A new wave of consumerism, buying and spending, has swept cities like Yangon ever since the country opened up over two years ago. Needs and wants are multiplying, much to the delight of retailers, in new shopping malls, standalone brand outlets, traditional stores in downtown Yangon, and also in the famous oriental Bogyoke Aung San Market in the heart of the city. Considering the wide range of products it offers, it is only natural for it to be the most popular shopping destination, and its popularity is only growing by the day. One would have expected the newer malls to supersede this 89-year old market, with the latest designs in fashion and home accessories, but as of now, none can match the wide range of goods available in Scott Market, at competitive and affordable prices. Its location, old world charm, warm and friendly shop owners, and compact size make it extremely convenient. There is no other place that comes anywhere close, since it houses the smallest to the biggest, cheapest to the most expensive, and hence is a one-stop place for all Myanmar products.
Also known as Scott Market, the two-storeyed, covered shopping arcade opened in 1926, and was named after the then British Municipal Commissioner, C. Scott, till it was renamed after General Aung San, in 1948, and called Bogyoke Aung San Market, Bogyoke being the Burmese term for General. The names ones hers sound like Bojo Market or Scott Market. It stands out for its colonial architecture reminiscent of British Rule, and for the well-travelled, bears a striking resemblance to Kolkata’s New Market, though its wares are comparable to the famed Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, Thailand. The array of handicrafts available here remains unmatched. The market structure features in the Yangon City Heritage List and retains its position as one of the city’s top three tourist destinations.
Bogyoke Aung San Market showcases craft and workmanship traditions that are over a thousand years old, passed on from generation to generation. The gold and silversmiths carve unmatched intricate designs that hold pride of place in homes and museums all over the world. Woodcarving and weaving as seen here is difficult to replicate, just as much as the lotus silk and tapestry weaving. Puppets, mother of pearl and ivory wares, display the amazing talent of Myanmar folk, and all these look resplendent as they adorn small shops in the market.
The market remains crowded throughout the day, with at least ten thousand visitors a day, not all of them customers, though. The peak tourist season sees the market overflowing with people, while the rainy season has thinner crowds, but business continues. Most shop owners are English speaking, which is a big plus, and for the acceptance of credit cards at bigger outlets, a boon for those wary of carrying large amounts of cash. Though it boasts of a North, South, East and West wing, there is no segregation of products available in each.
Popular then, even more so now
Twenty years ago, this market was the only big shopping area, that was bazaar, mall, eating joint and weekend outing destination, all rolled into one. Gradually, newer shopping complexes came up, but neither footfalls, nor the revenue earned by the Bogyoke market outlets has decreased. The variety and range of options for a single product remain unmatched. Additionally, prices here remain lower than those found at Junction or other malls. While branded products may not be available, here, as yet, there are numerous other options to choose from. A walk down its cobblestoned inner streets reveals readymade garments, ranging from the ethnic to the trendy. One may wonder why the market continues to draw crowds, at a time when trends and fashions are changing in Myanmar, and a section of the population, especially the youth are discarding traditional attire for Western wear. The reason is not far to seek. The world over, while we marvel at technological inventions facilitating our lives, the human aesthetic sense is drawn to all artistic man made creations, that display talent, skill, expertise in techniques that create exquisitely beautiful pieces.In this day and age of short attention spans, quick results and fast paced activities, it is difficult to fathom how a craftsman can spend months carving a single piece of wood, or weaving a silk stohl. It is all this, that one gets to see in the market. The 1641 shops spread over an area of over 29,000 square meters do brisk business from tourists and locals alike. While tourists form over 40% of the crowd, the rest comes from local residents besides Myanmar folk visiting from other parts of the country. What everyone enjoys is the unique shopping experience browsing through small stores laden with goods, narrow alleys holding treasures, and of course, local foods and fruits.
