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 considerable 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.
We were lucky enough to have our very own personal guides, our dear friend MoMo and TunTun who also hosted us in Yangon. They 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 its 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.
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.
Souvenirs in Bagan
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 famous 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 or family somewhere that day.
We were also conned into buying two pieces of jade jewelry 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 paint only natural colors from the earth, so red was sandstone, green was crushed herbs and white was limestone etc…
He convinced us so much that the painting 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 (Almost 70 EURO).
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 or factory-made 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!). But none-the-less, it was 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 at 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. Heartless maybe, but over 1 week into our Myanmar trip, we really began to feel like walking money bags.
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, in fact 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 jewelry stands selling silverware and we were told that there was a silver jeweler 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 have 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 gray 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!*
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 learned our lesson. My haggling skills needed to 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.