Whatever city you visit from Beijing to Yangon, you’ll find an Asian markets where tourists and locals mingle and all sense of personal space is lost in the crowded aisles. But those jammed aisles of city markets only look chaotic. There is an order to the shopping if you just let yourself go with the flow of the shuffling traffic.
You can easily tell the locals from the tourists when you visit Asian markets. Most of the local people are on a mission to buy fresh food, household goods, and clothing. With shopping carts or enormous bags in hand, they know where they’re going and move directly from one stall to another, never pausing to look at trinkets or Buddha statues. The tourists, in contrast, are more likely to be wandering slowly with a slightly dazed look in their eyes. There’s just so much color, taste, and sound a person can absorb!
Markets are great places to get to know the city’s people, slurp a bowl of noodle soup with local ladies, let shopkeepers dress you in the traditional fashions, and play with the local children.
And just like at the mall at home, you’ll see clusters of young people in T-shirts and baseball hats meeting up with each other and hanging out.
Above it all is the din of vendors, bargaining with the locals and hawking their bags and beads to the tourists like carnival barkers.
What You Need to Know When You Visit Asian Markets
Most Asian markets are loosely divided into sections–fruits and vegetables here, textiles and handicrafts there, and the pleasure of striking a bargain everywhere.
The five markets below are some of the biggest and most mind-boggling ones in Asia. They’ve come a long way from the “dirt markets” of the past where goods were displayed at street level on ground cloths. These sprawling city markets are in relatively modern, roof-topped buildings where most of the vendors know enough English to bargain with you, calculators in hand.
There are just a few things to know before you go:
- Check that the market is open. Hours given below usually apply, but there may be a local holiday or ceremony that changes the schedule.
- Arrive early in the day before the market becomes too crowded and hot.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- Take local currency and a cheat sheet or app for the day’s exchange rate. (Some shops and stalls do take credit cards.)
- Be prepared to bargain. (Typically, the vendor will show you the price on a hand-held calculator; you’re expected to respond by entering the price you want to pay. This back and forth, offer and counter-offer goes on until you both agree on a price.)
- Wear a big smile. It will give you a negotiating edge!
- Keep all receipts. You might need them at customs. If you buy an antique, be sure to get an official proof of sale.
- If you see something you like, buy it on the spot. Chances are you won’t be able to find your way back to that same stall again.
- Don’t buy items such as ivory, endangered animal parts and the like. It is not good to encourage the illegal trade, and the item you couldn’t resist can create big problems with customs.
1. Panjaiyuan Market in Beijing, China
Also called: Panjaiyuan Antiques Market, Panjaiyuan Flea Market, Beijing Antiques Market
Location: No. 18 Huawei Li, Panjaiyuan Rd., Chaoyang District. Near Panjaiyuan Bridge. (On Third East Ring Road)
Hours: Monday to Friday 8:30 AM to 6 PM, and weekends, 4:30AM to 6:00 PM. Although many stalls are open every day, the best time to go is on the weekend, when the flea market flourishes and every single seller is hawking its wares.
What to expect: At 520,000 square feet, this is one of the largest art and antiques markets in Asia. Some 50,000 locals and tourists peruse its 3,000 shops and stalls each day, looking for the perfect curio or painting to take home. (Outside the market, some vendors still spread their goods on a ground cloth as in the old days.)
Not everything is the “real” thing at this art and antique market; so if you’re hoping for a priceless find, forget about it. On the other hand, when you get home and display your prize, most of your friends won’t know you’ve purchased a copy. You can be sure that savvy dealers know exactly what they have and what it’s worth.
Of course, the first asking price the vendor shows you on a calculator will be high, so bargain. You can be sure he or she has a fixed price in mind and will go only so low–that is, until the end of the day. That’s when prices may drop, and hard-core bargain hunters break our “go-early” tip.
What to look for: Life-size terra cotta warrior statues; Cultural Revolution propaganda posters (usually reproductions); scrolls, drawings, snuff boxes, calligraphy and paintings; jade jewelry and sculptures; large calligraphy brushes; Tibetan carpets; bamboo and bone carvings and porcelain ware.
2. Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand
Also called: Jatujak Market , JJ Market
Location: Kamphaeng Phet 2 Road, Chatuchak, Bangkok
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Friday is wholesale day. The plant and flower section is open Wednesday and Thursday from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Some sections are open on Friday night.
What to expect: If you can dream it, Chatuchak probably sells it! This is the largest market in Thailand. It’s a 35-acre maze of about 10,000 stalls. The market is so enormous there’s actually a trolley tour for those who don’t want to exhaust themselves meandering. And this being Thailand where street food is a specialty, there are over 500 food vendors.) If what you’re looking for is not here, you won’t find it anywhere in Thailand! Check out the video.
You could call Chatuchak a shopper’s paradise, but travelers are more likely to describe it as a wonderful, if overwhelming, madness. You will get lost, so pick up a map before you enter at one of the kiosks at the many entrances. It will help you navigate which of the 27 sections you especially want to see and find the exits. (Warning: If it’s a rainy day, beware or skip this market. Trust us, you don’t want to be one of the 200,000 visitors trying to crowd under the roof.)
Bargaining is a required sport. You’ll find asking prices are far below those at shops near your hotel and the vendor will go even lower if you make a counter offer.