Spoilt for Choice – Gems and Stones
Bogyoke Market remains the best place to buy jade products, trinkets and decorative pieces to adorn homes, and some of the best jade pieces are seen in the first row of the market, facing the road. It is here that tourists pick up Buddha statues, jade rings and bangles, and other pieces. The Central Hall is the air conditioned haven for stone jewelry, selling rubies and sapphires, spinels and emeralds, besides other precious and semi precious stones. Myanmar is famous for the world’s best rubies and sapphires, and tourists and locals alike, seek opportunities to invest in the Mogok ruby, even as its prices hit the roof. Cheaper ruby varieties are stocked in plenty, and one can therefore buy a string of rubies for $500, or a single stone for $10,000, depending on origin, color, cut, clarity and size. Most of the rubies are heat treated. Interestingly, the designs offered are nearly the same in every shop, but some boast of a better reputation. Local certification is available for larger sized precious stones. Myanmar pearls are also catching the world’s eye and an increasing number of shops deal exclusively in pearl jewelry, again ranging from USD20 to thousands. On the outer fringe, a few exclusive diamond outlets have opened up. We are told Myanmar is a good place to buy diamonds too! Prices have been spiraling upwards for the last five years, and many products have slipped from the common man’s levels of affordability. It is fascinating to see the fine workmanship in the tiny jewelry crafting shops, found in some alleys.
The market has over a dozen shops selling the famed lacquerware, which is displayed in living rooms of the elite, and also used for serving food. Lacquer products are carved out of bamboo or wood and then coated with resin extracted from the local thitsi tree, and the colors used are all natural. The lacquer industry is found in Bagan, Pyay, Monywa, Mandalay, and in Rakhine, Shan and Mon states. Incised lacquerware is multicolored and the designs are taken for folktales and legends, zodiac signs and other motifs. In larger pieces, often, an entire story is depicted through the drawings. The most eye-catching is the gilt lacquerware, in which gold foil is added to the incised lacquer designs. These are more expensive and ornate with the black and gold combination being most popular. Myanmar’s lacquerware is different from other Asian countries famous for lacquer like China, Japan, Thailand and Korea, but as much a part of the nation’s cultural as one of the most valuable art forms. Over the years, the industry has become more commercial, the designs less intricate and less time consuming, and therefore turnover increases, and with lower prices, is affordable for a larger segment of people. Scott market, still has shops selling the most expensive, traditional designs alongside the cheaper ones.
Music, Art and Woodcraft
For art lovers, there is plenty to choose from in the numerous small art galleries. Fine paintings by young budding artists in water colors, oils, stones and crayons are seen in the open alleys as well. Paintings of monks are a favorite amongst expatriates and tourists. Ornate picture frames enhance the beauty of each work of art. Sandalwood figurines, decorative pieces and momentoes, silverware, intricately carved are found in a few shops. Further into the alleys, one comes across bamboo and cane products from the simplest to the most intricate, tanakha and other local herbal products. Incense sticks, fragrant oils, creams, green teas and other local beverages are all favored gift items with a huge turnover. Wood carvings and boxes, bowls and statues made out of hard wood are sold at almost every nook and corner. One of the most unusual and beautiful pieces tourists like to buy is the saung gauk , the Myanmar harp. Shaped most often like a bird, the hollow body is made out of padauk wood, and the top covered with deer skin, while the strings are made of silk, and are 5-13 in number. The ornate red and gold instruments are eye-catching and fascinating. Musical instrument shops stock other products as well, like drums, guitars, gongs and xylophones, to meet the requirements of music fans.
Fabric, Fashion and Footwear
The largest selling item we are told, are the Myanmar slippers. The black velvet footwear, worn with national attire and any other outfit, is cheap and comfortable. Called the hnyat-phanat, the flat soled, sometimes embellished footwear is used for formal and casual wear. The first floor and scores of shops at ground level sell fabric of all types, from fine cottons and durable polyester, to fine lace and net, tapestry and silk. Seamstresses and tailors can make outstandingly designed outfits for men and women. The market is quite the garment paradise, offering traditional Myanmar dresses from various states. From plain cotton longyis to the intricately woven ones from Rakhine, Karen fringed jackets and Kachin metal trimmed costumes, the range is tempting and attractive.
A sip and a snack
Shoppers find enough of refreshments and food options once inside the market, as no shopping experience is complete with snacking breaks. From green tea to durian and avocado shakes, fried foods, baked semolina deserts to Shan noodles, authentic Chinese and Thai food, plus numerous regional delicacies, every corner has something delectable to offer. The food court in the center is always full. Not to mention luscious fresh fruits, and juices. Several parts of the market are undergoing repairs and renovations. A spruced up look would help in adding more elegance to this unique market. Even in its present state, it is way ahead of other shopping destinations. Yangon may yet not be called a shoppers’ paradise like Bangkok and Singapore, but it offers enough and more for those who dig into the treasures of Bogyoke Aung San Market.