Bandung to Bali XXvi – Pasar besar – 24 May 1973

Dad and Atang make an odd couple as they strike out onto the street. They are both thin and tall but otherwise they are like salt and pepper. Dad’s clothes hang loosely at his elbows and knees, swinging in an ungainly rhythm, his fair skin topped with a crumpled white brimmed hat.  Atang leads us like an elegant dotted ‘i’, his neat dark hair and the velvet black cap steadily bobbing in front of us, except when he looks over his shoulder and giggles irresistibly at the sight of his new brood.

Matt, Tony and I range behind them like graceless chicks picking first in one direction, then another. We make a mental map of points of interest to explore later.  A little shop on wheels across the road looks particularly intriguing.

“That’s a warung,” Dad says as he returns a wave and yells of ‘Pak, pak’ from the becak drivers who sit about resting and smoking – half propped on the stools around the wayang or stretching out on the seats of their becaks.

Just like our house at Rowville there isn’t a proper a footpath on the side of the road – so we pick our way across the driveways and skip on the street and back onto the verge. Matt is quite keen on the deep drains running along the road and looks ready to try to leap across one. But Atang keeps up the pace and we soon cross a road which intersects Jalan Benawang at an angle and then curves away to our left so that we cannot see the full extent of the buildings which line each side.

As we follow Atang around another turn, the drains deliver a sharp smell of over ripe fruit and mud.

“Pungent!” remarks Tony

Small level concrete bridges cross the drains at more regular intervals as the low, narrow buildings on either side seem to compress into ever tighter groups. Above the traffic noise we start to hear the sounds of the market – a great cacophony of human activity – voices calling, chickens crawing, chopping, weights striking on scales and the sounds of mud squelching deliciously under our feet.

We emerge into the full sight and smell of the market. Rows and rows of stalls stretch as far along the narrowing lane as we can see, ablaze with vegetables set out in colour wheels of purples and yellows, greens and reds.  In another part of the market great baskets form a palette of rices from the pearliest plump white grains, to rich copper, dusky brown, down to sharp beads of pure black. Further down in the meat section we see a blur of yellows, creams and pinks and dripping crimson – bones, feathers, feet, heads. Then the fish – all silver and blue, gold and orange.

Pasar besar sketch based on photographs by Leah Avery

Pasar besar

We quickly find out that Dad and Atang share another trait:  a love of domestic thrift and food shopping genius. Dad is in charge of the proper shopping most weeks at home.  He is a scrupulous hunter of groceries and an occasional extravagant consumer of $1 boxes of pears or oranges or tomatoes at the Dandenong Market.

My Dad could run lectures on food shopping. “See these Weet-Bix, Chas,” he tutors  me in the cereal aisle, “This is a 450g box – that’s almost half a kilogram, and see the cornflakes – they’re only 250g in the same size box. So which do you think is better value for money?” Dad  wants to make sure we grasp the new decimal system as quickly as possible and learn frugal shopping at the same time.

“The weet-bix?” I suggest, without bothering to calculate the cents per gram per box, because Dad always buys weet-bix.

“That’s right! See – that’s how food companies get rich – selling you air and water.”

But shopping with Atang is a new fantastic, learning experience.  Atang, despite his youth, is a worthy colleague in the applied arts of domestic economics. Dad’s pursuit of a bargain with the local market traders pales when compared to the careful approach to every purchase attended by Atang.  While the energetic traders gape at the strange group of Australians prodding at their produce, Atang pursues his negotiations, no matter how trivial the amount may seem and then defers to Dad explaining how sorry he is he cannot ask for a lower price. This earns Dad’s unending respect and admiration.

In no time Atang has everything even a small army like us can possibly carry.

“Datang lagi besok!” the traders call after our many “Terimah kasi’s” as we pick up the bags.

The food arrives home and Kiah goes to work to craft a banquet from a tiny kitchen in a shed over a gas flame.

I always knew that I was a living person but today, for the first time, I feel I am more awake and more alive than ever before.


Some words

Pasar         market

besar          big

Datang lagi besok!    See you again / come again tomorrow.

