For a first timer in Southeast Asia, the night market dazzles. Everything shines and sparkles, and there are suddenly a host of items that were once inaccessible (because of legality or price), available for a few dollars! After you’ve been around for two days or so, you come to realize it’s mostly the same junk mass produced. Whether you are a backpacker on the banana pancake trail or an expat who is just bored and curious, -Here is our guide to avoiding impulse buys or lugging something home that becomes totally irrelevant, dangerous, or offensive.
1) Fisherman Pants-– Yes, they are really fun and wondrous at first; loose cotton pants that can be tied with a simple fold and tuck of cloth. Generally, foreigners don’t get the tying part down. After walking a few blocks the pants end up around your ankles— and you’ve just flashed everyone at the market. They aren’t the toughest pants either, after one wash they fall apart, become translucent, or shrink. And although the pants work well in backpacker ghettos and yoga retreats, they don’t always translate well outside of Khao San Road. If you must buy these just for the exotic factor, or for the comfort look for a heavier fabric woven a few times, rather than flimsy cotton.
2) The “Eat Rice Bitch” T Shirt— Does this really need explaining? Especially if you are visiting a Southeast Asian country and your partner is a local? Do you really want to be seen in public with this shirt? This is just never a good idea; it’s offensive and it reveals that you hate women. It isn’t a joke. It isn’t funny. Its never ok. Just don’t do it.
3) Any Shirt with a “Funny” Local Saying-– Taxi Drivers don’t actually use words like “boom boom” unless they’re speaking to a complete unsavory moron. People don’t really say “Same same but different” and by wearing these shirts, you signify yourself as “THAT TOURIST”. Yes, it’s being sold to you–but that doesn’t mean you should buy it! Avoid any items that involve a play on words—or really obnoxious language—its just poor taste–and clearly you are labelling yourself as culturally inept.
4) “In The Tubing” Shirts From Laos – . Don’t get me wrong, I love relaxing along a river in S.E. Asia too, but the tubing experience in Laos isn’t exactly a culturally-enriching experience to brag about. Does the Vang Vieng tubing experience really mean you’ve been to Laos? Do you remember Laos during the time sitting in an inner tube, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, floating down a river with other Westerners? Sure, you’re passport stamp says you’re in Laos–but take time after the tubing trip to enjoy the history and culture of the actual country you are present in. By the way, what does “In the tubing” mean anyway?!
5) Ninja Stars, Tasers, Bullets or any Weaponry– When I’m crossing the night market to get to the restaurant, I don’t want to have to dodge your attempts at trying out a taser for the first time, nor will you be able to carry your newfound bullets back to your home country. Just leave the weapons alone. Seriously.
6) Fake “Ray Ban” Sunglasses or any Knock Off –Who can resist cheap knockoffs? I’ll admit, I’ve succumbed to their allure before, but the plethora of fake Ray Bans I see at the night markets makes me wish even the real RayBans would disappear. I don’t have enough body parts to count the all the people I see wearing a pair of RayBans; men, women, young and old. The fake ones are usually pretty easy to spot because they are bright, electric colors or have funky designs. They’re fun, but everyone is wearing a pair, usually accompanied by a Fedora a la some celebrity who first decided to pair the two together. Instead of following a trend that has become a big business for Chinese plastic companies, try and start your own trend and rock one of the other endless choices of sunglasses at the night market. And remember, that if you try to bring knock-offs to your home country, including sunglasses, purses or jewelry, you may be stopped at customs and penalized for importing such goods.
7) Bugs, Bats, and Creepy Crawly Creatures… Tacked to a Mat?Framed giant bugs might be an interesting conversation starter on the wall, but it is strongly suspected that they are gathered from the wild. Beetles and butterflies are one thing: bats, reptiles and other small mammals are another. Bugs have a high biomass and a quick turnover. Harvesting a few (or a few thousand) is unlikely to impact an ecosystem too much… however, as you climb the food chain and get more complex animals the rate of reproduction decreases dramatically. I always cringed at the bats… sad and dangerous (bats carry all sorts of potentially transmissible viruses/bacteria). I’d dissuade people from buying any of it just to be cautious but I’m pretty eco-sensitive so I might be motivated by that.
8 Animal Soaked Liquors – Sure, no one loves a cobra— but that is the very reason we shouldn’t be spiking cheap or illegal whiskey with them for mass consumption. Believe it or not, they play a critical role in the local ecosystem. It may look cool—- but there is no way you can get that back home, and several people have died after drinking tainted snake whiskey.
9) Beauty Products/Prescription Drugs You Need a Prescription- for—Buying alluringly cheap prescription drugs or beauty products that you need a prescription for in your home country is tempting, but risky. Getting these at a local pharmacy over the counter is probably okay— but in night markets they may not actually be what is advertised or they may be ‘cut’ with something else to amp up the volume (especially true for beauty products/creams). Once, I bought a retinol (anti-aging, anti-wrinkle) creme from a Silom vendor (vanity, vanity!) …. had a nasty reaction to it because it was only a fraction of ‘retinol’ that it advertised on the package and was enhanced with a high volume, impure filler. Who knows what was in there but it was not nice to my skin. I never had a problem from pharmacies though… you do pay more but it is still substantially cheaper than the US and safer than the street market. Just be skeptical—you wouldn’t by viagra or xanax on the street in your home country, so avoid doing it abroad.
10)Viagra- This should be included in the above, but it is hawked so much it makes you wonder. If you do feel the need for sexual enhancements, try local dishes that are said to increase virility, like raw beef with whiskey, or ox heart. Don’t buy Viagra on the street. Who knows what’s in it. We’ve heard accounts that it is just made of chalk tablets, to laced with things that are much, much worse.
After a couple weeks of travelling, it’s easy to discern that no matter what night market you are in it’s mostly the same stuff. Some of its pretty and interesting, and some of it is the same junk. That said, if you really love something because of the beauty and art, talk to the seller and find the history and story behind the item. Some of it is indeed local, but your best bet is to talk to the artist to learn about more local markets or day markets if you want insight into more unique products. It’s hard not be dazzled by the night market, but remember, most of the above are things that won’t make any sense once you leave your host country. Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean it needs to be consumed.
In our next article in this series, we will tell you how to identify local artisans, fair trade items (real ones) , and how to buy directly from the artist so the money goes back to the people and community.
Thanks to Jess Watson and Kathyrn Doornbos for their contributions to this article.