People tend to have a preconceived notion of what night markets are, considering them simply as places where people can gluttonously eat and drink to their heart’s content. But in reality, that’s barely scratching the surface; there is more to night markets than meets the eye. The rich selection of local street food is definitely a big part of night market culture, but there are also vendors selling cheap clothing, print publications, vinyl records, and various household items. You can even find more peculiar services, such as palm reading and fortune telling. Although not immediately obvious, night markets are actually intrinsically linked to the daily lives of the locals and their traditions.
For locals, night markets are places where they can go to relax and unwind from the stress of a busy workday. They’re also convenient shopping destinations that hold a wide array of products for avid consumers. For tourists, on the other hand, night markets are places where they can go and immerse themselves in authentic local culture. A visit to the night market can give them a candid look behind the curtains of a particular city; it is a place that can provide some insight into the religious preferences, economic status, and the local traditions of the region.
The night market in Pattaya, Thailand is as convenient as it is lively. People can drop by and buy fruits, a late night snack, or meet up with a group friends to enjoy a hot meal from one of the many street stalls. A stroll through this market reveals a near overwhelming selection of food. Every stall appears to be busy stir-frying, deep-frying, grilling, brining, or preparing dishes for the endless stream of hungry visitors. Even though it’s street food, it is obvious these stalls pay close attention to the way ingredients and seasonings mix. At one stall, I requested my dish to be prepared with a certain combination of ingredients, but the stall owner looked at me as if I was committing culinary blasphemy and dissuaded me. Rows of take-out bags can be seen hanging at many stalls, the owners of which looking to capitalize on customers on the go. The locals are fond of sweets, and a huge variety of eye-catching multicolored desserts can be found throughout the market. When you’ve finally decided on what to eat and filled your stomach, then it’s the perfect time to explore and see what the rest of the market has to offer. I browsed through old vinyl records, picked up a local newspaper, and chatted with some stall owners. The locals were friendly, humorous, and lively. Despite the language barrier, a simple smile and nod at times felt like it was all the dialogue that was needed.
As night turned into day, the crowds from the night market began to trickle into the morning street market around the corner. Fish and meat vendors began their prep work. At the same time, many neighboring stalls have already begun hawking fresh produce. Even with the smells and steam of breakfast foods slicing through the brisk morning air, the night market around the bend is still lively, seemingly a 24-hour nonstop affair. As the morning light illuminated the streets, I took in my surroundings. A motorcycle taxi driver finishing up his night shift picks up a fresh bouquet from a flower vendor, while local monks made their way through the market, while alms bowls in hand. Charitable vendors provided them with food in exchange for prayers of good fortune. Posters and framed portraits of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, can be seen in the majority of the stalls. As I left the market, I felt like I had a deeper understanding of the local culture. I saw the people’s endless adoration for the king, their unwavering faith in the country, and the passion they had for life.
A few days later I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar. The temperature was noticeably hotter than Thailand, and I relied on gulping down mouthful after mouthful of sugar cane juice to keep me refreshed and hydrated under the blistering hot sun. Strolling through Yangon in the day, the streets were already abuzz with activity and people weaving in and out of street side stalls set up by tea vendors. As night descended, the night market came to life and the streets became even more lively. I noted many similarities and differences between the Yangon market and the Pattaya night market. Like Pattaya, the street food seemed to open up the floor for lively discussions and talks amongst friends. But the dishes in Yangon were less well-presented in terms of aesthetics, and seemed to reflect the unavailability of certain ingredients in the area. The dishes here mostly rely on a variety of heavy seasoning for flavor, and the most prominent street food is wet tha dote htoe, or skewers of pork offal boiled cooked in soy sauce; the skewered pork sit in a circle around a large metal pan. Occupied plastic stools surround the stalls, and people are happily eating and dipping away.
The streets of Yangon were quite active as well. Crowds of men gathered and watched TV on the side of the street while drinking beers, while others seem perfectly content to just sit outside in the cool night air and people watch. The Myanmar people are mostly Buddhists, but from brief conversations with a few locals, it seemed like they were eager to learn more about foreign religions. The more outgoing locals won’t hesitate to come up to you with flirtatious offers of taking you out for milk tea in English. On the other hand, some locals are more reserved, or perhaps wary of foreigners, and tended to keep to themselves. But most people still seemed keen to interact with foreigners to try and learn more about the world outside of Myanmar.
Night markets are a cultural phenomenon; they’re closely linked with the local economy and societal needs. If you’re looking to experience a slice of authentic culture in southeast Asia, night markets are undoubtedly a must-visit.