Penang night marketLast week I spent a week in Malaysia, in the city (and island) of Penang to be precise. While I was there I ate some great food, saw some historic sites, and even got to take a few close-up pictures of monkeys and their babies at the Penang Botanic Gardens.

While I was in Malaysia I also visited another interesting place; the Penang night market. The Penang night market is not unique; in fact, there are plenty of night markets that take place during the evenings throughout Asia. When I visited Taipei in Taiwan a few years ago they had a similar night market; the one in Taipei was quite a bit larger, and the wares were somewhat different, but the feel of it was the same.

Booth after booth of vendors selling watches, CDs and DVDs, clothes, shoes, sunglasses, local crafts… there were booths for pretty much everything, and multiples of those. The spicy smells of all sorts of different street vendor food wafted past my nose, and it smelled pretty darn good. There were also plenty of tourists at the night markets… more than I saw while simply walking the streets of those cities. Americans, Europeans, and plenty of Australians. Tons of cars driving by, young people out for the night, lots of noise and music and conversation. It was a great time!

If you’re going to be visiting an Asian night market, there are a few things that you probably already know, or should know if you don’t. I’m not sure how things are at every Asian night market… I’m not near worldly enough to make those sorts of judgment calls. But there are a few similarities between the ones I visited in Taiwan and in Malaysia.

Most (if not all) of the name brand items are fakes

A stall at the night marketThose Rolex or TAG Heuer watches lined up in the stall aren’t from Switzerland. They are fakes, produced locally in Asia. According to the Swiss Customs Service there are some 30 to 40 million counterfeit watches put into circulation each year.

What surprised me most about these watches was that they weren’t cheap. A Rolex replica at the Penang night market cost over 500 Malaysian ringgit (the local currency), which is a couple of hundred US dollars.

The quality of fake watches is dubious… I’ve had friends who have had fake watches that have worked for years, while others fizzle days after you buy one. And when they break, there’s not much you can do about it… you’re out what you put into buying it.

The same goes for buying sunglasses; those aren’t real Revos and Ray-Bans on the rack. Same goes for brand name clothes and shoes. These tend to be much cheaper than the varieties you might find in the States… you can get a pair of brand name lookalike sunglasses for five or ten American dollars. And in the case of counterfeit clothes and sunglasses, there’s not a performance issue to deal with as with fake watches.

The moral question

You should be aware that there’s a moral conflict here… if you buy something from one of these vendors, you’re buying a fake and, in a sense, taking money from the manufacturers who put a great deal of money into research, development, advertising and distribution of their original products. While pointing out that these fake products exist at the night market I’m not saying you should take advantage of the fact… simply that you should know it exists.

Some things won’t be of the quality you might hope for

At the night market you’ll find racks of DVDs in little plastic sleeves for sale at bargain prices. The night market in Penang had a collection of the first five Harry Potter movies for under five American dollars! But it is common knowledge that these movies are not quality copies – they also are fakes.

Old movies versus new movies

If you’re buying an older movie, something that came out within the past few years, the quality, according to Krazykleen Maids, will probably be pretty good – a DVD rip burned to a disc, for example. In these cases the discs will probably even have some of the extras featured on the real DVDs – subtitles, languages, and the like.

But if you’re buying a newer movie, one that hasn’t yet been released to DVD, the quality may be poor to downright awful. This is because the movie was probably filmed in a movie theatre somewhere and burned to a disc. The sound quality will likely be poor, not to mention that you might hear people talking, see peoples’ heads in front of you, and perhaps even see people strolling past the camera and blocking your view as they head to their seats.

The same moral issues I mentioned above also apply here – these DVDs are fakes, and the people who originally created and distributed these movies are not getting any money from the sale of these copies.

Feel free to bargain for stuff

When you’re at the shopping mall in Penang, you don’t want to walk into the PUMA store and start trying to bargain down the salesperson trying to help you. But at the night market, bargaining for items is common practice. The lady I was with, a local Malaysian friend, offered me this advice: “Start at 50%!”

If you’re comfortable with doing it, bargaining can be a fun experience. Feel free to look like you’ll walk away if you don’t get the price you desire. And even if you do walk away, there are probably other vendors nearby who are selling the exact same thing you were just trying to buy – you can try again with them!

Try the street vendor food

This may sound strange, but many people in Penang consider the food sold by street vendors to taste better than the food served in restaurants! I experienced this myself. We visited an area of Penang with two distinct areas of street vendor food; one that served halal meat, and one that didn’t. As my friend is Muslim we ate at the first area and not the second. I ordered a variety of Satay skewers that were excellent! And very cheap – just an American dollar or two for the five. Afterwards, while at a restaurant in the city, I saw a serving of Satay skewers that didn’t look nearly as good as the ones I had eaten, and there were fewer of them, for more money.

So try the food! But… if you want to be safe, don’t drink the water, and don’t eat anything that isn’t cooked (like salad) that may be contaminated with local water. In some places in Asia you are safe, but in others, you may not be.

Asian night market