November 20, 2010
Night markets are listed on most travel guides to Taiwan as places to visit, but what exactly are they and why are they so popular?
Pretty much every reasonably sized town and every city in Taiwan has at least one night market, some markets during the day then becoming ??night?? markets, and others only springing into life when the sun goes down. The common factor of a night market though is a place where people come to eat, shop, play games and generally have fun. Think of a night market as hundreds of stalls collectively gathered together in one fairly enclosed area.
At times I have been walking down a fairly major road in more rural towns and by the time I have reached the end the road has been transformed into a bustling center of activity. Traffic rules are suddenly put in place, and voila, a night market is born.
I think the most important ingredient for a traveller is that night markets (for the most part - one in particular in Taipei comes to mind as an exception) are not set up for tourists; they are places where local Taiwanese go on a regular basis and as such they really provide the traveller with a real experience of an important aspect of Taiwanese culture.
I did mention shopping, but it??s unlikely that you will find any particular items of interest, unless pink flashing alarm clocks or clothing with questionable designs are your thing (and they are cheap). Don??t expect them to last for more than a few days though, and if you do buy any battery powered item make sure you take the batteries out before you fly back. One of my most embarrassing experiences at the airport was when my suitcase started mooing after being checked through. Lesson learnt.
The overwhelming attraction of night markets is food. You might have seen the strange food guy on television try some of the more unusual offerings, but don??t let that put you off, there are more ??normal?? things to try. There is such a diverse selection that it??s impossible to cover everything, and night markets in different areas have different specialities. For example in Chiayi you can find turkey rice which as far as I know is still special to that area, and in Lugang the oyster omelets are supposed to be the best. I think the best thing to do, as always when you are in a new country, is try. Walk round the stalls and when you see something you might fancy, have a go. Don??t be too concerned with what exactly it is because unless you speak Mandarin you most likely won??t know even if they tell you, but things like the Taiwanese corn dogs, garlic sausage, roast duck, barbecued squid, veggie kebabs, oyster noodle soup, fresh fruit, candied fruit (I could go on) are delicious. And it??s so cheap that even if you don??t like it, you only lose a dollar or two.
There are a couple of things that I have found tourists generally dislike (me included); smelly tofu and chicken claws. The first you can avoid with your nose, and the second, well you can take some fun photos and the vendor won??t generally be upset if you re-enact a scene from a horror film (as long as you paid for them).
I shouldn??t forget the games, because they can be fun. As a traveller you will almost certainly attract attention if you decide to play (especially outside Taipei), but it will be mostly curiosity and you are sure to win new friends win or lose. Well except for the stall owner if you win! Games include throwing darts at balloons, throwing a hoop over rings, shooting air pellet guns and the like.
The things you should be prepared for are the number of people, smells and heat (obviously unless it??s around now (November) when things have cooled off). As I mentioned night markets are very popular destinations for local Taiwanese, and as such they can get packed, especially at weekends and holidays. Some markets such as Di Hua Street in Taipei are particularly popular during Chinese New Year and it can get insanely crowded. And I am not trying to put you off going, far from it, I think a night market should be on the ??must do?? list, but I think the more you are prepared the easier it will be.
The best way to find a night market near you is to ask your hotel. The most famous in Taipei is the Shilin night market, and for ease of getting there (via the MRT) it is a good bet (and not the one I mentioned above which I can??t mention by name). You can find a list of other popular night markets here: http://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002040
There is also a dedicated site (with English) where you can find all the latest night market news here: http://www.2010night.com/
So enjoy your trip to a night market near you, and let me know how you get on!
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