If one were to think about what it means in Asia, it would probably invoke stark differences compared to say if one thinks of Europe. Chaotic, noisy, a little less than clean. Perhaps these could be some of the images that flash in your head.
So it was with these prejudices on hand that we set forth for Gwangjang market (광장시장), one of the largest and oldest of traditional markets in Korea.
First, it is important to set the scene. In the old days, commerce was not something that was openly available for anyone to partake in. This was particularly the case in Korea, where trade was heavily regulated, be it domestic or international exchanges – for example with China or Japan. So it should not surprise you that trade was monopolized by a small group of powerful merchants. Thus if you were a farmer in Joseon times, you sell all your agricultural produce to the merchants. They will trade these and make enormous profits from it.
Guess what? It was only in the late 19th century that this was actually repealed.
Thus the market was born. Originally called Dongdaemun market, it was renamed Gwangjang only in 1960. Actually you can guess the meaning of the name. Like Chinese, the word “gwang” means wide. And “Jang” is the same as “chang” = long. Because the market was between a wide bridge at one end and a long bridge at the other. By the way, bridge is pronounced as “gyo” in Korean – exactly the same as the Hokkien Chinese dialect. Good to know?
It is where locals and tourists alike are said to mingle, shop and eat. It is definitely much more than a market, because like what we have back home in Singapore there are “wet’ and “dry” sections. Obviously the wet market is for fresh produce and there is a wide assortment of seafood which you can purchase for own cooking, or simply pick + choose and bring it to the restaurant next door to have it prepared for you. Concepts not unknown to other markets such as in the Philippines, China etc…
The dry side on the other hand is like “heartland” shopping as we call it in Singapore, with small stalls and stores selling anything from fabrics to clothing and accessories. Pity though we did not take a single photo of that section! So we wondered in the maze and bought some souvenirs to bring home. Pretty affordable we might add.
But our objective was really to have lunch and we gravitated to the food stalls that are lined up in the middle of the walkways. First stop, fried mung bean pancakes. There are certainly no shortage of offers. The trick was to find a stall where the pancakes are constantly being served. Because cold pancakes such as these could be soggy and the taste of the oil used just a little overbearing. Obviously we found one such stall, and shared a serving of the pancake for a mere ₩4,000.
Restaurants line both sides of the alleys. So many stalls and attendant tourists. Sure the vendors speak mandarin too! Which could either be a blessing or…not! But as we found out, prices here aren’t exactly cheap.
Perhaps it is the influx of foreign tourists that had driven up prices!
For our meal, we spent ₩14,000 for a fish cake in soup, pig’s trotters and plate of maki rolls. The servings are quite large though and we did not see the need to order many dishes that might otherwise go to waste. You cannot imagine how the lady manning the stall kept asking us if we needed to order more…noooo!
All-in this is an experience to be had. We are not sure if this market has that many locals frequenting it. At least on the day we were there it seemed that almost everyone’s a foreign tourist speaking Chinese, Japanese or English…Would this be a place we recommend?
Sure! Perhaps just for a walkabout…