The San Pya Fish Market in Yangon is the sort of place you smell before you arrive. The pungent aroma of fish immediately smacks you in the face and the piscine perfume saturates your clothes and stays with you long after leaving. In fact, when I returned home, days later, and dumped the laundry from my backpack on the floor, my cats went into a state of feline ecstasy smelling the clothes I had worn to the market.
Although you get used to the smell rather quickly, it is impossible to get used to the chaotic swirl of activity. It is one of the busiest, wildest, loudest, and most colorful places I’ve taken photos. I am glad that I visited with friends as part of a photo workshop because, otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough, or perhaps crazy enough, to go on my own.
The chaos starts on the riverfront, as sinewy men haul baskets of freshly caught fish over a slick and slimy bridge and dump them into large crates. From there, crews sort and weigh the fish as accountants fastidiously punch numbers into calculators and record numbers in notebooks.
Meanwhile, men with abs of steel (who are certainly going to suffer long-term hearing loss), heave 50-pound blocks of ice into roaring machines that grind them into chips. Workers shovel the newly crushed ice into carts and wheel it away to the packing locations, shouting at anyone foolish enough to be in their way. Fish are placed in boxes, packed in ice, and shipped off to restaurants and smaller markets around the city.
Periodically, a gaggle of pink-robed nuns parade through the madness, collecting alms and giving blessings. These clean, innocent girls are a sharp juxtaposition to the rugged, sweaty men. Vendors hawking everything from betel to cigarettes to fresh fruit move through the market, fueling the hard-working men with their products.
On the southern edge of the market, workers unceremoniously toss live chickens into buckets and weigh them before sending them off to a dark room where the journey from egg to chicken to food becomes complete. Periodically, men emerge from the shadows with dozens of freshly skinned chickens piled across their backs and dump them onto carts.
Even though all these rugged men are busily working – most of them earning about $4 a day – they are all exceedingly friendly. They smile, say hello and sometimes strike a pose, even though some of them seem very confused by the presence of photographers in the melee.
In summary, the San Pya Fish Market is a must visit for any photography enthusiast but you’d be wise to wear some shoes and clothes you can dispose of afterwards. Oh, and stay clear of the south side if you ever want to eat chicken again with a clear conscious.
San Pya Fish Market Photo Gallery
The San Pya Fish Market is located about 20 minutes by taxi from downtown Yangon.
Have you been to a crazy market before? Would you like to visit the San Pya Market in Yangon?
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Great photos which really capture the atmosphere – without the aroma. Really learned what this market offers as an experience
Thank you Diane.
Looks quite intense! I feel sorry for your cat for being confused by the aroma of something that was supposedly tasty but for some reason inedible. We have places like this in Indonesia, but I can’t remember the last time I visited one — I do still remember the smell, though.
I think the kitties getting to smell the fish clothes with no food reward is payback for the times they have stolen my chicken when I wasn’t looking!
I love your street photography 🙂
Thank you Tom.
This is fantastic! Quite witty you are! And of course and as usual the photos bring the words to life. I WANT TO GO!!
If you ever went to the Klhong Toei market in Bangkok, it is like that but 10 times crazier!
That chicken photo is astounding Jeff. I think you had it on social media and I gazed in fascination or possibly disgust. I grew up on a farm and always found chicken slaughtering day fairly traumatic. That and other realities have increased my love for all vegetables.
We have been to quite a few wild markets including one in Tokyo and Athens. The bucket of goat heads that I almost tripped over almost did me in. I screamed at jet engine decibel level but of course no one noticed due to the deafening roar of saws, machetes and screaming. Wowza travel is an eye opening experience.
I can see how chicken slaughtering day, or any slaughtering day, would have been tough. A bucket of goat heads would do me in too! I don’t think I could actually kill an animal, but I do enjoy eating them. I put that part out of my mind. My wife cannot, and hasn’t had meat in about 5+ years.
We obviously have markets and slaughterhouses in Canada and the USA, but random people with cameras aren’t allowed in to take photos. That is part of what makes travel to this part of Asia so fun – you can get behind the scenes to places that are off limits in the West.
