tourists that visit Yangon most will head to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a bazaar of stalls and shops selling everything from chickpea snacks, to hats, wooden bowls, custom made clothing and shoes to jewels and gold.

Bogyoke Aung San Market Yangon

We were lucky enough to have our very own personal guides, our dear friend MoMo and TunTun who also hosted us in Yangon. The took us to the market twice, once at the beginning of the trip and once at the end. One thing that surprised me was the mass amounts of jewels that were being sold. If you didn’t already know Myanmar is famous for it’s Burmese Rubies and Sapphires and tourists that have a little bit of cash often look for bargain jewels to take home.

But our dear MoMo warned us that many of the vendors sell glass not rubies and many a tourist fall into the same traps day after day. While I don’t generalize here (I am sure there are some genuine dealers), tourists who wish to purchase jewels need to be extremely vary of what they are purchasing. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Always make sure you have a certified jewel and certificate a) to make sure it is real and b) in case you are asked or stopped at customs.

We asked MoMo where the best place to buy genuine jewels was. While I wanted a jewel to take back with me I wanted to make sure it wasn’t mined through slave labor jewel like so many of the jewels that come from Mogok are. I also didn’t want to be scammed so she arranged for a certified jeweler to come to the house and we had a custom made ring made. Apparently this service is widely available through request and it ensures that your stones are genuine and mined responsibly.

Diamond Sapphire Ring

This is the ring I had made from a certified jeweler in Yangon. Customized to your own budget and personality

 

The best thing to buy at Bogyoke Aung San Market is Longyi’s! You can buy them from as little at 1000 Kyats ($1) and they are one of the best things to wear in Myanmar. They are light weight, dry quickly and they are the traditional wear in Myanmar. We were complimented on wearing them everywhere we went as most tourists don’t wear them.

Temple in Bagan Myanmar

This is us in Bagan, and I’m fashioning the traditional Longyi purchased at Bogyoke Market Yangon

Souvenirs in Bagan and it’s Temples

Bagan is probably the most popular places for tourists in the entire country of Myanmar and the local people know it! At every popular temple you will find vendors selling longyi’s, postcards, wind-chimes, lacquer-wear and the infamous sand paintings. I am 100% aware that most of these people selling items are probably poor and the items they sell is their only income. I do not condone the purchasing of souvenirs here, I only wish to enlighten you with what you are actually buying.

Each vendor we met and spoke with told us that everything on their stalls was hand made by their family and that if they didn’t sell anything they would go hungry. This is probably true. But what aroused my suspicions was that every stall not only sold the same souvenirs, but they were all exactly the same.

One girl around the age of 16 was kind enough to show us around one temple. She explained its history and the meanings of the frescoes and her English was impeccable. We had a good rapport with her so when she took us to her stall I politely asked why everything looks the same and why everyone in the entire city sells the same things? She didn’t really have an answer. This worried me a little. We glanced over her stall and saw nothing we liked but felt almost pressured to buy something as a thank you for her guide around the temple (a local trick they try with every tourist). We settled on a tattoo pen which while traditional was definitely made for tourists. Useless souvenir number one. The only joy we took from it was that we probably fed a small child somewhere that day.

Myanmar Tattoo Pen

Monkey bronze head of the tattoo pen

Myanmar Tattoo Pen

We were also coned into buying two pieces of jade jewellery at The Shwezigon Pagoda. The vendors kindly took our shoes off us when we entered the temple and said they would look after them for us. We stupidly thought they were being nice, only to be blackmailed into buying something from their stall in exchange for our shoes back. Useless souvenirs two and three.

One other souvenir item that caught our eye in Bagan was the sand paintings that were being sold almost everywhere we went. Again we were a bit skeptical. We decided would love a beautiful painting in our living room so we stopped and chatted to two young men selling them. He explained that each painting takes him 3 days and he doesn’t use acrylic only natural colors from the earth, so red was sandstone, green was crushed herbs and white was limestone etc…
He was so convincing that the item was genuine that we almost brought useless souvenir number four. But we hesitated and decided that we would look around in town to compare prices as the young man told us one of his paintings would set us back almost 100,000 Kyats.

