Friday, 15 March 2013

The wonders of foreign markets

Spice Market, Istanbul

The Wonders of foreign markets

It is a cold Sunday morning and the drizzle is falling sideways. You pull your hood closer to your face yet still the rain creeps through making your nose run and your teeth chatter.

Walking up and down lanes of stalls all the wares seem the same old stuff. Reproduction shirts, tat and more tat.

This is the typical English market. Set up on a Sunday in a town on a car park, where people come to buy cheap cleaning products and get knocked off trainers. They are lifeless and soulless with shouts from sellers and people walking the isles with Staffordshire bull terriers straining at the leads trying to create a macho persona and failing miserably.

These markets I utterly hate. I detest the way they attract cheap crap and rubbish. They never reveal anything good and always seem to be on when the weather is atrocious.

Boot sales come rain or shine are a whole different kettle of fish and attract the boot sale junky. Arriving at the crack of dawn to get the best plot to sell whatever it is they can find in their loft. These however are not markets in my mind.

If you leave these fair shores you find a wonderful array of markets. Places that have life and a buzz about them. Places that you can get lost in, lose track of time and soak up the atmosphere.

Here is a few of the best markets I have been lucky enough to stumble across during my foreign wanderings.

Marrakesh Souq

Colourful jars of herbal medicines

Marrakesh, the name summons exotic thoughts of spices, snake charmers and fezzes perched on trader’s heads. This indeed is all true and the rambling labyrinth of the souq is a great place to spend an afternoon out of the sun haggling your life away.

Of course inside the souq you will get a lot of made for tourism stuff. But head further, deeper into the souq and you will bypass the people selling pretend silver tea pots and Ii love Morocco T shirts.
Eventually you will arrive at the tea shops and spice stalls selling a huge array from herbal Viagra to cures for acne and headaches.

We did buy the herbal Viagra for a friend but he refused to drink it so I have no idea if it works or not.
Outside the market which coincidently I the largest Berber market in Morocco you will find a square. Beware the snake charmers as if you loiter too close to them you will find a snake plonked on your shoulder and in some cases a monkey.

The square known as Jamaa el-Fnaa is a wonderful place to perch on a balcony and either sip a sweet tea or a cold drink and watch the world go buy.

You can buy the freshest orange juice from sellers in the square to give you a vitamin c boost before you re-enter the souq to haggle for leather ware and candles.

A great place to spend an afternoon; but be warned you can spend far too much money and time and lose track of what time of day it is!

Istanbul Grand Bazaar and spice bazaar
The Grand bazaar, Istanbul

Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium. By whatever name you think of this wonderful city they have all had a large market culture. The epicentre is the Grand Bazaar.

Whatever way to you at this market or try and attack its stalls you must consider that it is one of the world’s largest covered markets which comprises over 3,000 stalls and shops and 61 streets within it.
My best advice is look up while walking as you will see some splendid architecture on the roof and the occasional child looking down on you from a skylight.

So big that you have to tackle it in sections and have a nice Turkish coffee or tea as you complete one area.

The bazaar is quite touristic by Middle Eastern standards because of the influx of people. Suggestions have said that up to 400,000 people a day in peak season will shop or visit the market. This can make it incredibly hot, crowded and noisy.

However if you can tough it out and use your shoulders well to weave through the crowd you should have no problems.

Spices for sale, Istanbul.
This bazaar is one of the best places to encounter the salesmen who can say a sentence in any language for an array of nationalities. For example if you say you are British or English they will say: ”lovely jubbly”. If you are Scottish your quote will be: “hello jimmy”. Australians get the token “G’day mate” or even once I heard a kid shout “a dingo ate my baby”.

All other nationalities get there sentences but sadly I can’t translate them.
Make sure you take a bottle of water as it gets very humid inside and don’t worry about getting lost within. Eventually you will come to one of the large gated entrances which leads to freedom, fresh air and taxis swerving violently.

The spice bazaar is on the other side of town and is a long undercover alley selling wonderful spices, teas and soaps. Well worth a look.


