Whether on a vacation or on a business trip, I make it a point to visit the local public markets to get a sense of what its like to really be part of that place. Usually the produce is grown by farmers nearby, and the fish and meat are brought in fresh early in the morning or even kept alive on site, butchered as ordered. You also get to feel how the economy is doing by the quality and variety of what’s available, what the locals’ favourites are… oh! And their level of cuisine tolerance, too!
There is just so much to learn about local culture just with one visit to the market, IF it’s the right market that you find yourself in of course. Touristy places such as Siem Reap in Cambodia have a market for tourists and a market farther from the city centre where the locals go to. When I ask people where their market is and I end up in the touristy ones, I often feel cheated. This happens a lot in Asian countries, especially in touristy places. They usually set up a separate market for tourists so that they could have a different tier of prices there, include more souvenir items, and probably make things look more presentable. If you’re a seasoned traveller in Asia, you’ll definitely be able to tell which of these two types of markets you are in. I suppose its still worth going to the tourists’ market, but only if you have time and have already visited the local market.
Rethinking what I’ve said, perhaps what I recommend is not for everyone. To each his/her own. For those who are prepared to unmask a culture and accept what might be uncovered, whether you agree with it or not – insects, severed & skinned dog heads, duck embryos, snake blood wine, and all the things that are seemingly horrible – this, I ask the mentally prepared to try out. You needn’t know that many words to get by either. Observe how people interact with each other and to foreigners. Experience hawker food (This needs keen judgement. Beware!) and pick a corner to chill at. Take in that culture as a whole and save your judgements for later.
Quite a while ago, when I was living in China, trips to the markets filled me both with excitement and dread. I looked forward to walking through rows and rows of tea shops and vegetables in season, but I also knew that there are times when I encounter things that make my blood boil so much that I literally get lightheaded and on the verge of tears. Piles of baby sharks on the street 2 metres high, or live alligators that are said to be just from the local river usually trigger these episodes. This may be part of their culture but it is definitely wrong. You just have to calm down and remember that you won’t achieve anything by taking it out on the market vendor.
Yes of course you are entitled to your opinion, and even if you have come to that conclusion with sound logic and seemingly universal ethics, by all means try not expect people to see things the way you do. If you find it in yourself (more people actually should!) to find solutions to fix problems such as destructive and unsustainable poaching practises or public health hazards such as threats of rabies epidemics in Vietnam, then start your campaign and find your allies. Do something instead of just spouting empty complaints.
Most of Western Europe and North America won’t have such shock value in their markets, nor would they have the necessity to put up “tourist trap markets” where prices are at least three times its actual value. Western culture is, after all, more widely accepted, and going through charming old markets in Europe would definitely bring a sense of wonder. Even an occasional hiccup of extreme cheese varieties such as those with live maggots would be trivial. I am not saying one culture is better over another since this is relative and happenstance. In all honesty, there are much more things in Asian markets that would trigger more ill emotions (even as a fellow Asian myself) to a tourist of Western orientation than the reverse.
I will make sure to write more about the individual markets that I’ve been to later on. Some old, some new, some quirky ones like flea markets, night markets, weekend markets, and the occasional black markets. The point is that markets are where a big part of contemporary local culture can be experienced in person, live. This is where I want to be when I’m in the mood for some in-depth socio-anthro education. And again, for those who are prepared, give it a try! It won’t always be in the guidebooks but find where they are, localise, hold on to your bags, and stroll along.