Myanmar: come for the amazing architecture, scenery and history, stay for the markets. Well, that’s what I found anyway. As a travel photographer I absolutely loved Myanmar – the pagodas of Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay are all stunningly photogenic – but Myanmar’s markets were the unexpected highlight of the trip.
Check out the details in this image: the produce neatly arranged, the clothes the women are wearing (and the fact that they are all women), the woven shopping bags, the digital scales… You can learn so much about a country by visiting its markets, and it’s one of the main reasons why markets are probably my favourite type of place to take photos.
Wherever I travel, I always make a point of going to photograph the local market, and I am never disappointed. You can find out so much about people’s lives by checking out what they’re selling, who’s buying, how they operate, and what they wear. And of all Myanmar’s destinations I found the markets to be not only the most colourful and interesting, but also the most welcoming and friendly.
Here are the four markets I visited in my two-week trip round Myanmar, with some of my favourite images and tips on how to make the most of your visit.
Read More: 13 Top Tips for Taking Photos of Markets
26th Street Market, Yangon
Since it’s a densely populated capital city there are several street markets in Yangon, but 26th Street Market is one of the busiest and the most easily-accessible to visitors.
26th Street Market is the capital’s main outdoor market. Yangon is constructed on a grid system like New York, and every day 26th Street, right in the city centre, is taken over by traders who have brought their fresh produce to sell.
It’s mainly a food market, with traders selling meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, though everyday household items are available too. The market spills over into the surrounding streets, with stationery, clothing, pots and pans, electrical items and just about everything else you might need for the home available somewhere nearby.
Like many city centres, the heart of Yangon is busy, sweaty, noisy, dirty, and heaving with people and traffic. But turn into 26th Street and suddenly you are forced to slow down, look around you, and take it all in.
Myanmar is still a very traditional country, but modernisation is creeping in everywhere – and you can really see that in the markets. This woman has brought her produce to sell in the traditional way, and she’s wearing the traditional thanaka (Burmese cosmetic paste) on her face, but wearing a Western-style shirt and talking on her bright pink mobile phone.
The thing I love about Myanmar’s markets are that they are NOT tourist attractions. In Myanmar, tourist spots are everywhere, but this is real life, the actual Myanmar you came to see in all its glory.
As a documentary photographer I love being able to people-watch, and markets are fantastic for that too. All the traders are sitting still, waiting for customers, so they’re usually happy to engage with you and let you take their photo.
It’s fascinating to see what people are selling. Beyond the usual fruit and veg that you might find in any market anywhere, there are always quite a few weird or surprising things on sale. Anyone for a tasty snack of fried locusts?
And this is Myanmar’s version of a payphone. Well, you pay, and it’s a phone, so it makes perfect sense!
It’s not unusual to see chicken for sale in a market, but I did find the juxtaposition of these live birds with their unfortunate relatives both poignant and also kind of darkly amusing.
It’s also not just about what you can take away: get a haircut while you’re here too.
There are lots of things to do in Yangon, but for me, 26th street market was the highlight. Here is where the vibrant Burmese culture comes to life. You could wander around for hours just looking, taking in the sights, smells, noises and colours.
Nyaung U Market, Bagan
Bagan is one of the most beautiful places in Myanmar and the highlight of any trip to the country. And yes, I absolutely loved Bagan and its stunning pagodas and temples. But what I wasn’t expecting was that I would love Bagan’s market just as much.
Read more: The Beautiful Pagodas of Bagan in Myanmar
Nyaung U market is, as its name suggests, in the small town of Nyaung U, just 4 km from Old Bagan. Thanks to the influx of tourists, Nyaung U has grown into a bustling tourist centre, with places to stay and plenty of cafes and restaurants. It’s easy to get there on a moped or e-bike, or hop in a taxi. You can combine a visit to Nyaung U market with some of the nearby temples such as Shwezigon Pagoda or Htilominlo Temple.
Nyaung U Market is divided into different sections selling everything you would expect from a provincial market including vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and spices, and clothes. There’s also a handicrafts section, and an area selling the traditional longyi (a sort of sarong worn by men and women).
It’s got an enormous covered area with endless corridors in which it’s extremely easy to lose your bearings.
And when you do manage to find your way out, the market also spills out into the surrounding streets in every direction.
Nyaung U Market is a wonderful place to spend time with local Burmese people and learn about their daily lives.
This woman is selling thanaka wood, which is used to make the yellowy-white paste you see on people’s faces. The paste (also called thanaka) is made by grinding up the wood or the bark with a little water. Thanaka is used for decoration, but it’s also believed to be good for your skin, to help with acne, and to prevent sunburn.
These Buddhist monks aren’t shopping, they’re collecting offerings. Every day monks travel all over their local neighbourhoods collecting offerings of food from the people. It is a ritual that builds bonds between the monks and their communities and allows ordinary folk to prove their piety and earn a sort of religious ‘credit’.
Read more: Inside Myanmar’s Monasteries
Nyaung U Market was my favourite of Myanmar’s markets. In fact I loved it so much I went back twice, and must have spent a good 4-5 hours wandering around.
Maybe it was because I spent so long there, but I found the people at Nyang U Market to be exceptionally friendly and happy to be photographed.
It was really easy to catch people’s eye, and they almost always smiled for the camera.
As with all the markets in Myanmar, make sure you shop around, and haggle for the best price!
If you want to know more about Bagan and you happen to speak German (or have Google translate), here’s an excellent guide on things to do in Bagan in German.
5-day market, Inle Lake
Another of the best places to visit in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Here’s where you’ll see the famous leg-rowing fishermen and yet more incredible temples.
It’s also home to a 5-day market.
Rather than taking place every day in the same place, the 5-day market rotates location around the five towns around the edge of Inle Lake. So each weekday it’s hosted in a different place. If you want to visit, you’ll need to check the schedule to find out where it’s going to be on the day you want to go.
When we went, the market was at Thaung Tho in the south of the lake.
On Inle Lake people use long wooden canoes to get around. They travel and bring their goods to market the same way – so when we arrived there was something of a traffic jam in the car park.
There will be some souvenirs, jewellery and handicrafts on sale here, but as usual this is a real market used by local people, not one of Myanmar’s tourist spots. So if you come here, it’ll be more for looking and taking photos, rather than shopping.
And it’s here that I took my absolute favourite photo of my entire Myanmar trip – of this gorgeous old lady. With her wrinkled face and smiling eyes I think she’s absolutely beautiful.
Central Market, Kalaw
Another market I enjoyed was the central market in Kalaw.
High up in the hills in western Shan State, Kalaw is an old colonial-era hill station established by the British as a place to escape from the heat of places like Yangon (then called Rangoon).
The market is the beating heart of the town, and villagers from all the surrounding hills come here every day to sell their produce. The Shan tribeswomen are notable for their brightly coloured turbans, which makes this market particularly photogenic.
Spices are commonly sold at markets in Myanmar. This woman is selling turmeric.
Many Burmese chew betel net, a mild stimulant similar to tobacco. It’s carcinogenic, and it stains your mouth and teeth a dark red colour. I saw lots of people in the Myanmar markets with their mouths horribly stained with betel like this.
Most of the time at the markets in Myanmar I asked people’s permission to take a photo – and they were so lovely they almost always said yes and didn’t ask for anything in return. But I also like capturing them from a distance when they’re relaxed and natural.
For more tips on photographing markets, check out my 13 Top Tips for Taking Photos of Markets
And of course after all that wandering and photographing the busy market it can be just as interesting to watch the traders pack up and head off home…
If you want to read more about my trip to Myanmar, I wrote a bit about it on the Lonely Planet Blog.