Bali Market Story
The Market Days of Bali
I was brought up on a farm, spending my spring days assisting in the calving and lambing that consumed the lives of the farmers. From the rich soils would come our vegetables - turnips, cabbages, potatoes and carrots - so I feel very much at home in the atmosphere of markets, especially those in Bali where every day is market day, and nearly every night too.
To me the markets are like a second home, as well as where I feel the deepest roots of Balinese culture. Day in and day out there is always something new. The traditional market of Bali begins early in the morning, with producers arriving to set up their goods to meet the demand from the resellers, who truck their purchases further afield into regional markets, where warung owners arrive to negotiate their daily supplies. The trade continues through the day, although the markets are at their busiest between eight and nine. The housewives arrive in the afternoon to buy produce for the next day’s meal.
The three best markets to see in Bali are the livestock market of Mengwi, which is right out in the countryside and offers that real Bali everyone likes to think is lost; the Jimbaran’s Pasar Ikan, the wet fish market; and the grand bazaar, literally the Denpasar of Pasar Badung in the centre of Bali’s overlooked capital city.
Make sure to travel light, carry a camera and be prepared for a long day.
While it is not everyone’s cup of tea, the livestock market, Pasar Beringkit, for me is brilliant, with the pens, the confusion, the hustle and bustle and the rumble of the big trucks entering and exiting the mud-caked parking area. The steam literally rises from the ground as the animals are carted, carried, dragged, pushed and pulled into their “areas”. The market takes place four days a week. The Tuesday and Saturday markets sell mature stock ready for slaughter, while on Wednesday and Sunday the animals are sold for rearing. The livestock here is all Balinese. Better bred, healthier meat means higher prices and an average adult beast can fetch between 15 to 18 million Rupiah, while a rearing calf can fetch as much as seven million. Unlike many other livestock markets there is no auction, just negotiated sales. But while the market lacks the cacophony of the auctioneer there is still much to see and do. Men tussle with the cattle and the laneways are cluttered with pens full of fidgeting foul. Crates, pens and perches full of chickens and ducks are up for sale along every corridor, manned by women who will barter over sales, gossip amongst themselves and whip out their phones at the slightest excuse to include yet more tongues in the conversation. Out to the edges other creatures are traded with longer lives in mind. Dangling bird cages contain tiny budgerigars, love birds, parrots and little finches while rabbits munch their way through piles of kangkong while waiting to be taken up as family pets, rather than popped in the pot.
It’s a lively market if you can get there at dawn. By midday the bustle has dwindled and the few people left are selling daily goods and foodstuff to the locals with only the muddied footprints and soiled ground to indicate the morning’s activity.
Markets have their own time frames. What is early morning to you is the end of a hard night’s work for the fishermen of Jimbaran’s Pasar Ikan. Setting out at sunset, the life of the fishermen is a hard one. Some boats come in from as far as Papua, Ambon and the islands of Western Sumatra. Most of what you find in the market is fished from Java, frozen onboard, and ferried in by the satellite fleets that radiate across the seas at night.
You can find a great variety of fish, including the sword faced shiny black Marlin, yellow fin Tuna, Mahi Mahi, Sea Bass from the deep, and all kinds of reef fish like parrot fish and grouper. The business of buying has developed into a highly professional operation with standardised weighing machines and pricing scales. While the operation has modernised the service is the same; the first purchase of the day is greeted with glee, and the money handed over is slapped across the remaining fish to bring them luck. As a customer, you have to know your fish as your bargain barramundi could well be a sea bass in disguise.
The most compelling market though is Pasar Badung, Denpasar’s grand market. Although housed in a sprawling storied building, it still spills out into the forecourt and arterial laneways. Luckily this market has bursts of activity that extend its operations throughout the day and into the night. So if an early morning visit is beyond you, you can arrive by dusk and still enjoy the bustling atmosphere of trade that takes place outside after the major market has closed. As night comes the grills are lit and the smell of sate and grilled fish fill the evening air. It’s a quintessentially Balinese experience, but through it runs a common thread to the spirit of the ancient Mussulmen, traders from Persia and Turkey who took to the seas and inhabited much of the coast of Indonesia during the time of the Spice Route.
The very best time to see Pasar Badung in action is in the days leading up to the major festivals. The streets are colourful with flower offerings - bright orange marigolds, creamy frangipanis, soft pink rose petals and the deep blues of the hydrangeas. Dip into the main building where the women love to tease their buyers with flirtation concerning the quality of their fruits. Their peals of laughter as they embarrass tourists let you know they are experts at this game. If you say you will return to buy you had better mean it, for they never forget a face! Indulge in the kue pasar, little sticky rice cakes that pop with palm sugar as they melt in your mouth, and take a cake of raw jaggery sugar to try in your coffee – you’ll be surprised at how good it is. Everything is on sale here. I like to visit the “home wares” level of the market, though the Balinese would never call it that. Here you can find all sorts of kitchen kitsch that make quirky additions to the working kitchen. Nip across the bridge to enter the building on the other side and discover where all the beach sellers and little gift shops buy their tat, from placemats, to key rings, to a Frida Kahlo painting. Style can be found on Jalan Sulawesi, to the east of the market’s main building. Here exquisite silks from India vie with the garish polyesters and the bold stripes of the Jamaican flag for the attention of manufacturers of fashion items, soft furnishings and upholstery.
Markets in Bali are like that. They are inspiring, inclusive, and they are the great melting pot of the cultures that settled here. Long before the days of tourism, Arabs and Chinese, Malay and Peranakan cultivated their customs, for the most part harmoniously, to blend with that of their Hindu hosts, adding yet more flavour to the rich cultural spice of the island.