One of my favorite parts of travel is how a place (and the people in that place) can surprise you, especially if you can find a way to get beneath the surface. Kota Kinabalu by all accounts, isn’t a very exciting city, but when Steph & I plunged into the fragrant, smokey labyrinth of the Filipino market we walked into another part of a very different town. Wandering the sun-dappled aisles of the local market the next day was a similar experience, one that felt very removed from the few tourist zones of the city. These markets weren’t especially large or flashy, but they were filled with local people simply living their lives before us and it was a beautiful thing to behold. We felt a very real sense of honor as we joked with the locals and exchanged smiles with the vendors, honor that we had so been so easily accepted into this weekly ritual with welcoming smiles and good-natured curiosity. I think we’ve said it before, and it remains true: the people are the places. And if you ever want to see the heart of an Asian city, find its local market and jump in with both feet. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the smiles… they’ll combine to give you an experience you won’t soon forget.

Although I remembered having a great time at the markets we visited in KK, I had forgotten just how nice they really were until I went back and looked through my photos recently. It was a delight to rediscover them and rather than keep them to myself, I decided to put them together into a photo essay documenting the highlights of our time at the markets. Join me, won’t you?

Filipino Market

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Kota Kinabalu is a harbor town, and the Filipino market is the embodiment of that. It is within spitting distance of the ocean and overflows with fresh seafood.

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A few hours before dark and the market is already beginning to get busy. People start their cooking fires and wait for customers.

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Filipinos love food. Naturally, there is an abundance of it everywhere we look.

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Vendors prepare food and practice smiles as they wait for the late night crowds to surge in.

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So many fish. So little time.

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Dinner is “choose your own adventure” production as hungry diners select from the huge displays in front of every stall.

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A haze of smoke fills the air, swirling in eddies around hungry diners, making eyes and mouths water in anticipation of the feast to come.

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Fruit vendors wait for the after-dinner crowd, trying to tempt us with their wares as we waddle home with full stomachs.

Penampang Market

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The Penampang market is a riot of color and sound. Friendly and curious people are found down every row and behind every table.

Every stall selling goods of all sort is manned by an equally interesting shopkeeper. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is the greater attraction.

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The market is wildly diverse, offering everything under the sun, from jewellery to fresh fish to giant gongs.

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But for me, the people are always the most interesting part. They are what make markets truly come alive.

Penampang’s market was beautiful and made for a great way to interact with local people.  A real slice of Malaysian life and a feast for the senses. As a traveler and a photographer, it just doesn’t get better than this.

Tell us: Where’s your favorite market? What did you love about it?

Author profile: Tony


As a designer by trade and a former professional photographer, there isn't much in the world of visual communication that I haven't worked on. From web projects, to museum interiors, to weddings and portraits, my career to this point has run the gamut of visual media. Born and raised in a sleepy town in southeast Minnesota, I moved to Nashville to pursue my education. I ended up meeting the love of my life and adopting the two best dogs this side of the Mason-Dixon line. I love two-wheeled transport, trying new food and am a bit of a gadget freak. I love a good book, and have music playing almost constantly. After over a decade in the same city, I'm quickly getting used to the idea of having no fixed address, and hope all of you enjoy my ramblings about our ramblings.

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Read comments (17)

  1. December 8, 2013 at 1:11 am
    Dec. 8, '13

    Love the photos. I hardly remember the Filipino Market when I went to KK. I think all we did was go to the islands. Every. day. But it’s true – I do love going to markets in new places!

    • December 9, 2013 at 1:25 am
      Dec. 9, '13

      Thanks! We didn’t make it to the islands, it’s something we will have to put on our list for next time! Markets are always our favorite thing to see, we’re usually on the prowl for good food, and they are usually a welcome source of that!

  2. December 8, 2013 at 8:46 am
    Dec. 8, '13

    I just love markets, and your photos make these ones come alive! There really is no better way to understand daily life in a city than to immerse yourself in a local market. For people watching they can’t be beat and the added bonus of a fresh, delicious meal isn’t bad either.

