It’s early morning and I’ve just walked through a gauntlet of souvenir stalls, locals setting up their wares and getting ready for the onslaught of tourists to hit. At first, I was reluctant, I’m not interested in shopping, I want to get a glimpse of local life and culture; and while souvenir hawkers represent a small sliver of a community’s culture, this is not what I had in mind.
Spotting a temple in the distance, I decide to slap a smile on my face, and in my nicest Canadian tone, I greet each local as I pass their stall, ‘Mingalaba‘, and give a gentle nod of my head. Most return my smile and greeting, and thankfully, only a few try to sell me something.
There are two things I do when I travel: Visiting local temples and wandering through open-air markets are activities that allow me to get a glimpse into local culture and traditions. Religion, commerce, community; all of these provide an opportunity to learn about the people and the places I choose to visit. They guide my interactions with locals, and help to create cherished memories; some good and some bad; a delicate harmony.
Will the market be filled with men, women, or a combination of both? Do they sell mostly fruit and vegetables, household goods, clothing? Will the market have stalls, or will locals display their goods on plastic tarps on the ground? Do they sell things by piece, or by weight?
Each culture has their own way of doing things, and if we put in the time to observe, we get to know not only the local culture but local traditions as well.
Weights, Scales and Tin Cans
In recent years the government in Myanmar has made the decision to switch to the metric system in an effort to make international trade easier, however there are communities in Myanmar that are still using the old system: a market in Inle Lake’s floating village, Ywa-ma, locals still use balance weights and scales, and tin cans as units of measurement.
The weights are counted in ‘viss‘, a unit of measurement in Myanmar. Weights come in different sizes and therefore are worth different amounts of viss. Almost everything is weighed, fresh fish and meat, vegetables and spices, betel nut leaves. For items that are light in terms of weight, the locals use AA batteries as weights, instead of viss weights, which are too heavy for weighing things like betel nut leaves.
In Ywa-ma, not everyone is using balance scales and weights, many local women who sell spices, tea leaves, and herbs are using tin cans of various sizes as a unit of measurement, and usually, each vendor has a slightly different price system.
Will remote villages stop using weights, scales, and tin cans in the future? It’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
In Myanmar, tea is its own sub-culture. There are several varieties of tea grown in Myanmar; green and black being the most popular. When walking through a market it’s common to find tea leaves in massive heaps; some locals measure using a tin can, others use a balance scale and viss weights.
When travelling through the country you will see tea shops in every village, town, and city. The shops vary in size and construction, but no matter where you are in Myanmar, the tea culture remains consistent: a place to gather, relax, and chat with friends and neighbours.
GLIMPSE INTO EVERYDAY LIFE
Homemade brooms are common in Asia, as are various plastic items like tables and chairs that would be considered furniture for children in the western world. In Nyuang Shwe, the Mingalar market offered a deeper look into local life, with vendors selling household items, many of which are made in Myanmar: knives and scissors being some of the more impressive items on display.
Coming from a western culture, it can be fascinating to see roughly hewn utensils and tools; as we are so used to having modern gadgets around to make life ‘easier’, but do they really make our lives easier?
Burmese cuisine has been influenced by the Chinese, Indian, and Thai people; and these influences can be seen when wandering through the markets: mounds of turmeric, baskets filled with ginger root or garlic, sacks filled with small red chillies. Popular dishes in Myanmar include tea-leaf salad, which is made from pickled tea leaves, as well as mohinga; a morning soup of sorts that is made of fish paste, fish sauce, rice vermicelli, lemongrass, onion, ginger, and a fried fish cakes.
Markets Can Happen Anywhere
Markets are not limited to large buildings, in Myanmar, and many countries in Asia, markets can pop-up almost anywhere; the grounds outside a temple, a street, or at a train station platform. In Yangon one of the more interesting activities you can do is to ride a local train on the circle line, which takes you through the city and into the suburbs. It’s a fascinating view of local life within the city, as well as along its edges.
Many of the stations have makeshift open-air markets, some are quite tiny, but most are a good size; that being said nothing will prepare you for the chaos of Dinyangon station where the train platform is transitioned into a bustling and crowded open-air market.
Markets tell us a lot about people, cultures, and countries. The next time you’re in a market, step back and look at what’s happening around you; is the market run by men, women, or both? What types of things are they selling? How are things being sold and paid for? All of these things will help you to understand a little more about the local culture and traditions.
During my time in Myanmar, I used the Lonely Planet guide, which was quite helpful in terms of the base planning – a good option for getting the basics together. Once that is done, I highly recommend speaking to locals and fellow travellers for up-to-date tips and advice.