From India to Vietnam, the many open-air markets in Asia are buzzing with life and frenetic activity.
Even if you don't actually need to buy anything, the market often serves as the beating heart for small communities. Gossip moves even quicker than produce. Markets reveal a lot about the personality of a place!
Tourist-targeted "night markets" are often organized, overpriced places teeming with souvenirs and fake products. The real markets are where locals go to buy, sell, and trade for dinner.
Sometimes, authentic markets can be a little intimidating for travelers. They come across initially as a sprawling maze of chaos where chickens go to meet their fate. The noise of prices being haggled, squawking animals, and unfamiliar items can overwhelm the senses at first. But there's no better place to take the pulse of a destination than the market. Jump in to find great food, cheap shopping, and excellent people watching!
Don't Worry About the Attention
Locals are often as curious about you as you are about them. Don't be surprised if you're the recipient of a few stares, giggles, and even some good-natured "hellos" as you wind your way through the maze of busy markets in Asia.
Rather than shy away, take advantage of the opportunity to interact and compare cultures a bit. Break the ice by showing an interest. Learn something new about unfamiliar food for sale. Vendors will often offer a sample of fruit or sweets.
Tourists are sometimes considered rich while traveling in impoverished places — and you probably are wealthy by local standards. Expect some harmless beckoning and hustling from people who are just trying to make a daily living. They may even fight for your attention; travelers have a reputation of overpaying.
By arriving at markets early, not only will you have fewer crowds to contend with, the early-rising vendors will have more energy and patience before the heat of the day. You'll also have first pick from the better, fresher items.
Tip: Merchants often regard the first sale of the day as the "lucky" sale — a harbinger of a profitable day to come. They'll usually be more flexible on price to make that sale happen. Arrive as vendors are setting up shop for more negotiating power.
Learn to Negotiate
Although uncomfortable for many Westerners, haggling is a big part of daily life in most Asian countries. Approach negotiating as a fun game rather than with dread and embarrassment — or even worse, guilt. Realize that if you fail to negotiate a little, you're spreading cultural mutation and possibly inflating prices for local residents.
Excluding a few items with fixed prices, most things in a market have been priced to allow room for good-natured haggling. Never haggle for prepared food or drinks. Buying several items from the same place gives you more leverage for requesting a discount.
Don't feel too bad: a vendor will never agree to a price that causes them to lose money!
Tip: Never negotiate just for sport. If you begin negotiating with someone and agree on a price, failing to make the purchase is a very bad form. Don't counter with an offer unless you're willing to buy!
Delve Deeper Into the Market
Market positions for tables and carts aren't random or first come, first served; they follow a complex hierarchy based on seniority and fees paid.
The booths in the most prominent positions, such as those by entrances and street corners, tend to be the most expensive. The cost of paying for a good spot often gets passed down to the customer.
If you see an item you want near the entrance of the market, chances are that you'll find it again and again as you work your way deeper inside. Rarely is an item only found at a single stall. Ask about the price just to have an idea, then hold off on the purchase — you'll probably see the same thing later for a better price.
All Purchases Are Final
You won't get a receipt for purchases made in markets — all sales are final! No matter if whatever you bought breaks before you get back to the hotel, the problem is yours once the transaction is completed. Scrutinize purchases carefully. If the item you receive isn't the actual displayed item, carefully check the packaged one you are given before walking away.
Local markets usually don't have fitting rooms. Even if you find later that an item doesn't fit, or one sleeve is six inches longer than the other, you won't be able to return it.
Beware of Fakes and Scams
You'll find plenty of cheap fakes and replicas for sale at markets in Asia. Don't be upset if that amazingly cheap iPhone breaks on the first call, or the Rolex logo comes unglued inside of the watch. If a deal seems too good to be true, it most definitely is — especially when something electronic is involved.
Bringing fake items into countries is often technically illegal. Although enforcement is still fairly relaxed, those fake DVDs could be confiscated and land you a fine in Singapore.
Unsurprisingly, tourist markets are often rife with scams and fake goods. Don't be easily fooled by appearances or make assumptions. Oranges piled up around a cart does not mean that the "fresh" orange juice for sale isn't more than a sugary, artificial drink purchased in bulk from a grocery store then rebottled and resold. Yes, that's a popular scam in Thailand.
A pile of wood shavings on the floor does not mean that the man holding a wooden carving for sale is a local artisan. Lots of "handmade" trinkets are imported from China; you'll see them again and again in different countries throughout Southeast Asia.
Tip: Fakes aren't only found in open-air markets. The popular MBK Center mall in Bangkok is full of them!
Enjoy the Food
You'll find inexpensive food and authentic snacks while nibbling your way through the great treats in local markets. Bring plenty of small change for trying cheap delicacies. Sampling new things in the market is half of the experience! Portions are often smaller than restaurant size, so plan meal times accordingly.
Tip: Always be on the lookout for glorious mangosteen fruit to be in season!
Don't Bring Luggage to the Markets in Asia
If you're visiting a market before flying out or checking in, ask the hotel to watch your luggage or store it at the airport. Markets often get crowded; your big backpack or suitcase will become a hindrance. Remember: you may have to squeeze past fresh fish, hanging raw meat, and unidentified liquids oozing off of surfaces.
Tip: Although carrying a small day bag around a market is perfectly acceptable, be careful when squeezing through crowded spaces. You may not feel a deft hand working zippers if the bag is on your back.
Watch Out for Bad Apples
No, not the ones for sale. Busy markets in Asia can sometimes attract individuals who may see you as a target. Carefully mind your backpack, wallet, and purchases when bumping and jostling through crowded spaces.
Children and beggars tend to frequent local markets to target tourists. Giving handouts is not a sustainable way to help people. You may be supporting a very nefarious industry (child begging gangs) without realizing.
Don't Expect Nice Toilets
If you're lucky enough to find a public restroom at all, it will probably be a filthy squat toilet. Allow plenty of time in case you have to hit the streets in search of a bathroom. You'll probably have to pay a few coins to use the toilets in the markets.