The chatter of the crowd and the smell of sizzling meat fills the air as you wander through a row of stalls packed with silver jewelry, pirated DVDs, souvenir t-shirts, charm bracelets, key chains and brightly patterned sarongs. You are sipping on a cold freshly squeezed papaya and banana smoothie as you spot the perfect pair of sandals for less than the price of a cup of coffee in your home town.
With your shopping completed, you order a Styrofoam plate of hot and spicy fried noodles and a cold beer and sit down on the plastic tables to listen to the local musicians perform. Shopping at night markets is a quintessential Southeast Asia travel experience.
Buying meat skewers in Kuching, Malaysia
From the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar to the Luang Prabang Night Market to the Jonker’s Walk Night Market in Malacca, Malaysia to Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Bangkok – night markets are everywhere in Southeast Asia.
Lee and I have visited our fair share and I have come to love the experience, as chaotic as it may be. The trend is also starting to catch on throughout the world, with cities in Europe, North America, Oceania and South America hosting these night bazaars as well. If you are thinking of heading to a night market for the first time during your travels in Southeast Asia, here are some helpful tips we can offer from our own experience:
Night Market, Vientiane, Laos
Busy, distracting, overwhelming, dark and often full of tourists – a market is a dream workplace for a Crafty Pickpocket. While you are being dazzled by those twirling mobiles or busy haggling over the price of a new pair of sandals, someone can easily be slipping into your backpack and relieving you of your wallet. Stay alert and keep your money in a pocket on the front of your body. Don’t bring a lot of cash with you and avoid wearing flashy jewelry. These are good tips no matter where you are, but they are especially important here.
Usually, the price of everything at a night market is negotiable, so you don’t have to pay the first price that the vendor quotes you. Give them a charming smile and suggest a reasonable discount. Be firm, but friendly. If they won’t budge… try shrugging and walking away – they will likely call you back and let you know that they have changed their mind.
If you aren’t sure how to haggle, this video is a good introduction:
As you are walking around looking at all of the items for sale, the sellers in the stalls will call out to you, trying to get your attention and attract you to buy their product. This might feel a little bit overwhelming and annoying at first, but they are just trying to make a living.
If you want people to leave you alone, the best thing you can do is to say “No, Thank You” (or the equivalent in the local language if you know it) firmly and confidently whenever someone approaches you. Also, it helps to avoid eye contact if you don’t want to be aggressively sold to, because many eager sellers will take that as a sign of your interest.
If you don’t like the crowds, arrive early in the evening when the market is still setting up. You’ll avoid the busy dinner rush and you will be able to walk around much more easily. You can have your food without having to wait or jostle in line, then you can take your time and wander around to all of the stalls.
Shopping at the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos
One of the best parts of shopping at a night market is the delicious food – from sizzling fried noodles to spicy curry and rice to succulent barbecued meat skewers and much more. Many night markets will have a “food court” area with a few hawker stalls and several tables to sit on – so take a break from shopping and enjoy a meal! It is good hawker stall practice to choose a stall that is very busy or a stall where they cook your food to order… this means you will know that the food hasn’t been sitting out in the heat for a long time.
Delicious food at Jonkers Walk Market in Malacca, Malaysia
This might be obvious, but that Versace wallet or Gucci bag that you have found for such an unbelievably cheap price – is not actually a genuine designer brand. It is important to be aware that what you are buying are knock-off products.
Sometimes they are impeccable copies that are difficult to distinguish from the originals while other times you will find “Oaokley” sunglasses or “Louis Guitton” bags. There is a bit of controversy when it comes to buying counterfeit goods and they are banned in some places – so make sure you do your research and decide carefully before taking the risk.
Baby turtles for sale at a night market in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo.
Night markets can be very busy, confusing places and if you are travelling with a partner or a group of friends – it’s easy to get separated. While you are travelling in a foreign country, everyone in your group might not always have a mobile phone with a local SIM card – so how will you be able to find each other again? When you first arrive at the market, agree on an obvious meeting place such as the entrance way or a specific corner of the food court – so that you can head there if you get separated.
Shopping at night markets can be a lot of fun, so go ahead and dive head-first into the chaos!