Sand Paintings in Bagan. Photo Credit to The Working Traveller

Sand Paintings in Bagan. Photo Credit to The Working Traveller

So later that night we took a walk after dinner and visited a few sand painting shops located in Nyaung U. To our surprise almost all of the artists gave us a different story of how the paintings were made, all having different materials, all claiming to of painted them themselves and all claiming their method of painting was the traditional way and all other paintings were fake. So regardless of whether any of them we actually telling the truth we decided against purchasing a painting as we didn’t feel confident enough that we were purchasing a hand painted authentic sand painting because after all we wanted an original painting that had been painted with care and done traditionally but since we couldn’t tell the difference between acrylics, sand etc we came back empty handed. So be aware when picking your painting of you decide to purchase one and shop around before buying as we saw a massive difference in price for pictures that looked identical.

Souvenirs in Mandalay

We decided enough was enough with souvenirs by the time we got to Mandalay. We barely had enough room in our backpacks as it was so we firmly agreed to buy nothing else. However during our trip to Mingun I bought a hand fan because I was so hot for $1. Useless souvenir number four (it was ruined by the time we got home from being squished but useful at the time!).

When you disembark your boat you are swarmed with people trying to sell you things and we also found at two of the places in Mingun young children approach you asking you to buy something small because they were hungry. It does pull as your heart strings a little and we saw plenty of people buying the small things they were selling as we approached the temple so we didn’t feel so bad when we said no thank you.

Souvenirs in Hsipaw

Hsipaw was one the only place we didn’t see mass amounts of souvenirs being sold or stalls. The market was purely for the locals and while they sold the normal hats, longyis and bags there wasn’t any of the normal tat that we saw everywhere else. We also weren’t bothered by anyone here either, infact we probably enjoyed walking around Hsipaw more because we weren’t hassled. Yet we thought since Hsipaw doesn’t get anywhere near the number of visitors as Yangon, Bagan or Mandalay there would be a heavier presence of people trying to make money from the tourists that were there, but this wasn’t the case.

Souvenirs in Inle Lake

Inle Lake was another Bagan, everywhere you looked or turned there was someone trying to sell you something. Our first encounter in Nyaungshwe Market was a good one. We casually walked around the market where they sold souvenirs (although it was another local market) but we weren’t asked to stop and look at their stalls or followed around by children. We were simply allowed to walk around at our leisure, people smiled, children played and it was an enjoyable experience.

When we took the day trip out to the lake it was a completely different story. Our first stop was to the floating but not floating market. It was a stop I wasn’t keen on doing but our boat driver insisted on it. From the moment we stepped off the boat we were bombarded with vendors asking us to “please stop please look”. There were loads of jewellery stands selling silverware and we were told that there was a silver jewelers on the lake too which was an optional stop we decided not to take, so we imagined most of the items made came from there.

We walked around slowly, it was quite hectic mostly because most of the boats headed to the market first so it was very busy. We noticed again how everything looked the same, the bracelets all looked identical and while we were walking around I decided it was a small item so I would buy myself one as I can’t imagine they would be very much. Something as small as a bracelet would be maybe $1 in Vietnam. So I approached a stall and found one I liked and asked the lady how much? She proceeded to pull out a chart with numbers on in increments of 500 Kyats. She said to point to the price we deemed reasonable so I pointed to 2000. She looked at me and began to laugh. “These beads they are real stone not fake, you pay 10000 ($10)”, at which point I began to laugh and said no thank you and handed back the bracelet “OK OK 8000!”. This was still far too much for a bracelet so I began to walk away. “OK final offer 6000!” To which point I thought OK it didn’t seem unreasonable for a silver bracelet with red stone beads and the tiny elephants were kind of cute so I accepted. She placed it in a small bag and we were on our way.

We walked barely 5 meters, I turned around and the lady was making another successful sale on her stall. As I stood the lady next to me was haggling with another vendor and I looked and saw she was buying almost exactly the same bracelet as I had just purchased. Only as I began listening she had just closed the deal for 2000! So my haggling skills must of been super bad or I was taken for a ride! So I walked away slightly angry and slightly frustrated that I had bought another souvenir that I didn’t need and for more than I should of. Useless souvenir number five.

To make things worse after a couple of days of wear I noticed that the beads weren’t stone at all put painted plastic as the coating began to wear away and the silver began to turn grey and leave a green mark on my skin. 🙁 We also purchased useless souvenir number six here too! A “silver” bangle that turned out to be nothing more than tin! *Facepalms herself!*

Elephant Red Beads Bracelet

This is the bracelet which you can clearly see is plastic beads not stone!

