What You Need to Know About Visiting Asia's Wet Markets

Wet markets deserve less fear, more understanding

Ben Thanh Market, Saigon, Vietnam
Ben Thanh Market, Saigon, Vietnam.

Ho Ngoc Binh/Getty Images

What you’ve heard of Asia’s “wet markets” is likely nothing good. Multiple news outlets in the West have branded them as wellsprings of disease—and, for first-time visitors, wet markets sometimes do themselves no favors: newly-arrived tourists tend to experience them as an assault on the senses, with freshly-butchered meats and piles of vegetables sold from garishly-lit stalls.

But the scare pieces are all overblown. Most of the food you eat from local restaurants comes from wet markets. In Asia’s biggest cities, wet markets tend to be tourist destinations all their own.

Before you judge Asia’s wet markets, look beyond the hype to see what they really are—and what they really represent for both locals and the tourists who seek authentic moments in the places they visit.

What Is a Wet Market?

The term “wet market” evolved in the 1970s to distinguish traditional markets from the Western-style, air-conditioned “supermarket.” Former British colonies in Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia) may have popularized the term in English, derived from the Cantonese Chinese phrase for produce 濕貨 (sup for, “wet goods”).

In areas without refrigeration (like traditional wet markets), water is used to keep produce fresh and surfaces spotless. Butchers hose counters and chopping boards down to keep them clean; fishmongers use a constantly-replenished supply of water (or ice) to promote freshness, and as a result of both, wet markets tend to have slick, almost slippery floors.

This cleanliness standard has been good enough for generations of Asians, whose streetside hawker lunches and family dinners’ ingredients are usually supplied by trusty neighborhood wet markets.

As stall owners never need to pay for air conditioning and refrigeration, wet market goods tend to cost far less than supermarkets' comparable items. And wet markets usually open in the wee hours, accommodating both overscheduled chefs and time-pressed homemakers.

Wet market in Bagan, Myanmar
 Mike Aquino

Wet Markets are Not Wildlife Markets

Unfortunately, Western commentators have unfairly conflated wet markets (traditional food sources for locals, found everywhere) with wildlife markets (largely illegal and rare).

Fear of contagion has led usually-respectable commentators to make unreasonable demands of Asian nations. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that reopening wet markets "puts the world's health at risk"; Paul McCartney called wet markets “medieval” and “obscene,” adding “they might as well be letting off atomic bombs.”

No doubt there, wildlife markets are a danger to the environment and human society. Trade in endangered species, driven by traditional medical beliefs, is widely outlawed throughout Asia; Vietnam and China, both big movers in the wildlife trade, have recently banned wildlife trade and consumption.

More work certainly needs to be done. Demand in Asia continues to fuel a $23 billion trade in wildlife trafficking, and spotty law enforcement can get past even the strictest anti-trafficking legislation. Pangolins, tortoises, bears, and bats continue to be seized in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s not counting the traffickers who actually escape the authorities.

While it is true that these animals are sold in wildlife markets that look identical to wet markets, that should not implicate all wet markets; in turn, 99 percent of wet markets do not participate in the endangered animal trade.  

Coffee beans in Toraja, Indonesia
 Mike Aquino

The Truth About Wet Markets

While wet markets in Asia tend not to be pleasant experiences for squeamish visitors, there’s no need to place them in the same category as banned wildlife markets. In fact, if you’re looking for an unvarnished, authentic look at local life, a visit to the local wet market should be high on your travel bucket list.

Let’s get the most glaring misconceptions out of the way:

"Wet markets are dirty and dangerous."

Not true; wet markets in Asia have to meet stringent safety standards. The Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department strictly monitors standards in the SAR’s wet markets. Nations in Southeast Asia have their own statutory boards monitoring their respective wet markets.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of refrigeration. Because of quick turnover, both meats and vegetables tend to be sold out by the end of the day, and dishonest vendors are quickly found and punished, either by strict government standards or through good old-fashioned community spirit.

As a result, the produce sold in wet markets remains fresh and safe to eat once cooked.

"Wet markets perpetuate the illegal wildlife trade."

Not true—most countries in Asia tend to be victims, not perpetrators. Seizures in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos turn up pangolins, turtles, and other prized animals intended for wildlife markets in China and Vietnam, where belief in traditional Chinese medicine keeps demand strong.

"Food from wet markets should be avoided."

It’s near-impossible to avoid food from wet markets in Asia unless you exclusively eat at Michelin-starred restaurants—and not even then!

The truth is, the vast majority of your meals will be made with ingredients bought at wet markets. Because of their goods’ low relative costs, hawkers keep prices low, and homemakers manage their meals on meager budgets.

On the other hand, hotel and restaurant chefs value wet markets for their people’s quiet expertise. For Hong Kong-based chef Max Levy, wet market stall owners “are very knowledgeable in what they sell… they are the people to talking to if you want to understand the characters of the produce.”

Batchoy at Iloilo Central Market, Philippines
 Mike Aquino

Why Tourists Should Visit Wet Markets in Asia

What will you find if you brave Asia’s wet markets? All of the following in abundant measure:

  • Cheap food. Wet markets invariably serve freshly-prepared local food for a local market. That’s how you know you’re getting maximum authenticity for a minimum cost; it’s no coincidence that foodies flock to favored stalls in wet markets. Examples of foodie wet markets include Tiong Bahru Market in Singapore; Iloilo Central Market in the Philippines; and almost any wet market in Penang, Malaysia.
  • Souvenirs. The same low-cost/high-authenticity argument applies to souvenir shopping in wet markets, or more accurately to the dry-goods section that usually adjoins them. You cannot only buy authentic items at local markets, but you can also even haggle down their cost. This writer has snagged great deals on a wide array of souvenirs, ranging from Burmese costumes at Mani Sithu Market in Bagan, Myanmar, Balinese art at the Art Market in Ubud, Bali, and coffee beans at Malanggo’ Market in Toraja, Indonesia.
  • Slice of life. Even if you don’t buy anything, visiting a local wet market yields a look at local lifestyles that you won’t find in local tourist traps. The sights, sounds, and smells in every Asian wet market vary from place to place: the experience at Psah Chas (Old Market) in Siem Reap is in no way similar to that of Wanchai in Hong Kong, but you can’t say that neither place captures their respective location at their most authentic.  
Article Sources
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  1. Singapore National Heritage Board. "Community Heritage Series: Wet Markets." 2013.

  2. South China Morning Post. "Oxford English Dictionary Just Added "Wet Market"—But Why Are the Markets Called That?" May 19, 2016.

  3. Senator Lindsey Graham. Tweet. April 2, 2020.

  4. The Guardian. "Paul McCartney calls for 'medieval' Chinese markets to be banned over coronavirus." April 14, 2020.

  5. The ASEAN Post. "Time for ASEAN to ban wildlife trade for good." March 27, 2020.

  6. TRAFFIC. "Southeast Asia: at the Heart of Wildlife Trade." February 20, 2020.

  7. The Pangolin Reports. "The Pangolin Trade Explained: Situation In China." May 2, 2019.

  8. Michelin Guide. "Explore The Beauty Of Wet Markets From Three Hong Kong Chefs." January 31, 2018.