Everyone likes a good market. At home or abroad, even those who aren’t into shopping enjoy having a wander amongst stalls of clothing, knick-knacks, jewellery and hand-made arts and crafts.
But the best markets are the ones you eat at, too – and on that front the markets in Southeast Asia are the best in the world.
Sure, I love cheap clothing and pirated DVDs as much as the next backpacker – but you can get that sort of stuff anywhere in Asia (besides I don’t have room for souvenirs). I visit the markets of Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand primarily to eat – not to haggle.
Satay, mango and sticky rice, katsu, fried chicken, fried rice, tom yung, pad thai – these are my priorities. And with that in mind, these are the best markets in Southeast Asia, where you can get a feed and a bargain.
Chatuchak Weekend Market – Bangkok, Thailand
You just about need to leave a trail of bread crumbs to avoid getting lost in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market. That’s how immense this 35-acre maze of restaurants, food, clothing and craft stalls truly is.
You can find cheap hotels in Bangkok close to the market, but you’ll still need to get out of bed early to beat the crowds – these markets are very popular with locals, expats and backpackers. Take your time, keep your fluids up and remember – shopping at the Chatuchak Markets is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Chatuchak Weekend Market is the best in Bangkok for jewellery, clothing, tacky souvenirs and food – I had the greatest fried and chicken and sticky rice I have ever eaten here. Most stalls are only open Saturday and Sunday. The market is adjacent to the Kamphaeng Phet MRT station.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Thailand
It’s no wonder the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is so popular with backpackers, given that it’s a veritable bonanza of Chang, Singha and Tiger beer T-shirts and singlets, counterfeit clothing and pirated movies.
But you’ll also find here a plethora of tasty treats to eat, all at slightly inflated prices. That is unless you eschew the tourist-trap restaurants literally begging for your business and instead head for a row of street-style ones on the left as you walk into the main off-street market area.
At these food stalls you’ll find any type of Asian cuisine you so fancy and for a very reasonable price, too. For more tips, read my Thailand backpacker budget: mainland vs islands blog post.
Perhaps the cutest, most relaxed market in all of Southeast Asia is the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Here you’ll find the ubiquitous backpacker-style Beerlao T-shirts and singlets (I bought one here), jewellery, crafts and, of course, a crap load of excellent food and drink. I’m talking fried rice, sandwiches, fruit shakes and more cakes, ice cream, banana pancakes and other sweet stuff than you could ever possibly want.
Best of all, the stall vendors are so relaxed they barely ever harass you – a fact of life at markets in Vietnam and Thailand in particular. Head to the main road in Luang Prabang and you can’t miss it.
China Town – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
If a relaxed market-going experience is what you’re looking for, then China Town in Kuala Lumpur is definitely not the place.
But it is the place for bargain clothing, pirated DVDs, jewellery and almost anything else you might be on the lookout for. Watch your pockets, though, as this vibrant street-market is the perfect hunting ground for opportunistic thieves.
For a great meal at a great price, avoid the tourist trap restaurants that line the market streets and head over to the food stalls on Jalan Sultan, where the food is cheap and the service is friendly and fast. Grab a seat at one of the plastic tables and you’ll find the menu is emblazoned on top of it, making it easy to order even if you’re Malaysian needs a bit of work.
Angkor Night Market – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, like most of Cambodia, has so many brilliant markets that it’s rather difficult to decide which one is best.
In fact, the Angkor Night Market appears to be sandwiched in between two other markets just off Sivatha Blvd, a ten minute walk from Siem Reap’s Old Market and Center Market – both excellent markets in their own right.
Packed full of souvenir shops, clothing stalls and people trying to sell you foot massages, the Angkor Night Market is a lively place to hang out and shop. It has a food court and a couple of bars – but you’re better off heading to the food stalls down the bottom of Pub Street for a cheap meal where you can mingle with locals and other travellers.
Lau Pa Sat Festival Market – Singapore
In Singapore you’re never far away from one of the city’s famous hawker centres, which aren’t markets in the traditional sense but do always have a great variety of food stalls.
You won’t find clothing, tourist tat or pirated DVDs in a Singapore hawker market, but you will find excellent food for cheap – and the one at Lau Pa Sat in Singapore’s financial district is my personal favourite.
For the best satay in all of Southeast Asia – and I ate plenty of it in Malaysia, the home of satay – you can’t go past the huge row of stalls outside Lau Pa Sat, all barbecuing sticks of chicken, beef and pork infused with cumin and coriander, served with a sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce.
The night market in Malacca is another good one. Do you have a favourite market in Southeast Asia that I’ve missed off the list?