Whether you’re on a quest to splash the local currency burning a hole in your pocket or looking to sample the most lip-smacking local grub, if you’re in Asia, then the market is the place to satisfy each of these fervent desires in one tasty swoop.
From the misty serenity of the Vietnamese highlands to the sultry streets of Bangkok, a thriving market is never too far away, and in the majority of cases the irresistible wafts of freshly-cooked street food will set you in the right direction. From Sa Pa to Seoul, here is my selection of the continent’s greatest markets.
A Breath of Fresh Air
In Vietnam, the market is the core of the local community, so it’s the place to be if you want to sample a little local culture. Perched atop the mountains some 80 kilometres from Sa Pa in northern Vietnam lies Bac Ha, the ideal gateway for travellers that want to follow their wanderlust off the beaten track. Follow the earthy aroma of wood smoke to the town’s weekly Sunday market, during which indigenous communities from the surrounding area flood the streets with a riot of colour and life. The Flower Hmong, Phu La and Dao Tuyen are just a few of the local ethnic minority communities that flock to the market each weekend to sell their wares, and the luminous traditional garments worn by the Flower Hmong in particular do not fail to captivate. Ward off the chill of the mountain air with a steaming bowl of meaty broth served at one of the market’s many food stalls.
The Kitchen of Kyoto
A world away from Bac Ha in Kyoto, the traditional heart of Old Japan, lies Nishiki Market – known locally as the ‘Pantry of Kyoto’. Nishiki’s moniker is not without merit as its rainbow of fresh produce stalls serve both locals and curious tourists grazing between its countless eateries. The wares of this chaotic market battle it out to capture your senses, with the curious mixture of roasting chestnuts, fresh fish and tofu doughnuts competing with the constant background noise of workers pounding out mochi (rice cakes). Nishiki is the place to test out seasonal favourites including roasted chestnuts or even rich and truffle-like matsutake mushrooms if you’re feeling particularly indulgent.
Gateway to Heaven
While Kuala Lumpur may be home to several of Southeast Asia’s plushest shopping malls, visitors can feast on local flavour at one of the city’s many outdoor bazaars. The scarlet gate posts of KL’s Jalan Petaling not only mark the entrance to one of the city’s most vibrant markets, but also to Malaysia’s foodie heaven. Positioned at the heart of Chinatown, Petaling Street is the ideal venue for breakfast, lunch or dinner – or even a 4am snack when bars close. For breakfast, grab a plate of Cantonese style chee cheong fun – plain rice noodles drizzled with thick, sweet sauce. Make the most of Malaysia’s Portuguese influences by gorging on a plate of spicy Portuguese-style grilled fish for lunch, and at dinner (if you have room) it’s crispy roast duck and succulent Hokkien noodles.
The Life and Seoul
In the labyrinthine corridors and outdoor passageways of Seoul’s Namdaemon Market, it’s easy to get lost. Home to thousands of shops and stalls, Namdaemon is the market to pick up everything from clothes and jewellery to toys and electrical gadgets. Comprised of 30 or so multi-story buildings, be prepared to fight your way through the crowds of this heaving market to get to the stall of your choice. Korean street food comes to the fore during the cooler months, and slurping up toasty a dish of odeang broth and doughy fish balls is ideal if you want to warm up. Satisfy sweet tooth cravings by sinking your teeth into a steaming hotteok pancake, trying not to drip any of the oozing brown sugar syrup filling as you continue browsing.
One Night in Bangkok
From chilly Seoul we head to tropical Bangkok, where you can guarantee the food will be just as appetizing. Situated on the city’s northern edge at the end of the Sky Train line, Chatuchak Weekend Market was once the domain of wholesalers and traders. Nowadays, the market has earned itself a place on the ‘must visit’ lists of many travellers that touchdown in the city during the weekend. Home to thousands of stalls, Chatuchak is the ultimate ‘shop til you drop’ destination, and you can get your hands on everything from quirky vintage fashion ensembles to handicraft trinkets. It’s often hard to choose what to munch on when you’re faced with such an array of delectable treats, however, my personal favourite is the khanom buang. Although these miniature marvels look like Thai tacos, the crepe-like shells are packed with a sticky meringue-like substance sprinkled with coconut shavings – desserts don’t get more enchanting than this.
- If the heat of Chatuchak’s heaving maze of shops gets too much, grab some fresh air and a time out in the pleasant landscaped park directly adjacent to the market.
- If the savoury culinary delights of Jalan Petaling have left you wanting more, then don’t miss out on the chance to sample Malaysian durian – the king of the fruits. While the durian is harvested before it ripens in Thailand, in Malaysia it is left to ripen until the flesh of the fruit beneath the spiky exterior reduces down to a creamy, custard-like mush. Just make sure to don plastic gloves before tucking in, or the lingering scent of durian will stick to your hands for days.
- Durian is banned in most hotels across Southeast Asia thanks to its strong aroma, so don’t bring any leftovers back to your room!
- While not the finest market in foodie terms, Busan Fish Market in South Korea certainly leaves a lasting impression if you are in the mood for a lively morning excursion. Situated right on the seafront, the two-storey market is packed to the rafters with live seafood – don’t be surprised to see the odd bid for freedom from a mischievous octopus or two.
- Bartering is commonplace at any Asian market, and is something that vendors expect you to do. Just remember maintain a sense of humour and keep on smiling until you reach an agreement that is fair for both parties.