Kuala Muda fishing village and whispering market

Where fisher folk keep alive a most quaint and unusual tradition of bidding

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

The political boundary between the states of Penang and Kedah is partly defined by a majestic age-old gift of nature. This is the magnificent Sungai Muda river which meanders quietly but imposingly from the Ulu Muda rainforests deep in the interior of peninsular Malaysia towards the Straits of Malacca. 

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

The serene estuary where the river meets the vast expanse of the sea, where freshwater merges into sea water, is a remarkable site where one finds some of the most intriguing fisher folk communities in the northern region.

Called Kuala Muda the site is home to a good number of coastal settlements straddled across the northern and southern sides of the river, in Kedah and Penang respectively. The people here – mostly Malays and Chinese living in a charmingly affable atmosphere – have subsisted on the marine harvests of the river and the sea for countless generations.

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

Inshore fishing boats and trawlers ply in and out of Kuala Muda every day, bringing to the villages fresh catches from the oceans. The marketplace where most of these are traded is also among the most interesting sites to visit in Seberang Perai.

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

Better known as the ‘pasar bisik’ or “whispering market” of Kuala Muda, this is where a variety of catches like the ikan kembung (mackerel), ikan bilis (anchovies), ikan senangin (threadfin), sotong (squids), ketam (crabs) and udang (prawns) are traded.

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

In a most unusual and quaint tradition, these catches are put up for sale through whispering bids. Prospective buyers must whisper their offered prices to the seller’s ear. The seller then chooses for himself who he wishes to give his catches to. The villagers and fisher folk have refused to abandon this tradition which has been practised here for generations.

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

One acquires the art of making whispering bids over time, by gauging the prices others are offering through observation of body language, lip movements and so on. The seller is often seen moving around among the bidders, only to return to his preferred bidder to prod him to lower his price further before sealing the deal.

Pasar Bisik © Adrian Cheah

Dozens of people – wholesalers, retailers and individual consumers – converge at the whispering markets on both the northern and southern sides of Sungai Muda every morning to participate in this unique spectacle of bargaining. Little is known about exactly how this tradition began. But with the villagers of Kuala Muda having become proud custodians of this exceptional cultural practice, it certainly does not seem to be in danger of disappearing any time in the foreseeable future.

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Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah

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