Photographing Markets in Myanmar

Happy vendor, 26th Street Market, Yangon

Happy vendor, 26th Street Market, Yangon

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.

Selling fish, 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Selling fish, Yangon street market

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.

Butcher, 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Butcher, Yangon market

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.

One of Myanmar's colourful markets

26th Street Market, Yangon

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.

Banana seller, 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Banana seller, Yangon market

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.

Woman in traditional clothes, 26th Street Market, Yangon

Woman in traditional clothes, 26th Street Market, Yangon

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?

Fried Locusts, 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Fried Locusts, Yangon market

And this is Myanmar’s version of a payphone.  Well, you pay, and it’s a phone, so it makes perfect sense!

A table with phones where people can pay to make calls at a market in Myanmar

Giving a new meaning to the word payphone

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.

Chickens for sale at 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Life and death, 26th Street Market, Yangon

It’s also not just about what you can take away: get a haircut while you’re here too.

Barber, 26th Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Barber, 26th Street Market, Yangon

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

Flower seller, Nyaung U Market, Bagan

Flower seller and her daughter, Nyaung U Market, Bagan

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.

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).

The vendors at Myanmar's markets always have a friendly smile for visitors

The vendors at Myanmar’s markets always have a friendly smile for visitors

It’s got an enormous covered area with endless corridors in which it’s extremely easy to lose your bearings.

Buying vegetables, Nyaung U Market, Bagan

Colourful vegetables are always for sale at Myanmar’s markets

And when you do manage to find your way out, the market also spills out into the surrounding streets in every direction.

Street market, Bagan, Myanmar

Street market, Bagan, Myanmar

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.

A vendor sells traditional thanaka at Nyaung U market, in Bagan, Burma

A vendor sells traditional thanaka at Nyaung U market, in Bagan

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

Buddhist Monks collecting offerings, Nyaung U Market, Bagan

Buddhist Monks collecting offerings, Nyaung U Market, Bagan

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.

Buying vegetables, Nyaung U Market, Bagan, Myanmar

Buying vegetables, Bagan market

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.

Fruit seller, Nyaung U market, Bagan, Burma

Fruit seller, Nyaung U market, Bagan

It was really easy to catch people’s eye, and they almost always smiled for the camera.

Hat and basket seller in a Myanmar market

Hat and basket seller, Bagan market

As with all the markets in Myanmar, make sure you shop around, and haggle for the best price!

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.

5-day market, Inle Lake, Myanmar

5-day market, Inle Lake

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.

Thaung Tho market, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Thaung Tho market, Inle 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.

Boats parked up for market at Inle Lake, Myanmar

Boats parked up for market at Inle Lake

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.

Blacksmith, Inle Lake market, Burma

A blacksmith offering metalworking services

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.

Elderly Shan lady, Inle Lake Market, Myanmar

If you spend enough time in Myanmar’s markets you may get lovely photos like this

Central Market, Kalaw

Another market I enjoyed was the central market in Kalaw.

Central Market, Kalaw, Myanmar

Central Market, Kalaw, Myanmar

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).

Women selling their wares on the street, Kalaw market

Women selling their wares on the street, Kalaw market

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.

Shan woman in colourful turban, Kalaw market

Shan woman in colourful turban, Kalaw market

Spices are commonly sold at markets in Myanmar. This woman is selling turmeric.

Turmeric seller, Kalaw market, Myanmar

Turmeric seller, Kalaw market

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.

Woman with teeth stained red from chewing betel nut, Kalaw market, Myanmar

Woman with red-stained teeth from chewing betel, Kalaw market, Myanmar

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

Vegetable seller, Kalaw market, Myanmar

Vegetable seller, Kalaw market

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…

A market trader and his family with their wares packed up

A market trader and his family

If you want to read more about my trip to Myanmar, I wrote a bit about it on the Lonely Planet Blog.

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