Although it’s kind of gruesome, I’m just mesmerized by that chicken photo. What an awesome shot you got there! I love fish markets—the smellier and more chaotic the better. Hope I get to this one some day. The smelliest fish place I’ve been to is a fish paste factory in Battambang, Cambodia. I’m sure your cats would love it.
Oh man, a fish paste place must be intense! I an only imagine what concentrated fish must smell like. I thought I missed the chicken shot at first, but was surprised I had it when I downloaded the photos. I kind of like how you can barely see his eye and all the eyes of the chicken.
Your photographs are brilliant. We didn’t go there. I wish I’d known about it because I would have gone there. It’s exactly the kind of place I love to see. It reminded me a little (the men being so friendly) of going into the rabbit warren of tiny alleyways that make up the wholesale spice market in Delhi.
My only regret form the visit is that I didn’t get like a wide-angle overview shot, which was nearly impossible to do. Some of the laneways were jam packed with guys rushing through with carts full of fish. I guess I’ll have to go back. Yes, someone like you with an adventurous spirit would love the place!
Great pictures.. particularly numbers 3 and 6. The photo of the chicken is at the same time alluring and repelling for obvious reasons. But what a great shot, worthy of an award. We both love all kinds of markets and it is the first place we head to no matter what country we are in. I think we were in the region of the fish market in Yangon although not right at the heart of it. I very much remember the young pink robed nuns. (By the way you have a typo.. robbed, instead of robed).
I think the chicken photo is interesting because it is a little gross and unusual. We’d expect the chickens to be loaded in a basket or something and not stacked on a person’s shoulders.
Markets are so fun, and a great place to really see the local culture. Always a great first stop.
Ok that chicken photo is way too crazy! Are you sure there was a real person under there?
Actually I missed the photo I really wanted of the guy laden with chickens and a cigarette sticking out of his mouth!
That’s a great mental pic!
A superb series of photos, Jeff. What a wonderful place to see and photograph. Loved your post. We recently visited Tokyo and the markets there were really fun to see.
Jane, thank you for the comments. We are planning to hit Tokyo in June. Any markets you’d recommend?
Hi Jeff, I realize the one I am thinking of is in Kyoto. The famous fish market in Tokyo was closed when we were there. It is being relocated.
Jeff, I can just about smell the fish from your pictures. This was a great series – I had no idea San Pya Fish Market existed until I saw your shots on Facebook. Kudos for getting such clear shots in such a disorienting environment!
The lead shot of the piled up chickens is very cool (and not disgusting at all). I think growing up in Hong Kong and seeing its wet markets on a fairly regular basis has desensitized me to the slaughtering process. There was one seafood stall I passed a couple years ago where a big fish had been sliced open and the blood-soaked gills were still moving. That could have been traumatic, but it strangely wasn’t.
I grew up in cattle country in Oklahoma, but all the slaughtering was done behind closed doors. Tourists certainly didn’t go there and take photos. The fish part didn’t bother me, but seeing how they tossed around live chickens did hurt my heart a little.
I wish I had taken a few wide angle shots to show the scale and chaos of the place. I guess I’ll have to go back!
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Love your photo style. Did you crop some to get great composition and filled frame?
I try not to do any big crops, since it can give the photo an unnatural look. Having said that, I am sure at times I slightly straighten or clean up the very edges of a photo. At the San Pya market it was easy to get close so no cropping was needed. In fact, I probably needed a wider angle lens there!
Very beautiful captures at San Pya market. I hope I can do it in Bangkok’s wet market. I read your blogs, did you still use 18mm fuji lens (eq. 27mm)?
Lately, I have been using my X100T that has a 35mm equivelant. I now prefer that focal length. The 27mm has too much distortion and you have to get really, really close.
The Khlong Toei Market is great, and I’d also check out the Trok Mor Morning Market.
Would check those market. Thank you, Jeff. Anyway, X100T is great camera, I used to have X100s but I sold it and I miss it now. For me now, I use A7 + 35mm but the silent shutter and simplicity of X100s,t,f are still unbeatable.
Agreed. My only issue with the camera is that it is really slow to turn on and the auto focus is terrible in low light. I need to get a 28mm lens for my X-t20 and I’ll have the perfect setup! I’ll probably try to go on the walk in February – see you there is you can make it.
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