Go For: Taste of inexpensive indigenous Bruneian food.
Pasar malam is a Malay word for night market. However I prefer to still call it pasar malam because the Malay word stands for something very local and of indigenous nature that perhaps cannot be captured by the English translation. In Brunei , pasar malams are very special because they represent a large part of the country’s nightlife scene.
The pasar malam at Gadong is kind of a permanent fixture and is open the whole year. The vendors start setting up their stalls around 4 pm and are open for business until 11 pm. The pasar malam occupies some portion of the car park so loading and unloading happens in a jiffy. We went there on a Wednesday. There were about 30-35 vendors.
There are three sections into which the stalls are grouped. One section is for fresh fruits and vegetables, the second sells cooked food and snacks, and the third is for grills — so be prepared for a wall of smoke to assail you as you head over there.The pasar malam is hot and humid, and some vendors have electric fans set up for themselves, especially those doing deep frying. A few vendors are also playing English music.
There are a couple of drinks stall selling Milo, lemon juice , sugarcane juice, iced coffee, and many other ice cold beverages. There wasn’t a lot of coconut juice, so we got lemon. It was so heavily laden with sugar that we just could not go beyond a couple of sips and had to throw it away. A shame. We saw some empty water bottles in a bag. These bottles were re-used for drink takeaways — a nice gesture of environmental friendliness.
The best thing about the pasar malams is the prices. Everything, it seems like, is between $1 and $3. Lots of treats. The chicken kebab we ordered were actually pita halves stuffed with cooked chicken, onion and cucumber with lots of mayo and tomato sauce. It had nice tangy taste wondering if they used some raw mango. We got three of them: $5.
We also tried wajid biasa, small grain rice cooked with brown sugar. It was filling. Each sampling was nicely wrapped in banana leaf. $1 for five such rolls.
Most of the stalls were selling pretty much identical food. The nice thing is each might differ in taste a bit as they are prepared by the seller’s family members.
But there are a lot of treats. Traditional kueh melaya, grilled fish, chicken and lamb, nasi lemak, mee goreng, burgers, fish balls, fried kuey teow, variety of murtabak, beef steaks. And the food is so cheap that it is worth spending a few dollars on trial and error and getting to know the taste of traditional Malay cuisine.
There are no table and chairs where you can sit and eat and again go back to stalls to order some more food. So you need to decide upfront what you want and take away. We took our small order of food back to our car which was parked nearby and ate inside with the air conditioning on.
We had hoped to come across some local arts and crafts which we did not see any. I suspect Wednesday may not be the right day to expect it. I should go there on a Friday or a Sunday perhaps when the market has more offerings.
Some pasar malams pop up occasionally too at various places throughout Brunei. Two main occasions are during Ramadan and the other around the Sultan’s birthday.
I happened to go one in Bander Seri Begawan that was set up to mark the Sultan’s birthday. Lots of food, makeup, clothes, toys, handbags. There are also lots of football jerseys from the English Premier League.
According to a newspaper report, these occasional pop ups are a big business and stalls earn between $500 and $1,000 a night. There is also live music played on traditional instruments on some days in these pop up markets. Local markets are the best things to get to know the culture of the place. Don’t leave Brunei without a visit to pasar malam.