    Just last week we found a local produce market in Fethiye, Turkey. Outside the tourist centre, it was the perfect place for breakfast – Turkish pancakes stuffed with local cheese, potato, parsley, and onions, and a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Afterwards, we strolled through the produce stalls and picked up ingredients for dinner – a perfect way to spend the morning!

    Thanks for the great photo essay!
    Calli recently posted..Goreme – The Perfect Base to Explore Cappadocia

    • December 9, 2013 at 1:28 am
      Dec. 9, '13

      Thanks so much! We’ve always thought markets are the best way to get to know a place and a people, especially when there is food involved! Nothing beats market food, as far as we’re concerned. You’re so close to the source, how could you go wrong?

      That Turkish markets sounds great, I love pomegranate juice, I can only imagine how good a fresh squeezed glass in the market must have been!

  3. December 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm
    Dec. 9, '13

    Wonderful shots that really capture the spirit of the market. I especially loved the portrait shots you got of the people there.
    jill recently posted..A Vegetarian Guide to Georgian Food (and How to Eat It)

    • December 12, 2013 at 3:17 am
      Dec. 12, '13

      Thanks! People are always my favorite subjects!

  4. December 9, 2013 at 10:41 pm
    Dec. 9, '13

    I love markets. We went to a great one with my cooking class that was outside the city proper of Chiang Mai. The people running the stalls were so kind, showboating a little when our group came by, and always with a big smile of pride. It was such a colorful and beautiful market. Since it was around Loy Krathong they were also selling the most beautiful flowers and decorations for the holiday.
    Carmel recently posted..WAT TOOK YOU SO LONG

    • December 12, 2013 at 3:18 am
      Dec. 12, '13

      Cool! The more out-of-the-way a market is, the better. Our favorite markets are always the ones the get no tourists, you can really get a feeling for the country and the attitude of its people.

  5. December 10, 2013 at 9:15 am
    Dec. 10, '13

    i hope you got a giant gong
    Hogga recently posted..Why Everyone Should Go Eat a Pecker

    • December 12, 2013 at 3:23 am
      Dec. 12, '13

      The perfect accessory for any backpacker!

  6. December 11, 2013 at 1:52 am
    Dec. 11, '13

    My favourite sightseeing trip in any city is always visiting the local markets. Your photos are so gorgeous Tony!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Goodbye Cambodia

    • December 12, 2013 at 3:25 am
      Dec. 12, '13

      Thanks so much! I agree, I never get tired of markets. People watching and food, what else do you need?

  7. December 12, 2013 at 5:41 am
    Dec. 12, '13

    Gorgeous photos!
    Victoria recently posted..A weekend by the beach in Bali

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:51 pm
      Dec. 14, '13

      Thanks!

  8. December 12, 2013 at 10:35 pm
    Dec. 12, '13

    These portraits are incredible! I aspire to photograph people as well as you have in this photoessay.

    Lovely writing too, but really, the way you captured the faces blows me away.
    Sally recently posted..Review: Fish Tree Guesthouse on Jeju Island

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:53 pm
      Dec. 14, '13

      Thanks so much! This trip has really allowed me to focus on my portraits of people, and it’s been a great learning experience.

  9. December 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm
    Dec. 18, '13

    Seoul’s Gwangjang Market (광장시장) and Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market are my favourites by far. Seoul’s, because, unlike other, more famous markets in the city, it isn’t overflowing with counterfeit goods. Plus the food section is amazing – stalls of middle-aged Korean women cooking up traditional food at cheap, cheap prices. Some of the best food I ate in Korea, for sure.

    As for Jean-Talon, it’s such an aesthetically beautiful market, with such a wide variety of things. The vendors are so friendly, and charmed me so much that, rather than simply wandering around and taking photos, I withdrew some money and ended up buying ice cider, macarons, olives, and duck sausage!
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Places I Lessthanthree: Oxford

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