Koror – It’s an hour before showtime and Grace Tkel is already at her assigned vendor’s table arranging the food display, as local patrons browse through what she has brought down from Choll County, where she lives. Tkel is talking with customers and fielding questions about what food she has, all while hunching down for exact dollar bills and coins for customers’ change — a skillful juggling act. Tkel is a regular presence at the Palau Night Market, where her local food and delicacies are sought by revelers gathered for the fortnightly event.
Grace Tkel makes change at the Palau Night Market..
When the Palau Night Market started almost seven years ago at Ernguul Central Park — formerly Bethlehem Park — it was nearly a victim of its own success. The Palau Visitors Authority, which organizes the event, had hoped to spice up the nightlife for tourists by creating the night market, empowering entrepreneurs and showcasing the island’s culinary delights. Today, with almost two dozen vendors and booths of various activities attracting a crowd of mostly local residents, the event has become more of a needed night diversion for locals than a tour industry’s go-to destination.
Launched in October 2010, the night market concept comes from the Asian night market culture, where locals eat, shop and socialize while tourists discover delicacies and cultural performances. Palauans are particularly familiar with night markets in Taipei and Manila.
“I enjoy it here as there’s nothing out there if you’re not dining out or nightclubbing,” said Teo Joshua, a frequent patron of the night market. “You can get your food and entertainment right here.”
The event has gained popularity in the local community that many suggest it’s time to increase its frequency instead of holding it only on payday Fridays. “They should hold it at least once a week and also consider extending the closing time to 11 p.m.,” Teo added.
Since February, a total of 10,987 patrons have visited the night market, 40 percent of them tourists and the number is expected to increase. Despite its growing popularity however, getting consistent participation from vendors has been a challenge. The Palau Visitors Authority is considering holding the night market on a weekly schedule but many vendors may not have enough supply to prepare food on a regular basis.
“Food is what brings people together and without it, there’s no point for night market,” said Kadoi Ruluked, Palau Visitor’s Authority’s marketing and research manager.
At her table, Tkel’s ten bowls of giant clam cooked with coconut milk would be long gone before the show ended. For her customers, many won’t be cooking at home but will arrive at the next night market with an empty stomach — craving more Palauan food.
The Night Market isn’t just a busy night for food vendors ; it’s an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and build a lasting customer base. Belau Tribe, a local company specializing in t-shirts designed with Palauan motifs, has been selling its creations since the early of days of the night market.
Vendors have had combined sales of $51,172 in the eight night markets so far this year.
“I don’t skip the night market anymore. If I do, I will hear from angry customers who brought over visitors and friends only to find out I was not there,” said Scott Weers Erungel, the creative mind behind Belau Tribe design.
Erungel created the ubiquitous “BUL” t-shirt design, which was part of the national campaign to round up public support for the Palau National Marine Sanctuary two years ago.
The event provides a venue for celebrating Palau’s traditions and showcasing the island nation’s talent pool and diverse cultures.
“It’s an opportunity for tourists to mingle with locals, make friends and to develop an appreciation of our culture,” said Balty Sikyang, a local musician who plays the keyboard instrument at the night markets.
Palau isn’t known for its nightlife, but nearing its seventh year, the night market has continually grown in importance as an activity that the locals look forward to every two weeks. It’s becoming an institution — and and answer to demand for a vibrant local night scene.