NIGHT markets or pasar malam is a fixture in Malaysian life.
People visit these spots for authentic street food, grocery shopping and to look for unusual finds.
Night markets in Malaysia have evolved from just selling snacks and household items to food and shopping havens that draw people from outside the neighbourhood.
However, they do not seem to be valued as a tourist attraction in Malaysia even though they offer a unique cultural experience. This is unlike the situation overseas where night markets have made a name for themselves.
This is because these night markets offer a taste of local culture and food.
According to a survey of travellers by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, the island state raked in US$11.06bil (RM36.77bil) from tourism in 2011, a 26.91% increase from the previous year.
In 2012, they made US$11.76bil (RM39.1bil).
Taiwan’s night markets are listed by travellers as one of its most impressive attractions, next to its hospitality services and gourmet food.
People who have been to countries such as Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea regard the night markets in those countries as one of the shopping highlights.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has not taken advantage of its night markets.
More often than not, tourists associate Malaysian night markets with Petaling Street that sells mainly imitation products when in reality, our pasar malam has a lot more to offer.
Licensed tour guide Tan Mei Lui, 31, said night markets were an important aspect of Malaysian life and should be introduced to tourists.
“I have not brought any tourist to a night market but I believe visitors, especially those from the West, would enjoy visiting one as they do not have anything similar in their countries.
“What better way to get a feel of the locals’ lifestyle than by sampling the wide array of street food in the pasar malam, as well as browsing through the goods that reflect the country’s multi-ethnic population?” she asked.
Tan acknowledged that some issues should be addressed first, to ensure tourists have a pleasant experience.
“Night markets are usually very congested and there’s no space for coaches to park. The logistics must be looked into.
“Furthermore, there are safety concerns as night markets are usually very crowded,” she said.
Despite these issues, Sarang Vacation Homes based in Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Kuala Lumpur has been taking guests to pasar malam in SS2, Petaling Jaya and Taman OUG, Kuala Lumpur for the past six years.
“We wanted to try out new activities for long-staying guests.
“They were so excited that we continued organising the excursions and eventually made it a weekly affair, weather permitting,” said Sarang Vacation marketing director Christina Foo, adding that the tours were limited to 15 people.
Foo said the two night markets were chosen as they were of the right size and not too far away.
“They have good food and many other aspects that will interest guests.
“The popular Taman Connaught night market is too huge and will overwhelm foreigners.
“Our guests have a great time at the night market as they can try different types of local food.
“The hawkers are very friendly and let them sample the food for free and even try their hand at cooking,” she said.
The traffic situation could become a problem, admitted Foo, but it was manageable if the van left at 5.30pm.
The guesthouse also organises excursions to morning wet markets.
Sarang Vacation director Michael Fong said he would continue with the tours for “as long as I can walk.”
“We do not earn much from the tours and no commission is involved.
“We want to show foreigners the charm of these places, which are quintessentially Malaysian,” he said.
“We do not want the pasar malam to become overly commercialised or touristy like Petaling Street.
“Tour operators who want to promote pasar malam to tourists should ensure they get an authentic experience,” he added.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA), however, is not considering making pasar malam a tourist attraction yet.
Based on feedback from its Inbound sub-committee members, MATTA said it was difficult to include night markets in the itineraries because of logistics, among them the distance between these night markets and famous tourist destinations, parking and stopping facilities for tour coaches.
“Night tours are generally routed around Dataran Merdeka and Chinatown, and followed by dinner.
“It is not practical or cost effective to bring tourists to a pasar malam, which is usually out of the way,” said MATTA Inbound vice-president Tan Kok Liang.
“We do not think it feasible, unless of course there is a pasar malam below KL Tower that sells tourist souvenirs.
“When our pasar malam is well-established and well-marketed as tourist destination, then it can be considered, but only Chinatown fits this criteria for now,” he said, adding that the only other pasar malam that could be considered is the one along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman every Saturday but still, parking space may pose problems.
Instead of night market, he suggested leveraging on traditional wholesale markets such as Selayang Market that is also active at night, by developing proper infrastructure to meet the purpose.