Ask a local where travellers should shop in Yangon, and they will probably direct you to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, otherwise known as the Myanmar version of London’s Covent Garden market.
Bogyoke Market is certainly a top location for picking up made-in-Yangon keepsakes, especially longyis (a sarong-like garment worn by Burmese men and women). There, you can also shop for traditional lacquerware, wood carvings, and handwoven textiles produced in major Burmese cities such as Bagan and Mandalay.
However, if you are looking for unusual things to do in Yangon, try tracking down the city’s local artists, social enterprise shops, and designers. By venturing beyond the tourist trail, you will be rewarded with glimpses of Yangon’s independent spirit, passion, and creativity—more precious than any touristy souvenir you could purchase in Myanmar. Let our Pan Pacific Yangon team's tips guide you along.
Pansodan Gallery Art Space has gained international prominence for being the art gallery in Yangon to visit. It was established in 2008 following the much-reported “Saffron Revolution,” which heralded Myanmar’s eventual move towards democracy in 2015.
“Back in those turbulent times, the gallery was our safe haven to meet friends, scholars and writers,” says Pansodan owner Aung Soe Min, a Yangon-based artist himself. “After that, the community grew and the artists, and even foreigners, came to discuss and debate ideas.”
Aung is the best person to speak to about art in Myanmar. According to Lonely Planet, he can “point you in the right direction to that special souvenir you didn’t even know you needed.” Be sure to ask him about gallery events that you can participate in during your stay. (Details and directions here.)
If your tastes run towards the avant-garde, MYANM/ART is the gallery for you. Gallery director Nathalie Johnston first visited Myanmar as a young teenager, back in 1997.
“I was 13 and remember coming into Yangon and driving through the city. There were no people in the streets, except for police officers on every corner,” recalls Johnston. “That trip changed my life. I was affected by the struggle of the people, and by how beautiful and tragic it was. After that trip I went home and wrote in my journal that I was going to come back one day.” She made good on that promise, and today, she runs MYANM/ART to support experimental artists. She pushes the artists that she works with to try a new style, instead of fixating on “showing something that sells.”
Her immediate goal is to help the country’s art scene progress to the next level. “I want to see an art museum grow up in Yangon, to see Myanmar as part of the Venice Biennale, to host international artists in Yangon and organise collaborations between communities,” she says. “There is plenty of room to grow!”
For more Yangon art gallery recommendations, bookmark Myanmar Times and The Artling.
To support disadvantaged artisans and communities, patronise a social enterprise store in Yangon. Hla Day is one such store; its name means “beautiful” in Burmese, and it provides a shopfront and training for the artisans on its roster, many of whom struggle to overcome disability, discrimination, and poverty.
Hla Day’s artisans include women weavers from villages in the Rakhine State, seamstresses whose lives have been impacted by HIV, students who need to fund their own education, women struggling with disabilities, and many more.
At the store, you will find thoughtfully crafted products for the entire family. However, the true satisfaction of shopping here comes from the knowledge that you are helping the less fortunate in Myanmar to earn a decent livelihood.
Interestingly, the founders of Hla Day were formerly from another popular Yangon social enterprise store, Pomelo. Pomelo ascribes to the same noble cause of supporting social businesses in Myanmar, and it is worth a visit too. You can view a sample of their products on their online store.
Virya Myanmar is known for its contemporary outfits based on traditional Burmese patterns and fabrics. But there is a more compelling reason to visit the store—its owner Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw is one of the first fashion designers in Myanmar to pay her workers above the minimum wage.
“There is a boom in the fashion industry here, which means there is a big risk of exploitation,” says Pyone. “This is where we come in, not only in sourcing ethical fabrics and materials, but also training young women from disadvantaged backgrounds who really want to come into this field.”
“Having sewing skills and a talent for dressmaking really helped me. Having vocational skills means you don’t have to rely on other people and you don’t risk getting into more dangerous professions,” she explains. Read more of her thoughts here, and follow the store to see its latest designs on Facebook.
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