What to look for: Foods and fruits you have never seen before are on display here, along with birds and animals of all sorts – a veritable zoo and aviary. Looking for take-home souvenirs? Try T-shirts with messages written in the Thai alphabet (A hard-to-find item anywhere in the country), textiles old and new, tribal jewelry, Buddhist amulets, vintage Levis and bamboo and carved teak furniture. You can skip the dried liver powder and cobras. (A reminder: You don’t want to encourage illegal trade.)
3. Weekend Market in Thimphu, Bhutan
Also Called: Centenary Farmer’s Market, Kuendeyling Bazaar
Location: Below the main town of Thimphu, along the Wang Chhu River.
Hours: Friday morning until Sunday night
What to expect: When exploring and touring the Bhutan markets, be aware that this weekend market is actually two markets in one. There is the two-story, covered Farmer’s Market, the largest one in the country. Like much of Bhutan, it’s immaculate and orderly, and the displays of fruits and vegetables are photo-op ready.
The second market, across a footbridge from the Farmer’s Market, is the Bazaar. Stalls on the left display clothes and household items for locals. On the right is the tourist market. Here’s where you’ll find the embroidery that’s inspired high-fashion Western designers such as Derek Lam. There are also colorful textiles, old and new, neatly arranged among the Buddhist statuary and sacred objects, baskets, carvings, door locks, peacock feathers, boxes and other locally made handicrafts. This market even boasts a ramp access for the disabled. Check out the video.
Notice, too, that most of the men–vendors and local shoppers–are wearing their traditional, knee-length, wrapped robes (goa). The women are wearing their colorful blouses and ankle length, folded skirts (kira).
What to look for: In the Farmer’s market, you’ll see stacks of pork strips, mounds of soft cheese (datse), ground roasted barley (tsampa), more varieties of rice than you knew grew on the planet and organic fruits and vegetables. You can sample some traditionally prepared foods, too, but unless you have access to a kitchen, you’ll just enjoy the sights and delicious smells of the Farmer’s Market.
You can shop for the traditional Bhutanese clothing in the Bazaar. That’s also where you’ll find all sizes of brilliantly painted masks of fearsome deities, Buddhist amulets, beads, prayer flags and prayer wheels and tables laden with incense sticks and powders.
4. Bogyoke Market in Yangon, Myanmar
Also Called: Bogyoke (General) Aung San Market, Scott’s or Scott Market
Location: Bo Gyoke Rd., Pabedan Township, centralYangon
Hours: 9:00 AM-5:00 PM. Closed Sunday or Monday
What to expect: This sprawling, two-story, roof-topped market spans seven acres and holds nearly 2,000 shops. Unlike the modern markets of Beijing and Bangkok, this market is in a beautiful 90-year-old, British colonial building. In the old days, this was a haven for money-changers, but with reforms, that is no longer the case.
On the ground level, you’ll walk on old cobblestone footpaths. Exquisite high-end shops face the street. Inside, the atmosphere is more like a lively bazaar, with shops, stalls, food vendors and eating places. You’ll wonder, “How do they do that?” when you see Burmese women gliding serenely through the crowd with trays of melons or other fruits balanced on their heads.
What to look for: You can join the locals for a snack in the center of the market, but if your reason for being here is more capitalistic, there is much to buy. Gemstones (especially jade and rubies), lacquer ware (antique and new), pictures, water buffalo bells, traditional Burmese puppets, textiles made by people of the hill tribes and stacks of cotton or silk longyi, the large pieces of fabric that can be folded to make the traditional floor-length skirt. There are tailors available, too, if you want to make or repair clothing on the spot.
More vegetables and other so-called “wet” items are sold outside the market and across the street. Don’t leave without trying a dish of noodles in garlic oil and an avocado shake.
5. Women’s Market in Imphal, Manipur, India
Also called: Khwairamband Market, Khwairamband Bazaar, Thangal Bazaar, Ima (Mother’s) Market, Nupi Keithel
Location: Khwairamband Rd in the center of Imphal.
Hours: Daily 9:00 AM -9:00PM
What to expect: Not only one of the most popular women’s markets in India, this large emporium is also an historic symbol of Manipuri women’s independence and empowerment, the only market in the world that is owned and operated solely by women!
For centuries women had scattered markets in sheds and in the open air throughout the city. Then, in the late 1940’s, the sheds were combined to create the “Ima,” or Mother’s, Market, retaining the “women only” rule of ownership. In 2010, that market was replaced by a modern, concrete, two-story, covered structure. (The market was damaged in the April 2016 earthquake, but has reopened.)
Walking among the hundreds of shops and stalls, you’ll be surrounded by a swirl of dazzling color as most of the 3,500 women who operate the shops and stalls wear the traditional dress of their particular ethnic group. The market also serves a social function; women tend to gather at break and lunch time to discuss and debate issues that affect them. It’s said that the earlier women’s uprising against British rule began in markets like this one.
As in Bhutan, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fish, herbs, and meat are on one side of the Khwairamband Road and handicrafts, clothing, and household goods are on the other side.
What to look for: Unique Manipuri hand-woven wool, rough silk or cotton shawls, scarves and sheets, ornately costumed Manipuri dolls, jewelry, traditional clothing, pottery, textiles, knives and bamboo and cane handicrafts.
SHOPPING AS A CULTURAL EXPERIENCE
From China to Myanmar, visiting a city market is a cultural experience, a social convocation, a food-taster’s picnic and a photographer’s paradise that you don’t want to miss. We guarantee you won’t leave hungry, empty handed, or without a story to tell.