The sidewalk leading to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon was lined with vendors offering up all the essentials. T-shirts, shopping bags, posters, and pinback buttons bearing the likeness of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s living monument to the fight for democracy, were available at a low, low price from any one of them. The street wasn’t bustling with energy but the scene felt chaotic by Myanmar standards, although everything seemed to steadily devolve in the insufferable heat.
Inside the bazaar it was a totally different story. The shaded interior offered a much welcomed respite from the sun, electric fans buzzed out of every other stall and there was an unspoken sense of order prevalent throughout.
A middle aged man approached me as I walked into the market and sparked off what by now had become a familiar exchange.
Where you from?
After a mild back and forth he bluntly told me not to bother shopping at Bogyoke because only foreigners shopped there and that was why there was such a high mark-up on all the merchandise. I would find much better prices at the local market across the street and he would gladly show me the way. He happened to have a shop there, full of quality goods, much better things than I was seeing here and so on. He was very long winded (don’t laugh) and only slightly amusing. I nodded along politely but remained thoroughly uninterested in his sales pitch.
He got the hint.
“Good Luck and take care my friend,” he said as he took off. The most cordial tout I have ever come across left me just as swiftly as he’d come after me.
This was the first time in my short stay in Yangon that I had been approached by touts. After I parted ways with the man, others came after me, albeit sporadically, offering all sorts of products and services. Nothing outrageous like they do in Cambodia where they start off with accommodation, jump to marijuana, hash, heroin, women, etc, etc, with the list getting progressively worse before they leave you alone, but that’s a whole other story. The difference that day was that in Myanmar’s biggest city’s most famous bazaar, I wasn’t being accosted by people from every side, all at once. And they were so polite. I once had my shirt ripped by a group of overzealous vendors fighting over my attention at the Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Having had my share of experiences in bustling places overflowing with frantic peddlers, it was amusing how easy it was to fend them off in Yangon. Most of the time, all it took was a wave of my hand. These are not the droids you are looking for. It was way too easy.
The Bogyoke Market is an elegant market, but in the light of a more modest place like the Luang Prabang Night Bazaar in Laos, that elegance seems contrived. Compared to the overwhelming chaos of the other big markets around the region, like the tangled labyrinth of shops and people that is the Jatujak Market in Bangkok or the hustle and bustle of the Central Market in Phnom Penh, Bogyoke is too clean, too orderly and too easy to navigate not to be an oddity. Despite the ease with which I maneuvered through the building, there were lots of people around. The only place where I witnessed a larger convergence of foreigners in Yangon was at the Shwedagon Paya, although the number of visitors at the market still pale in comparison to those at the massive Buddhist shrine.
The Bogyoke Aung San Market offers a hassle-free experience that seems foreign to the way big bazaars operate in Southeast Asia. The mark-up on merchandise can be easily overlooked by westerners but there’s a reason why locals don’t shop there. Other than the architecture of the building in which it’s located and its conspicuous tidiness, there is nothing special about the place. Nonetheless, it is a destination highlighted by many travel guides, although it could easily be the opposite of a highlight. Something tells me that this will soon be a place where Jedi mind tricks no longer work.
Big markets around Southeast Asia (and some of the small ones too) are experiences all to themselves. You set some time aside, maybe half a day, sometimes a whole weekend, and you take the plunge. You don’t have to have an objective in mind before you dive in. It’s part of the city’s rhythm itself, from Bangkok, to Luang Prabang. Not so much in Yangon.
I didn’t go Bogyoke with the intention of picking up anything in particular but left emptier than I had arrived. I didn’t even take any pictures. My disappointment wasn’t enough to fill the void that I felt walking out. But that turned out to be more than just a metaphorical void, I desperately needed food. To my alarm, I couldn’t find a proper food stall and I felt the heat was slowly cooking every part of me. After a few blocks of erratic movement, I stumbled onto a chair in the warm shade of an Indian restaurant. Semicoherent, I waved a server over and ordered a plate of the best Chicken Biryani ever.