The drawing is an amalgam of the photos by Leah Avery of Toronto – taken during her anthropology studies in Indonesia

I have recast her portraits in traditional dress which was what women still wore in the markets in 1973. Short hair for women was also very uncommon then.

Some truly exceptional photography of markets in Bandung – especially around the main Pasar Andir Bandung, which suffered fire damage in 2010, (one set among many other beautiful images) by Gyaista Sampurno, is really worth seeing. Please take a look at


These beautiful places of local food trade are by all accounts a dying species or are they?

While many of us in the ‘developed world’ are struggling to reclaim these places – and spaces – which have been lost or become sadly depleted in their viability, the emerging economies like Indonesia are urgently embracing the supermarket.

I was fairly shocked on my recent trip to Bali to be driven through the carpark of a Carrefour supermarket (this was a Jalan Tikus / a Rat Run for the taxis because of road works).  How much yogurt could the Balinese possibly eat I wondered?

A lovely article by Adrian from Projecting Indonesia on describes recent efforts in Bandung to modernise the traditional markets by introducing wireless hotspots so

..’when a family go to the market, the wife can go for shopping, the husband can wait at public facilities equipped with free internet access, and the kids play in the playing ground,” said Rinal Siswadi, Director General of Regional Company Pasar Bermartabat, as quoted from, 8 January 2012. Rinal added that the first model of this policy will be applied at Pasar Sederhana in Greater Bandung.’

Good to see female and male stereotypes are even more reinforced than I recall.

A blogging Bandung Dad & Mum posted about taking their little girls to the TOTAL Buah Segar supermarket in Bandung and described some of the pros and cons of their new shopping experience. So the up side for is that the supermarket is cleaner but maybe more expensive than the traditional market. Their girls look pretty happy just to be food shopping all the same!

11 thoughts on “Bandung to Bali XXvi – Pasar besar – 24 May 1973

  1. The markets are my favourite part of living here. My closest is Pasar Tebet in Jakarta. It’s quite an experience and certainly not for the faint hearted but I love it and spend hours there. Speaking of Carrefour, I’ve just come back from a shopping trip there. A very boring experience. Just for the record there was yoghurt on offer, but not a huge choice – I bought some and have just had a taste. Although it’s not past it’s sell by date, the cabinet it was in was not very cold so it tastes weird and I suspect is already off – I’m going to have to bin it!

    It’s hard to find decent cheese here, Dairylea plastic slices or that horrible dutch rubbery edam is about it unless you go to a an expensive mall. There are live chickens, ducks and rabbits in most markets here and most of the supermarkets have fish in tanks though they don’t look healthy and the smell coming of the tanks is eye-watering! The best place for fish is either from the market or by the beaches in Bali. I’m about to experiment using dried fish. There are so many varieties it was hard to choose but I chose some small ones which I’m going to mix with a rice dish tonight 😀


  2. Beautiful! The colourful descriptions and the drawing brought to my mind the local food and flower market I grew up with, although a bit different given the cooler climate. Sadly, the supermarkets are gaining grounds everywhere now and the experience of shopping, especially for vegetables and fruits will never be the same. Yes, unfortunately, local food markets are alike with ‘species at risk’ and should be a conservation concern!


  3. Beautifully written. We still have wet markets here in HK but no live chickens any more. Some green grocer shops survive but supermarkets may eventually squeeze them out. A few organic food shops have opened. Hopefully Indonesia won’t surrender entirely to “progress”. And you can’t haggle in a Wellcome!


    • I’m pretty hopeful there are enough creative and soulful people in Indonesia to know that their traditions are a vital part of life – can’t quite see them being sold the western capitalist ‘dream’ hook line and sinker.


      • My wife tells me there are still live chickens in the wet markets but if they don’t sell during the day they become dead chickens. Can’t be kept overnight. So HK still maintains some old traditions.


      • Hi Andrew
        Life for a chicken is a precarious thing and then to be blamed for all the world’s ills – SARS and bird flu – it’s quite harsh. Still it wouldn’t really be a market without the poor chickens! I remember the fish markets in HK the most from my last travels there – fantastic.


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