The Souq Al Hamdiin in Damascus is supposedly the first mall ever built.
Housed inside a long tunnel with crumbling and beautiful Romanesque archways at either end this makes for a fantastic stroll.

Much harder said than done though. I visited Syria in 2008 and even though there was an air of anger with the Al Assad regime there were no large scale revolts, violence and protests. Fast forward to this year and Syria in in a state of civil war.

Thousands have died and many more will inevitably do so as Governments argue about arming the Syrian rebels and imposing sanctions on the Assad regime.

When I was there I found the market full of life and joviality.

One carpet shop was called the ‘Oscar Wilde’ carpet shop and there unique selling point was that they spoke very good English in a very camp manner and pretended to be flamboyantly gay to get foreign customers in.

It worked a treat as the hard sale of shouting, haggling and speaking in Pidgin English while smoking a cigarette and staring at the punters can put tourists off.

This shop invited you in, sat you down gave you a cuppa and then camped the life out of you.
They were hilarious and everyone I saw who entered the shop ended up buying something no matter how small just because they made everyone feel so welcome.

I look back and wonder what has happened to all those smiling faces I saw in that market. I hope they have found safety and one day the streets of Damascus will see people like me wandering them again.

Entrance to the Damascus souq
Saladdin statue, Damascus

Enjoy a refreshing Angkor beer while you shop at the Siam Reap night market
Siam Reap night market

By far my favourite night market. Maybe my favourite market of all.

You wander off the streets of the crowded city of Siem Reap, your belly is full of beautiful noodles washed down with Angkor beer.

Entering the night market over a bridge where the lights bounce off the water below you hear music played by local bands and see inside beyond the stalls palm trees and a mock beach where a convenient bar has been erected.

Heading to that you sample more local brews before diving down alleyways to see all the joys that backpackers bring home.

You often see people in London or wherever sporting t shirts of foreign beers as some sort of badge of honour to say I have been travelling. You also see that many of these people who buy them only wear them for the first month after their return before the novelty wears off or they have fallen to pieces in the wash.
However it is a rite of passage to peruse and buy at least one.

Statues of the Buddha, jewellery and very good fakes are piled high and incredibly cheap. It really is a place to stock up on things before you go home. The best in Cambodia and much better than the night market in Bangkok.

Make sure you buy stuff here as other markets in Cambodia are just not up to this standard and this is also the cheapest by far with competition driving prices down.

Luang Prabang night market

The stunningly gorgeous city of Luang Prabang situated around Phoussi mountain is a sight to behold.
Arriving by slow boat down the mighty Mekong River in 2007 I disembarked into a peaceful city where Monks walked the street chanting and life seemed to stand still. Even the tuk tuk drivers didn’t hassle you and no one shouted out.

It was a slower pace of life and one I loved and was sad to leave behind when I ventured onwards.
Aat night the streets become alive with snake oils sellers and numerous alcoholic drinks with the floating remains of animals, leaves and insects inside them.
Bangles, bracelets and t shirts are all sold by hurricane lamp light and the air is alive with insects and the smell of food cooked by streets vendors.

Reclining Buddha on Phoussi mountain, Luang Prabang

Just one view of Khoa San Road
Khoa San road market

Samsung buckets

No trip to Asia and Thailand in particular is complete without first arriving in the backpacker’s ghetto of Khoa San Road.
Yes you are in Asia but the travellers, tourists, backpackers, lost souls and people running away from life outnumber the locals.
It is a place like no other where people meet and the street lives and breathes travelling.
A hot bed of really good fakes, t shirts and jewellery with some superbly cheap street food provides all you need souvenir wise.
To be perfectly honest you could arrive in Khoa San road with no luggage and one hundred quid later have a full backpack of stuff. It is that good.
The only problem is that you can loiter too long, drink too much and get in trouble.
I highly recommend staying in the clean air conditioned and cheap budget guesthouse. It is cheap because it is bang next to the Khoa San centre which is very loud.
Avoid guesthouses that do not have ‘no prostitutes’ allowed signs as you will find them loitering in the corridors and they have been known to steal things from unattended rooms when you are in the communal showers.
Read about Asian backpacking here: Asian backpacking

Drummers in the Arts centre
Accra arts market

The hot dusty streets of the Ghanaian capital lead to a very interesting market known only as the Arts market.