Leo bought useless souvenir number seven at the cigar factory on the lake. While I still count it as useless it was a good experience for him, as he sat and watched them being made and apparently they are quite good.

Souvenirs in Ngapali

By the time we reached the beach we had truly learnt our lesson. My haggling skills needed to be dramatically improve and our judgment on what was real or fake needed to improve too. So when we saw a stall on the beach selling cheap pearls we ran a mile. We asked at our hotel whether they were real and he even said probably not. As I said if the price is too good to be true it probably is!

You can find some amazing souvenirs in Myanmar so do not be discouraged to buy them. While some are manufactured and are not genuine items the purchasing of souvenirs do help out the locals. This post is just to warn you of what you are purchasing so you aren’t left disappointed.

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  • Beautiful pictures. I love markets and enjoy the haggling even more so. I have also been known to be given items for free(without buying anything form the sellers) my niece was surprised when it happened while we where haggling. I don’t know if I can put that down to my haggling skills or just luck 🙂

    Bathing Beauties on Butler’s Wharf

    • Lapchick

      You must feel very proud to have taken something from somebody who is less fortunate than you. I don’t think that I would like to know you.

      • I’m sorry you feel this way Paul. I am simply trying to advise fellow travelers to be smart about their purchases and avoid being ripped off and disappointed. I do not discourage purchasing souvenirs from locals, I simply wish to educate travelers on what they are actually buying.

  • ashley664

    I very rarely buy souvenirs, but when I do I enjoy the experience – even if I know they are selling it to me at an inflated price (of course, I have more money than they do). I think the key here is to shop around more before making your decision, and remember that souvenirs are supposed to be a bit of fun.

    • I love markets and buying souvenirs and sometimes I don’t really mind if they are fake or manufactured in a factory. I do mind when the seller out right lies to you about it. I know this is partly my naivety that leaves me disappointed but souvenirs in Myanmar are not cheap unlike other Asian countries so when your spending $100 on a sand painting you want to know its hand painted not printed…but otherwise I agree souvenir shopping can be fun.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. Things in Myanmar must have changed a lot from when we visited four years ago. There were barely any tourists at Bogyoke Market, where we had to change money on the black market (no ATM’s at the time!). There were some souvenir stalls but we didn’t buy anything, I had been previously warned that most souvenirs were fake. Great read!

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes its a shame so many are fake because it is always nice to bring something back. We are happy with what we bought in the end just a little disappointed that we couldn’t get a real authentic souvenir. But our longyi’s are by far the best thing we got! 🙂

  • duaba

    these are some great tips! i’m the type to fall into the trap of buying sand paintings so now i am fully aware!!!

  • That tattoo pen is a great souvenir, but ouch! I don`t think I`d want a tattoo made with it. 🙂

  • It’s always hard to travel to places that have amazing things to buy that draw you in even though most are fake, but in between those are genuine art that really shares the experience and story of your travels

  • Fake or not, it’s always very tempting to buy souvenirs from the countries where we travel, especially if they are trinket jewellery! The tattoo pen seems like a rare souvenir.

  • Shopping in SE Asia is always quite an experience. These are helpful tips.

  • Amy

    Great tips! I’m sure I’ve walked away with more than one fake souvenir on one of my trips. Sometimes it’s tough to know when you’re getting scammed. I love the ring you had made!

    • It was incredibly difficult in Myanmar because different people told you different things so you didn’t know who to trust. And thanks I love my ring its probably the only souvenir I got in Myanmar that means anything to me!

  • col

    Really useful article, amazing how many useless souvenirs that can occur. Sounds like you are experts now though.

  • thetrustedtraveller

    Great post Samantha. For me a souvenir doesn’t have to be expensive, genuine or handmade, it’s more about having something that reminds me of a place so when I look around my apartment at home all those happy travel memories come flooding back.

    • Souvenirs are the same for me but I hate being lied to. If I knew it was fake I would still probably buy it – but when your told its a genuine item and you pay huge a price for it I get a bit upset! My apartment is full of memories and memorabilia but one or two things I deeply regret buying/wasting money on..

  • zof

    Great piece, very informative.

  • Good piece- usually it’s what TO buy so I like your spin! I don’t usually buy much souvenir-wise for myself but I like to pick up gifts to stick away for birthdays/Christmas for friends and family so tips like these are always welcome and appreciated!

