Bizarre Bazaars in South-East Asia

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Everyone loves a bargain and the many markets of South East Asia are where the best that the region has to offer is sold. In many cases, markets are still the place to buy fresh produce to cook for the next meal. A wet market is one that has to be cleaned daily because of the fresh meats and fish sold there and a dry market is where produce with greater longevity is sold. The opening times for the markets of South East Asia vary by day and night as well as on various days of the week.

Here’s a selection of some great regional markets from Malaysia’s pasar malam to Luang Prabang’s hill tribe bazaars. All are etched into my memory as the region’s best destinations for shopping bargains.


These markets located near the popular EDSA district operate daily and start quite early. The best but busiest days are Wednesday and Sunday and coincide with the mass conducted in the neighbouring church. They are located just a short taxi ride from the busy commercial Makati district and being a street market, there’s always lots of hustle and bustle. The best buys are electrical items, bags and clothes and a lot of food is also sold.


Pasar malam or night markets are as Malaysian as tea and oil palm plantations and each part of a city and town has evening markets on specific nights. Hawkers and traders set up their stalls at sunset to sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and freshly-cooked snacks to eat in the market or take home. The Bangsar pasar malam is as good as any as it’s compact and there are bars and restaurants lining the market perimeter for these who prefer to watch all the action. It’s also possible to shop in the more familiar supermarket at Bangsar Village for those who can’t cope with the crowded and lively streets.


Images of temples on Lake Bratan and Bedugal in Bali’s volcanic highlands have been used to sell the tropical island to travellers for several decades. Bali is one of the region’s main island holiday destinations and while most travellers come to chill out on the tranquil beaches, the mountainous inland offers a very difference experience. Tourists arrive in Candikuning by the mini-van load but you can’t beat the setting nor the spices and flowers on display in the traditional market. The cool temperatures of the highlands create the perfect environment for growing temperate vegetables and fruits. While few tourists will buy the bunches of flowers on display to take home, the spices, strawberries and vanilla pods will be hard to pass up.


Bangkok’s Weekend Markets also known as Chatuchak Markets or simply, JJ Markets have become the region’s mother of all markets over the past decade or so. Okay, they’re hot, sweaty, vast, crowded, mind-boggling and definitely not for anyone seeking a refined shopping experience, but the cheap prices and vibrant atmosphere more than compensate for any discomfort.

As there are so many bargains here it’s hard to single out the best – take an empty backpack and shop on. Many visitors will appreciate the creativity of Thai artisans so look carefully amongst all the touristy souvenirs to seek out those items displaying individual style and flair. There are lots of small places to drink and eat as well and it’s hard to resist all those tasty Thai snacks. Catch the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit Station and from here, the markets are a five minute walk – follow the crowd or be swept along by it. All the perimeter gates are numbered with the adjoining JJ Mall being a good landmark building for orientation and some air-conditioned refuge after all the market action.


Many of Thailand’s floating markets have become a little clichéd these days so you’ll have to sacrifice authenticity for the commercial colour, excitement and action. The most famous of all is Damnoen Saduak centred on a series of canals located onehour’s drive south of Bangkok. While this market is firmly on the well-trodden path of mass tourism, it’s hard to pass them up at least once on your journeys to Thailand. It’s almost like a movie set with the traders paddling in circles around the waterways seemingly for the benefit of the van-loads of tourists who descend upon the place mid morning. The real Thai action starts before the tourists arrive but as overnight accommodation in the district is difficult to find you’ll have to experience it as a tourist. If you want to avoid the crowds head south from Bangkok as early as possible and then leave by mid morning as everyone else arrives. It’s obligatory to take a small boat ride but don’t expect too many bargains from the produce on offer. Snacks, drinks and fresh fruit provide the best value. Contact:


These markets located in the centre of Vientiane are somewhat misnamed as the opening hours extend well beyond the morning, usually from 7am to 4pm. This is the biggest market in the capital and even quite big by regional standards. They’re not only the centre of Vientiane’s retail action but also one of the main bus stations and shops and food stalls extend over the surrounding streets. Few things stay the same in Asia and the traditional markets are changing with the arrival of air-conditioned malls and cinemas but the lively market atmosphere remains with almost everything being sold. Large sections of the markets are closed or being demolished in the name of progress but the remaining ones sell goods that mostly come from Laos, Thailand and China. Support Lao producers and seek out exquisite local textiles of hand-woven cotton and silk. Locally-grown Lao coffee is world-class and offers excellent value for money.


Visitors can take their pick between two fine markets in this small town that was once the royal capital of land-locked Lao PDR, better known as Laos. Visit the Talat Dala morning markets or the night markets along Sisavangvong Road. Chances are you will visit both and not be disappointed by either. Luang Prabang is definitely one of the region’s ‘must-visit’ destinations and its recent rise in chic appeal correlates closely with it being gazetted as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Situated at the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang is a town of great beauty and Buddhist tranquility. The hill tribe people living in the mountainous regions surrounding the town come to the markets especially to sell their intricate woven textiles.




Markets don’t get much older than this vast network of streets that radiate northwards from Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city. In the 13th century, the city’s 36 artisan guilds located along the streets here with each craft being located along one street. Over the years, these trades have spilled over into some 50 streets so the whole area is one retail maze but with some trades still being confined to certain areas. Pho Hang Gai is a street devoted to silk products including outlets selling the national dress for females, the ao dai. Other interesting Vietnamese collectables include water puppets, lacquerware and silk embroidery. Getting lost amongst all the shops isn’t as bad as it sounds and for those looking for a more traditional Asian market, the Dong Xuan Market located in the retail warren is not to be missed.


The Psah Tuol Tom Pong took on the name Russian Markets a few decades back when Russian foreign aid was flowing into the country. This resulted in lots of surplus Soviet goods flowing into the country. At that stage there was little else available in a country that was very much isolated from the rest of the world. Things have changed, normalcy has returned to a country once torn by civil disorder and this has made Cambodia a hot regional destination once again. There’s no better place to shop than the rambling covered markets in the suburbs of the capital. It was once possible to buy whole marijuana plants (the Khmer use it in cooking), but those heady days are gone. Most of the antiques and old silk textiles have also gone but there are some collector items still available. Other stalls sell contemporary silks, carved wood souvenirs, rubies and all the fake products one can imagine. Fresh produce and stalls selling Khmer snacks are also located in the markets.



It’s worth the long drive over dusty roads to reach Bac Ha, a small village near Lao Cai in the far northwest of Vietnam not far from the Chinese border. It appears very isolated until mid-morning when Gucci-totting tourists descend upon the markets thrusting cameras into the faces of bemused hill tribe folk. Colourful women from various tribes including H’mong, Dao and Nung sell jewellery, textiles and clothing. Prices have crept up since Bac Ha has become a strategic stop on the ‘Hill Tribe – Mystery and Intrigue’ tour or some such similar package sold to foreign tour groups. Hard bargaining is essential to secure the most competitive prices.The male villagers are normally involved in a lively livestock market where ponies and dogs are traded. It’s a long way from Hanoi to Bac Ha and this one is best left to those who are in the area on a Sunday. Those who are interested in hill tribe products and walking the hills after the markets will make it a point of being here on a Sunday.


This article appeared in the JULY 2011 issue of The Expat magazine
This article has been edited for
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