Here you can buy the best handicrafts in Ghana from wooden carvings to mask, beads and kente cloth.
However it can get very hassle heavy and you will not walk a meter without being grabbed and pulled into a shop. So keep your cedis (Ghanaian currency) hidden until you see something you really want.

kejetia market, kumasi

Kejetia market looks like a town within a city. This huge African ramshackle market consists of rambling tin roofs and stalls that grow out of stalls. From people selling giant snails on towels to stalls hanging off the roof of another.
This is a true hive of African life where you can get everything you need for the trip ahead.
I have been here twice and in 2006 it was so crowded that some stalls fell over under the force of the pulsating crowd.
One of the best things to do is stand back and wait for a gap, then go for it. Otherwise you can be wept along with the crowd and lose all knowledge of where you are.
One of my favourite features are the signs hand painted with Christian undertones advertising stalls and shops. Such as ‘Jesus haircuts’ and ‘Bible sportswear’. There is also a section that the rail line travels through and is still used. However during my time in Ghana I did not see a single train.

Cedi Bead market, Ghana

Staying in Ghana I have had the fortune of stopping in the Volta region at the small Cedi bead market. A market completely dedicated to the recycling and crushing up of glass to create ornate beads.
Colours galore line the stalls and you can happily spend a long time selecting individual beads which are wrapped in an old brown paper bag which makes you think of child hood sweet shops.

Read about my Ghana adventure here. Ghana travels 05-06
Selection of beads from the Cedi bead market

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

For foodies and wine lovers this is a pure piece of wonderment. I did not know it existed until a friend took me there. Instantly I fell in love with the place and the next day went back. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it the first time I visited Madrid

Built in 1913 it is the only example of an iron building in Madrid of that era still standing.
Rows of stalls selling fresh produce temp you to sample their delights.
My first visit I settled for a cheese and meat selection washed down with some local red wine. All costing under ten Euros. The second time I sampled the sea food, the squid was superb and if you go on a week day is  far less crowded.
Antlers and garlic at the Mercado de San Miguel

Essaouira, Morocco

Morocco’s 38th biggest settlements with just over 69,000 people is home to a thriving market that spreads about across town through the Mdina and down to the harbour. Therefore it is really a collection of smaller markets linked by streets. This fact makes is charming and worth a visit.

The city of Essaouira situated on the Atlantic coast is a few hours’ drive from Marrakesh and is well worth the trip.

The city boats a wonderful coast line where you can do many water sports and if you are a friend like the one I have; cut your head open while paddle boarding and end up in hospital.

Essaouira market scene
The ramparts and harbour fortifications are a joy to visit and overlook the fish market. Fishermen bring in all sorts of catches from the Atlantic and sell them to all comers on the harbour front.

The city is smaller than Marrakesh its neighbour but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for in character.

The city is renowned for wood carving and while there I procured some very nice ornate little boxes. Walk to the very edge of the city into the slums to find the best carvers. Little old men selling what they make rather then what they buy.

Fish on the harbour front

Camden market

Lastly Camden Market. I know this is not a foreign market but it deserves a mention just because it is so good.
The re-development of the stables and the new underground sections have opened up a place that has become a fashionable drinking spot in London.

We used to come here when Ii was a school kid and I still do. The market and Camden as a whole is captivating. Whether you are spotting pinks or the tattooed men who sit by the lock or you are here to eat a massive portion of food for about £2 it makes a great afternoon.

If you are entertaining guest who have never been to London take them here. It once really blew my Aussie friend away, so much so that he kept going back there for more.
Even Camden toilets are cool


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