Let’s face it: the markets in Malaysia don’t have the floating charm of Bangkok’s Khlong Lat Mayom or the wild spectacle of raw octopus on toothpicks at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. But want to know what they do have? Hint: it’s not just food.
Thanks to Malaysia’s diverse terrains, pocket communities and uneven urban development, no two markets are really alike. Some are located on the beachfront where you can devour takeaway satay (barbecued meat on skewers) while flexing your toes in the sand. Others are indoors, dazzlingly lit and so colourful you’d think you were in a festival. Curious about the markets in Malaysia? Here are 10 of the best ones.
Here’s something you can’t say about every market: this one is both classy and grungy. Set on the beachfront of Batu Ferringhi, you can drop by its swanky beach bars with live bands or navigate your way through an endless stretch of food and souvenir vendors so closely packed that you’ll be jostling for breathing space. But if you’re looking for fresh clams, imitation Rolex’s and t-shirts that say ‘I Love Penang’ – not always in that order – then this is home.
There’s food, and then there’s Malaysian food. Set in the historical, often-overlooked city of Malacca, Jonker Walk is a nightly culmination of flavour-bursting delights like cendol (sweet iced dessert with coconut milk), chicken rice balls and Peranakan-style popiah (paper-thin roll with sliced turnip). Thanks to the Malaysian spirit of experimentation, Jonker Walk will also surprise you with Nyonya curry takoyaki (inspired by the Japanese wheat-based snack) and deep fried ice cream not unlike Glasgow’s pride and joy.
One of the largest flea markets in Malaysia, this is the reason Sabahans get up on Sunday mornings (okay, it’s the reason other than church that Sabahans get up on Sunday mornings). It’s usually packed with people looking for batik sarongs (loose fabric coloured with wax-resist dye), fresh anchovies and breakfast takeaways. Animals may make an appearance too, not always in the food, and potted plants are a thing.
If you’re looking for a local Malay experience peppered with a little Thai influence, take a trip out east to the Wakaf Che Yeh night market in Kota Bharu. The usual array of bargain hunts are even cheaper here than in other parts of Malaysia, and in shockingly abundant quantities too. It’s the place to hit for kain pasang (loose fabric to create baju kurung, the traditional Malay wear), denim jeans and spicy Thai food. Planning to go? Keep in mind the monsoon season.
Come hell or high water – or just rain water – the Central Market is here to stay. Thanks to its well-maintained interiors, this arts and crafts bazaar is gloriously dry, even though its art is anything but. From large Impressionist-style paintings to locket-sized embroidery, the goods here are a triumph of Kuala Lumpur’s fierce protection of the arts. The 120-year-old market has also been classified as a Heritage Site by the National Heritage Department.
Don’t be fooled by its size – this small, cosy market is one of the trendiest places in George Town. Operated by management dedicated to the local arts community, this is the place you’ll find a woodworking house next to a kefir-fermenting vendor next to a hand-stitched pochette stall. Visitors usually picnic on the grass or browse the art gallery while downing their hand-brewed ginger ale.
There are two places every shopaholic needs to visit in Kuala Lumpur – Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street, and the latter’s where the affordable stuff is. Hundreds of vendors set up shop in front of restaurants and banks, which are surprisingly uncomplaining about their lack of shopfront monopoly. Everything from imitation Gap t-shirts to bling’d-out phone covers can be yours for a small wad of cash – even smaller if you’re willing to haggle. Prices can typically be haggled down to 75 per cent of the quoted price.
If you needed a reason to stop in Kampar, Perak, this is it. Chinese delicacies run the gamut of freshly steamed dim sum, deep fried ice cream and crispy salted egg snacks – with special considerations for the students from the nearby University Square. Low-key with low prices, this evening market is a testament to the Malaysian Chinese community of Perak.
This fresh foods market is your go-to haunt for East Malaysia’s best produce. Local favourites like pineapples, raw jellyfish and the dabai fruit (a curious dark purple fruit that looks like a date and tastes like a stronger avocado, which Sarawakians are very proud of) are sold in cheerfully bountiful quantities, alongside potted cacti, caged rabbits and hand-woven purses.
The interesting thing about Langkawi is that there is a night market for every day of the week and each one is only open for its specific day. Monday nights at Ulu Melaka will reward you with delicious ayam penyet (“smashed” fried chicken), curly skewered fries and fresh duku langsat (a pale, off-yellow fruit with a mildly sweet flesh), as well as a host of fashion and household items.