Asia Destinations Myanmar

The hawkers at Shwezigon pagoda: A cautionary tale

One of the best things about Myanmar (for now at least) is the absence of persistent hawkers. In the former capital Yangon and even the more touristic Nyaungshwe a simple “no thanks” suffices to quell any sales pitches. But there is one place where aggressive tourism has created aggressive sales women; Shwezigon Pagoda in the temple town of Bagan.

This is a cautionary tale. Had my sister and I known better, had we read a blog like this one, we would have been better prepared. With knowledge and some luck, we would have avoided the sheer emotional and physical exhaustion triggered by our shopping tour of the Shwezigon stalls.

shwezigon pagoda

It began as just a casual trip to Nyaung U’s prominent pagoda. As with all Buddhist temples, my sister and I followed the custom of removing footwear before entering the complex. Along the corridor to the main temple some shop women approached and gifted us butterfly and loveheart broaches, but they left us alone when we declined to browse their lacquerware stalls.

Upon our return, we found our shoes no longer outside the corridor, but sitting primly at separate stalls, the same shop ladies waving us over.

After enough travel, you know to feign disinterest. While I was keen to buy some lacquerware products, I knew it would be fatal to pause. With a simple negative hand gesture, I collected my shoes and left, dragging my sister behind me (she had yet to learn these rules).

base of shwezigon

The temple town of Bagan is famous for its lacquerware and there are numerous high quality workshops you can visit to discover the process. We proceeded to one of these workshops and were impressed with the workers’ professionalism and dedication to such a fine art. But the accompanying shop was pricey so we decided to revisit the ladies at the Shwezigon market for final purchases.

The ladies were eager to see us again; they must have recognised their signature broaches. One vendor seized my sister’s arm and dragged her to a stall, plonking her down on a plastic chair and immediately shoving products onto her lap. My vendor showed only slightly more decorum.

One lady from a neighbouring stall fanned me as her friend pulled hordes of different trays from her stash and dumped them beside me. Although she didn’t have the specific design I wanted – a simple crenelated pattern of blue paint over black lacquer, I selected one of her products.

She resisted bargaining, only offering to lower the price if I bought more trays. “No discount for one,” she repeated. I called my sister over for consultation but as she tried to offer an opinion, her minder grabbed her by the arm again and forcefully reclaimed her.

Frustrated and tired, I settled on two trays for 15,000 kyat (about $15). Had I bought only one good-quality tray from the workshop the price would likely have been the same, but I felt I had gone too far with my vendor to turn back now.

My vendor gleefully patted her “lucky money”, my three dearly departed 5,000 kyat notes, over the rest of her wares. She then handed my trays over to her fan-waving friend, who led me to her stall, withdrew my desired blue-designed tray, and offered it to me for four kyat; my previous vendor offered the same tray in a different colour for 11,000 kyat, without discount.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to maintain the zen-like state encouraged by the very religion this complex represents. I had forked out four times the price on two trays I barely wanted and all the while this lady held my prized piece for the bargain price of $4.

novie monk at shwezigon pagoda

In these situations I try to respect the locals. They are probably happy with one sale every few days during the low season. But this new vendor held my trays hostage, refusing to hand them over without the inclusion of her own product. I could hear my sister’s voice rising a few metres away. And I noticed my own voice increase equally in decibels.

I told this vendor, in a firm and barely restrained admonishment, that if she had wanted me to buy the tray, she should have stepped in earlier. It was clear now, I told her, that I had been ripped off. I had no money left (this of course was a lie, but there was no chance I would buy a third tray, no matter the price. I was beginning to hate the very sight of them).

The woman flicked the top of my bag, and said “so you have perfume. You can give me perfume. You can give me something else. What’s in your bag?”.

These women must be desperate to sell to be so ready to depart with their products in exchange for non-monetary used goods. But my angered mind could think of nothing more than the injustice committed against me and the trick I’d fallen for.

It was her loss. These vendors may have a code of friendship between them, a conspiratorial pact, but it had backfired on this lady.

Given her refusal to wrap and hand over my purchases, I had no option but to walk off. Theft in Myanmar is uncommon; I believe it is because of the karmic implications of such actions. So the woman reluctantly handed over my blasted trays.

I marched over to my sister, whose red face indicated her unsettled emotional state. She had also been carried to another stall, and after I rescued her we left hurriedly.

The experience left us bitter and we were unable to appreciate our purchases, “THOSE damned trays” as they came to be known. They were shoved at the bottom of our bag and we ran through mental lists in our head of people we could offload them to as gifts. As far as we were concerned, we never wanted to see them again.

It is easy to go for the cheaper option, sometimes, and perhaps in a small way we helped the ladies of Shwezigon Pagoda. But the help was given unwillingly and on this occasion at least, I would recommend any traveller to avoid the hawkers at Shwezigon (unless you have the emotional and physical toughness of a professional wrestler). There is a first-class lacquerware workshop down the road with kindly saleswomen behind the counter. They even offer complimentary tea.

While you’re here, I’ve got way more stories where this one came from. Read more about all my Myanmar travel stories here.

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