    • Thanks! I thought the exact same thing! I got ripped off to many times in Myanmar so I felt compelled to share my experience so others aren’t left disappointed either!

  • Els

    Would love to go there! It’s a bit sad that, despite the fact that tourism only starts to take off, that there are already so many scams…

    • It is very sad. I think some people are taking advantage of tourists or being greedy now that there is an influx of tourists. I know they have to make a living and its very poor there – the poorest country I have been to so far but all it will do is deter tourists from purchasing anything. I saw many tourists push their way past vendors and children because they were tired of being hassled 24/7 to buy stuff.

  • Lovely pictures! This is very useful information, and you’re so right to use that rule of thumb – if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

    By the way, your Longyi looks fabulous!

    • Thanks I lived in it during our holiday! Just goes to show how little luggage you need 🙂

  • We bought a few souvenirs in Bagan. We were fully aware that the sand paintings are factory made and that the vendors purchase them from a factory each day, but we really liked them and got an amazing deal because we bought 12 of them for my boyfriend’s coworkers. We ended up getting them for about 1/4 of what the guy was asking and that was after we told him ‘final offer’ and rode off on our horse cart when he said no. He changed his mind a few minutes later and chased us down on his scooter. lol

    But we did also got caught in the ‘let us watch your shoes’ scam, though they didn’t try to keep our shoes, they just yelled at us for taking advantage of them when we declined to buy anything from them. lol.

    • Wow 12 of them! I hope you got a very good deal because they were asking us for 100,000 Kyats per painting! Yes the famous shoe scam! You were lucky 🙂

      • Yeah, we didn’t pay 100,000 each. I think 120,000 was all we had left cuz it was our last day there and we offered the guy 100,000 for all of them. It was the very end of the day, so I think that was the only reason the guy agreed to the price. he was very stubborn up until that. I think he only wanted 20,000 or 30,000 per painting and we ended up getting each one for just about 8,000. But they weren’t the landscapes, they were buddhas. I think we paid 20,000 each for the two landscapes we got the day before.

  • I rarely buy souvenirs at all, but I love to go to markeds and to “window-shop”!

  • Great post! I love shopping at markets during our travels. I try and buy one item from each place we visit so that we can look back and reminisce.

  • Great tips! It is so easy to get scammed abroad! (or anywhere)

  • Beautiful pictures and very informative post! When I started travelling, I would often buy way too many souvenirs. I love markets and find myself wandering about in them for hours in every place I visit. Obviously, its hard not to buy everything you see when its sold to you as local, traditional, handmade and supportive of local communities. However, over time I’ve learned to say “No thank you”, and keep walking past persistent shopkeepers.
    Myanmar is on my list and I’ll be sure to keep these tips in mind when I’m there.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Natasha

  • This is such a great post. It is always important to not only watch out for scams but also unethical purchases too. Any awareness raising on these issues can only be a good thing.

  • I very rarely buy souvenirs, but when I do I enjoy the experience… I love your article.

  • Nicole

    This article really made me smile. I was in the same places in Myanmar and tempted by similar items. I ended up buying a more expensive sand painting, but even as I was buying it I had a strong feeling that it was probably not created by hand by their family like the stall person said.
    Still, its fun isn’t it. Fun article to read! I kind of like to see that im not the only one that was a bit disappointed with the souvenirs from Myanmar and I also love my lonjyi! 🙂

    • I had heaps of fun! Yes I was disappointed with some of the things I purchased but I guess in the end I found peace and happiness that regardless of whether they were genuine of not, I supported the families of those selling the items that day. During my travels in the country it saddened me as to just how poor they are. So my bitterness turned into something more positive 🙂 And I love my longyi too! Although I am dying to return to Myanmar so I can wear it again! 🙂

  • Great post! I’m in Myanmar now, and really enjoying it. I’m interested in your sand painting experience, since I actually just bought two medium-big landscapes for 27,000 total. I wonder if there’s a sort of racism going on, since I look Asian (although I’m American and only speak tourist-level Burmese) and I was never told more than 25,000 as a first offer for one of the landscapes.

    Also, if it’s not too personal a question, I was wondering what the general price range is for one of those custom-made rings in Yangon, since I’m headed there next. I’d love to get something like that if it’s affordable and I know it’s ethical and real 🙂

    Thanks for the post!

