Phoukam Garden Agriculture Wet Market, Phonsavan, Laos
Whenever I see the word “wet” preceding the word “market” I know it’s usually time to break out the smelling salts. The smell alone is enough to bring on a fainting spell, especially when it comes to wet markets in Asia. The Phonsovan Market, also called the Phonsavan Morning Market, or sometimes by its full name — The Phoukam Garden Agriculture Wet Market — proved to be no exception.
Since it takes the better part of a day to get to Phonsavan via bus (the 30-minute flight from Vientiane can cost up to $300 USD if you don’t book well in advance) most travellers spend one or two days in Phonsavan at most. I spent five. Mostly due to the fact that the hotel I was staying at had good internet, and I was itching to catch up on some work. I had ample time to meander about the town though, and the market was a ghoulish surprise. And I’ve seen my fair share of ghoulish markets.
If you’re still wondering what a wet market is, it’s where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, meat, and other edibles, as opposed to a dry market, where sellers hawk clothing, kitchen supplies, and other dry goods.
The place starts out amicable enough, as most wet markets in Asia do — loads of spices and chilies and veggies of every description.
Even some colourful well-packaged snack foods.
Like all markets, things tend to get interesting further towards the back. The smell heralds your arrival into the meat section before you catch sight of it. It’s no secret much of Asia is no place to be if you’re an animal (just ask these bears rescued from the vile bear bile trade.)
Neither chickens nor pigs are granted any propriety, nor refrigeration for that matter.
What immediately caught my eye though when I walked out back past the covered market area was this poor guy.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. But yes, sadly, it is a pig wrapped in a form-fitting bamboo cage. Presumably, the rock wedged underneath is to keep him from rolling over and attempting to flee.
At Phonsavan Market, plenty more pigs suffer the same indignity in the sweltering mid-day sun.
Only the piglets in the metal cage seemed to have access to any water.
At least the chickens and roosters were able to stand, albeit tightly cramped huddled alongside their brethren.
And at least the fish had running water.
Not so for the eels however.
Then there were these guys.
My heart sank. The bigger iguana looked to be protecting the smaller two from whatever dangers may come. Though how much protecting he could have done with those bound legs remained to be seen.
In the past whenever fellow travellers have asked me what I’ve learned on my journey, this is the phrase I have at the ready:
Be not afraid. Most people are there to help, not to harm.
Be not judgmental. It’s not wrong, it’s just different.
Be not an ass. Remember, you are a guest.
The older I get, and the more that I see in the world, the harder a time I have with the second statement. Maybe I’m just becoming a big softie in my old age. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up on a farm to see how animals are treated. Or maybe it’s that sneaking suspicion that sometimes things are just wrong.
I was a vegetarian for two years back in my college days, but I chalked that up to part of the college experience — much like bisexuality or root perms (hey, it was the 80s — dreadlocks and tattoos hadn’t made the inroads they have today.) Sometimes I wonder if I was onto sometime there. Would I have reacted differently to this place had I still been vegetarian? Part of me wanted to buy those iguanas and set them free in the woods behind my hotel. And part of me said, “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.”
When one starts to question one’s own choices in life, that’s how you know travel has changed you.
TravelTips: Phonsavan Morning Market
- Although the market is open well into late afternoon, it’s best to visit early in the morning when things are in full swing. Many of the more exotic animals and fruits and vegetables are the first to be sold.
- Grab lunch at the back of the market. There are stalls serving rice and noodle dishes for only 5,000 KIP (about $0.61 USD)
- To find the Phonsavan Morning Market, look for the Nice Hotel (yep, that’s the name) along the main drag, and then walk up the street opposite it. You can’t miss it from there.