There seem to be night markets all over the world but I think the ones in the Asia-Pacific region have a special status.
When I lived in Kuala Lumpur for a few years, our house was very close to a Pasar Malam. This market was one of my first exposures to life in Malaysia.
At first it was overwhelming as I had to jostle through crowds of people I had only seen on-screen. And equally unfamiliar objects! By the time our time in Malaysia was up, I was a great fan of Pasar Malams but still no expert.
Unlike the locals I had never undertaken a pilgrimage to the various ones named by die-hard acolytes. Old Chinese ladies with bow legs braved long walks and bus rides to get to so and so night market all because the food there was out of the world, their neighbour swore. Young Chinese girls prettied themselves up to browse random night markets. Malaysia is far safer for women than India!
The general profile of Malaysia was, to us, more female than in most of India and, perhaps, this is why most items on sale in the Pasar Malam were trinkets and apparel to woo the hardest woman’s heart. All made in China, no doubt. Ok-Korea too-earrings to die for! Costume jewellery exists everywhere but, for example, I do not find, here in India, the kind of typically frivolous little nothings to dangle off your dainty lobes or the range and droolworthiness of undergarments. And our roadside night markets cater more to the working class than to all and sundry.
It’s not as if a Pasar Malam does not have anything for the guys! Casually dressed (clean old pair of shorts and some innocuous T-shirt-and they wear this to weddings too!), bespectacled Chinese males of all ages saunter over to the DVD sellers. Piles of films from all over the world. And I really salute this as, because piracy exists, I have discovered beautiful films from all over the world which I would never have, otherwise, seen or heard of.
The concept of present day piracy is far more a tool to allow colonialism’s ghost to continue blighting the chances of others (as, in former times, the cutting off of the thumbs of Indian silk weavers) than to protect the rights of artists.
From profane to sacred, it seems like a pasar malam has everything. There are sellers of things for Chinese religious rituals. Most enchanting are the objects to be burnt to propitiate the deceased-all made in paper, replicas of all kinds of things a person might miss in after life!
I must remark, here, that Malaysian street markets do not normally carry books. This is in contrast to India where there are many roadside sellers of books, local, pirated, second-hand and so on.
Hard and fast vegetarians would need to hold their noses and avert their eyes and probably starve (fast?) their way through the market as most foodstuffs are flesh offerings: dried pig parts, atrociously red slices of ham and sausages, bags of dried fish and shrimp among other exotic eats. The typical Indian vegetarian nostrils protest but mine sort of grew immune and I finally even found myself with a slight tendency of the mouth to water.
But there’s no need to fast your way through if you’re a vegetarian. Not with the many fruit sellers-feast away on quantities of durian, rambutan, mangosteen and kiwis and other things which we don’t normally see in a people’s market here in India.
For all the dire threats of “spicy!” most foods are sugary and, if that isn’t enough, head for the cake sellers-the most atrociously attractive pastries are arrayed-glossy and decorated very aesthetically.
And don’t be a dog in the manger! Your pet will adore the pet products stall-usually the owner has their furry pet – often dressed up in the latest fashion – lounging on a table to one side.
But it’s still a woman’s world as this is where you shall find the most mind boggling displays of bras and panties from China! And, again, although you can find such things dangling like bats in an Indian mandi (which actually means bath in Malay!), you will not find much or anything in India to ensure you never ever have a dull bra panty day in your life -ever!
Most of the sellers are locals-in fact, many live in the locality. However, you can find the odd Pakistani selling scarves and shawls-you don’t need them in that climate but, as in most of these petrol-rich countries, who cares what the real climate is when you can run air conditioners all over the place, all the time?
Remember to buy yourself a wheeled cart at your first trip so next time you don’t break your back carrying home the loot!
A trip to Asia-Pacific without visiting a night market is like sitting at home, watching the Discovery channel and saying you’ve travelled the world.