    • Hey Sarah – I don’t know what the deal is with the sand paintings. I think if anyone wants to buy them they should. I really don’t understand why we were given such conflicting stories. I googled it when I got home from Myanmar thinking maybe it was a scam others had encountered but I didn’t read much. Where did you buy your painting? And you can ask as many questions as you like! My ring was $500 and it is 18K white gold, sapphire and diamonds. The woman who made it was a family friend. I can try and find out where she is based in Yangon if you want to get something that is made and sourced ethically. Unfortunately (and with good reason with local back up) the gems in the markets in Yangon can not be trusted and I wouldn’t advise anyone to buy from there. 🙂

      • Em

        I would love the info for your jeweler! I will be back in Yangon in a few days and was hoping to buy a few stones.

        • Hi Em
          I have tried to get in contact with my family out there to get her contact details, however I have not had any luck as yet I am afraid 🙁

  • Tumalo Rube

    Nice. Thanks for the refresher as I’ll be in Myanmar next month. It was no different in Vietnam, Cambodia, or India or a beach in Cabo. But you really did zero in on the essence. Don’t buy expensive souvenirs because they probably aren’t genuine and indeed they are half the price a few stalls down. But do spend money on cheap trinkets just to contribute to those at the bottom. CAREFULLY however as you can quickly draw a crowd. Ha ha. Glad you got your shoes back.

  • 于念平

    Very useful post, thank you. I’ve been to Myanmar twice (love this country) and I agree with you on everything except for one thing. Sand paintings are not always fake or mass production. The second time I was in Bagan, I visited the workshop and home of a local family that has been creating sand paintings for long time. They show me the whole process of making it, didn’t try to add in the qualities that does not belong to the works itself, such as the precious stone or anything like that. Of course they wanted to make some money on the works and surely they would be happy if we can buy some paintings from them. We bought a few with reasonable offers, and we learnt how to distinguish between the works made with normal paint and sand. (They have both kinds, different price and different way to make.) I am never the buyer kind during travel, and I don’t like to spend money on the things I don’t need or don’t want, but I really appreciate the works they make (you can see sand paintings everywhere in Bagan with various prices, but if you look into them, they are with different styles or different basic colours.). So, although it’s always a good thing to avoid spending extra money on trips on the things you dpn’t actually want, but I guess sand paintings should not be on the don’t-buy list. Base on my observation, those with buddhist stories or features or patterns on it are less possible to be mass production. Last but bot least, the sand they use are all stones from the river, not any kind of gemstone!

    • Gabi Jacob

      Hii, could you indicate where you were able to see the sand paint workshop?

  • blue_lax_monkey

    Hello,
    Can I just ask how long it took to get your ring made? It is beautiful!

    • Samantha Hussey

      It took 2 weeks! We arrived in Yangon and then when we departed we picked it up. 🙂

  • Em Maree

    So there were five useless souvenirs. Haha i laughed every time you mentioned useless souvenir. I’ll take note of this.

    • Samantha Hussey

      I say useless mostly because they were poor in quality and a complete waste of money! But to be honest, our tattoo pen does take a pride location on our bookcase and people always ask what it is so it wasn’t complete useless! 🙂

  • Gabi Jacob

    Hi Samantha, this is a very good article and helped me a lot 🙂
    I have a few questions, as it will be my first time in Asia: is it possible to indicate us a guide or were them your frinds (that wasn’t quite clear to me) and also the personalized jewel- is it possible to be indicated so I could ask our hotel to reach him?

    Another question which is more practical is: wheneve ryou take your shoes off, do you carry them or they are left somewhere?

    Thank you for the tips! 🙂

  • Sandy Ydnas

    Hi Samantha…great article. I’m interested in the certified jeweler who made your ring. How can I contact him/her? Thanks!

  • Juan de la Cruz

    Great article. I should have read this before going to Mandalay last week. You were right, there were sellers in Mingun that hover you around like a gadfly pestering you with a sale. Lol. Don’t hard sell to another SEAsian tourist- you will fail miserably.

  • Juan de la Cruz

    For good priced longyi and other foodstuffs, head to the supermarket as these would be in line with local prices and good quality too. And you’re not pressured to buy at all.

  • Juan de la Cruz

    Oh, one last thing, a great souvenir from Mandalay is the goldleaf sheets.

  • Bindu Kumar

    Good article. These tips would definitely help me. I am in Myanmar on a 4 week trip.