A Remarkable Morning in Yangon: Thiri Mingalar Market

Mingalar Market

A full four hours at Thiri Mingalar Zay (Market) just outside of Yangon’s downtown grid, and I had yet to cross paths with another tourist. It would have been a surprise to find a fellow traveler in this musty maze of long hallways and rotting wood. I felt so out of place upon arrival that I sat against a damp back wall, watching the bustle and flow of people streaming in and out of the dilapidated market, formerly a parking garage. With only a few fluorescent bulbs brightening the central hallways, most of the market was lit by the weak stream of light from the open walls of the building’s outer skeleton. The overall effect was both eerie and dreamlike, casting a beautiful greenish glow over its packed five floors.

Inside Thiri Mingalar Zay, in Yangon.

While the bottom floor was devoted to an assortment of fruits and vegetables, the second floor was partitioned by popular products, loosely arranged into a banana section and a papaya section and a tomato section, among others. I wandered through the banana part of the floor, a bewildering hodgepodge of narrow hallways stacked with green bananas on the vine from floor to ceiling. Interspersed within the verdant banana piles were young coconuts, hanging from the crumbling wooden rafters in slings of complicated knots. I drifted into the papaya section where the vendors stared at me unabashedly and proffered their fruit for a quick sniff, all the while turning to their neighbours and pointing at the random tourist in a whirlwind of busy locals. Some ventured to ask why I was there, and – of course – why I was alone. Others merely thrust their babies at me and were content to watch me interact with the tiny, thanaka-smeared faces.

On the bottom floor, the biggest pile of ginger that I have ever seen.

One stall among many in the fruit section on the bottom floor of the market.

Nuns on the landing of the third floor at Thiri Mingalar Zay.

Banana alley on the market’s second floor.

The strange, gnarled rows of bananas suspended from the rafters.

Making some new friends at the market. These girls were sitting outside the main flower stalls, watching the world go by.

The next floor was part flower market, part pop-up food stalls, a cacophonous melding of sound and smell and purpose. Huge bundles of fragrant, bright flowers were stacked along the walls and on the heads of the strong women who whisked them off after a fierce bargain. The vendors that didn’t have the money to pay for a space inside the market itself instead set up on the hallways or the sloped driveway leading down to the 2nd floor, calling out at me as I walked by. Flowers were unbelievably cheap throughout Burma, and I made a habit of buying a bouquet for every hotel or B&B upon my departure. Inevitably there was a woman who handled the money and worked the front desk, and why not spend 50 cents to brighten her day? In Yangon there were no women at my hostel, and no one to leave flowers with after my last night in Yangon. Instead, I bought a bouquet for the dosa woman who made me my breakfast, to the coos and cheers of the Burmese surrounding her. Let them think she had an admirer in me; her smile made it all worthwhile.

Beautiful, bright flowers at Thiri Mingalar Zay.

One of the many parts of the floor devoted to flowers.

I tried to carry flowers this way, with one of the vendors laughingly putting them atop my head. After two steps, they fell right off. This takes skill.

My dosa lady making me breakfast.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Asia if there wasn’t someone sleeping in the randomest of places. This guy was slung underneath his huge truck, snoring away.

Adorable thanaka-covered faces in the market.

In the span of one morning, I was completely subsumed within the beautiful jumble of Yangon’s many ethnicities inside the packed narrow aisles of this decrepit building. For those of you who want to visit, get there soon: on May 28, 2010, the government announced that Thiri Mingalar Zay would be relocated to Padauk Creek adjacent to Bayint Naung Road – in a newly constructed building. While safety (a fire engulfed another Yangon market just before the announcement), traffic and other reasons were behind the move, I wish the ambiance could be magically ported along with the vendors. It was one of my favourite mornings in Yangon.

One more thing bears a mention. When I left the market, my eye adjusting to the bright light outside, I stumbled upon this hilarious shot:

A rooster coveting a dress in downtown Yangon. Love it.

I’ve finally posted up all my pictures of Yangon, both from the beginning of my trip and from the second visit just before I departed for Thailand. The full gallery of Yangon photos is here.

Plenty more to come from Burma!


21 thoughts on “A Remarkable Morning in Yangon: Thiri Mingalar Market”

  1. This shows you why Burma used to be the richest country in SE Asia: it’s incredibly fertile and the people know how to work the land.

    Ginger Mountain is pretty crazy. If there is a bigger pile of ginger in the world, I’d like to see it.

    Keep it coming with the Burma photos!

  2. That pile of ginger has me in awe (one of my favorite flavors in the world)! The amount of tasty dishes and ginger juice you could make with that…wow…I’m dreaming.

    This is a sweet market Jodi! I think I could spend hours here, walking around and sampling things!

  3. Such a wonderful post, I love this part of the world – unfortunately I don’t get to see it that often, but the way you have captured the moment is great!

    Thank you!

  4. Thanks everyone! It’s hard to pick what photos to post, but please do check out the full gallery (linked at the bottom of the post). Will be posting next on Mandalay and slowly making my way to the very north in Myitkyina, where I took a 5-night slow boat trip down the Irrawaddy during a solar eclipse. Many more photos coming!

    Thanks, as always, for reading!


  5. Pingback: When Travel Plans (and Life) Suddenly Change | Wandering Earl

  6. Great pics, Jodi! I love the ones of the woman with the flowers on her head and the guy sleeping under the truck. And that pile of ginger is astounding–I’ve never seen anything like that!

  7. I am jealous of you.

    I was wondering if any followers on here have been to a banff adventure photography workshop. I am thinking of going but it is a little expensive so I was looking for some feedback.

  8. @Theodora: what did you put down as your profession when you applied for the visa?

    @BJ: never done a photography workshop – all of these photos were taken using a small point & shoot. Will let you know if anyone has some feedback, though.

    Thanks for reading!

  9. Hi Jodi. I’ve often though that I must get to Burma when we eventually take a trip to Thailand, Vietnam and Ankor. I just love wandering around in markets and taking shots, and so this post of yours has been a great inspiration for me. Very enjoyable to read, and I love your photos here!

  10. Thanks Andrew. This is one of many market photoessays I will post about Burma because they remained the most colourful, beautiful hours of my time there. I always make a beeline for markets wherever I am, but there is something about the ones in Burma – the flowers, the rich, pungent spices, the betel nut – that made my visits even more interesting. Check back for more market posts in a few weeks time!

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