I will safely admit this without any fear; I’m a bit of a sucker for a nice stroll through a market. I love looking through the various stalls, admiring the items on display and debating whether they would make useful additions to the mounting piles of rubbish I already own.
Naturally, that means I search out markets when overseas. That being said, I noticed a significant change in my attitude when walking around a foreign marketplace compared to one at home, looking at it through different eyes.
Asian markets are different places. This is their living, their livelihood. They have a hustle and bustle about them that intrigues and draws you in like bright, shiny lights on a Christmas tree. Coupled with the tropical steaminess of Asia they create an exotic atmosphere where a browser can happily lose time.
The goods on sale are uniquely Asian as well. I don’t mean in the traditional sense, either. So many stalls are peddling the same products, creating the kind of competition that would render businesses back home redundant. With such a vast amount of these stalls so similar, it’s easy to imagine that a souvenir consortium is in operation from a tall CBD building, running the Asian night market scene.
Shirt stalls are so numerous that it borders on the ridiculous. As a result, I can safely walk around back home and look at the various souvenir singlets that people are wearing and know which country they have come from. Anyone with a Bintang singlet has either been to Bali or had a family member go there. Beer 333 singlets are synonymous with Vietnam. A singlet with the grammatically incorrect slogan “The Tubing in Van Vieng” will mean someone has been to Laos and a “Same Same” shirt could have come from any country in Southeast Asia, usually owned by those aged in their 50’s. There are a large number of shirts with strange, humorous sayings that get purchased on impulse and remain at the bottom of your pack for the rest of your trip. One such shirt that we got (and never wore) had the words “Get ting tong”. ‘Ting tong’, we were reliably told, translated to ‘crazy’ in English. On further investigation, and with the help of Google Translate, ting tong translates to ting tong. We had bought a shirt that literally had gibberish printed on it. At the bottom on the cupboard it remains. All of these items are found in the night markets of Asia.
There are bracelets aplenty but whether they are handmade or not remains to be proven. That I can buy the same bracelet, at varying prices, at the many different markets across the same country kind of contradicts their handmade status. Unless there is some kind of bracelet franchise I am unaware of, that is.
Uniquely Asian bowls and spoons seem to get a pretty good run in the market world as well. I recall buying a soup spoon made from wood. Everything was great until I got splinters in my tongue and the spoon split not long after I bought it. Clearly it was meant to be ornamental rather than something practical like most spoons are, how stupid of me. It was probably for the best, Australian quarantine would have jumped all over it had it made it back home with me.
This can’t be said of chop sticks. They are prominent. Quite literally a chopstick for every occasion. Not being much of a chopstick aficionado, I couldn’t tell you the difference between each set – my favourites from Asia were liberated from a hotel breakfast buffet. Typically I’m the guy using a fork because his hand has cramped up after battling to eat his meal with a set of sticks. But I am led to believe that it’s the added extras that are the selling points. Little, ‘hand-woven’ storage baskets or a small block to elevate the tips from the table are prime examples.
Food stalls are the crowning glory of Asia. They are the light in the market beacon. No deep fried hotdogs here. No battered fish. Just freshly made food using fresh ingredients that you would find in a restaurant, except at half the price with a slightly higher chance of food poisoning. Strange, baked goods are also a ‘market thing’. It can be confusing, however, knowing if you are eating something savoury or sweet. They all look the same and the when you ask what it is, the answer always comes back with a strong smile and confident, “Yes, good.” Call it a confusing surprise.
The size of each stall should be mentioned. I ventured through a market in Luang Prabang, Laos, and each space was limited to a tarp laid out on the road. Compare that with the major market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; the walkways between each stall were so tight that single file was the only way forward or back. It resembled shopping’s version of a traffic jam. While walking through, each shop had their own spruiker tempting you in with seductive lines such as, “Sir! Sir! You want suit?” or, “Look how many colours.” It wasn’t so bad walking through the first time, but when we walked past again, the offers of goods turned into comments along the lines of, “Let me guess, you still no want to buy clothes from me.” Guilt is a powerful selling technique, it turns out.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter how repetitive these markets can become. They are entertaining and are a perfect way to kill an evening. They are amazing places to people watch and if you manage to find a place to sit down, have a beer and a meal, your evening is set. Irrespective of whether you enjoy markets or not, if you choose to avoid them, you are missing one of the quintessential experiences of rural Asia.
Wayward Tip: take a stroll. The items on sale may not be what they are advertised as but when you hand them over their desired recipients you can say, “So, I got this for you from a market in Asia.” The sentiment means more than the quality.