Largely cut off from the Western world, Burma (known locally as Myanmar) isn’t known for being one of Asia’s premier shopping spots, but for the adventurous shopper, this mysterious Southeast Asian country offers a rare glimpse at an Asia from another time. There are few land crossings into Burma, although you can cross over from Mae Sai in Thailand and walk into Tachilek for the day. When you do, the difference in cultures will strike you immediately. While Thailand is a country on the rise, Burma is lost in another century. The people walking along the streets in traditional garb aren’t doing so as an attraction for the tourists, it’s just how they dress every day.
Watch what you Buy on the Streets
You won’t find a lot of big stores and shopping malls. Tachilek however, is full of bazaars, sidewalk vendors, and individuals strolling the narrow streets holding out trays full of goods. You’ll be offered anything and everything imaginable, and some things you wouldn’t want to imagine. Peddlers offering cheap pornographic videos are everywhere—although if you do decide to buy them, you may well get them taken away from you at the border. You’ll also see vendors along the street selling hand-rolled, Burmese cigars, but if you’re a cigar aficionado, give them a pass. These will almost always be sold alongside the ubiquitous parcels of betel nut, a local favorite and a mild stimulant.
Count your Currency
In Tachilek, since it is near the border, most vendors will accept Thai baht. If you do exchange your money for local currency, don’t exchange a lot of it—only exchange as much as you think you’ll spend. The currency isn’t convertible, and won’t do you any good once you cross the border. The US dollar is taken by most shops, even further in-country, and if you’re doing some serious shopping, it’s a necessity, since to buy in kyat would literally require bagsful of currency.
Not your Average Hand-Me-Down Handicrafts
Going further in-country to Yangon, you’ll find some excellent shopping places including the Bogyoke Market. Some of the handicrafts you’ll find there are stunning, and unlike anything you’ve seen anywhere else in Asia. Burmese lacquerware is very unique, and makes an excellent gift or addition to your living room. Although the lacquerware is available throughout the country, it is manufactured primarily in Bagan, and a visit to some of the factories there will be an experience to remember—and you can buy it directly from the source. You’ll find plenty of authentic antiques in the larger cities as well, but be sure to retain your receipt for when you leave the country. If you’re planning on a trip to Mandalay, save some money—here’s where you’ll find some of the most spectacular handicrafts available at bargain prices.