In Kuala Lumpur, old and new rub against up each other as the city booms and develops. One of the more surprising areas of contrast is the blossoming retail industry, and while many may only know KL for its shiny new malls, there is much more than meets the shopper’s eye in the city that celebrates its heritage just as much as it heralds it future.
When it’s hot outside and the working week is done, the many malls, shopping centres and stores around the city are packed with people browsing the aisles, spending their money and spending their time in these clean, air conditioned palaces. At the same time, vast numbers of shoppers will don their old shoes and go for a tramp down the noisy, unordered markets or into the dusty old shophouses that are rich in character and rife with bargains. When it comes to shopping, the modern and the traditional approaches are on offer in KL, giving shoppers the chance to buy diamond watches for a fortune or handbags for a cent and giving tourists a fascinating insight into the past while still enjoying the modern joys of the future.
Kuala Lumpur – the town on the muddy swamp – started life in the area around Chinatown, and there is no better place to go if you are keen to explore dusty, old shophouses manned by wizened old chinamen selling things you never realised you needed. On Jalan Petaling, shoppers who look past the designer handbags can discover a button shop that could make anyone want to become a seamstress, or a narrow, packed shop dedicated entirely to Christmas decorations. Looking for Zoolgical Pet Supplies? Jalan Petaling can cater for your needs, while your desk can enjoy a re-stock if you take a trip to a tiny shop packed floor to ceiling with notebooks. When it comes to specialised and unusual shops, Chinatown cannot be beaten, and it is a great place to track Vegetable market Bukit Bintang, one of KL’smain shopping streets down your sought after specialised wares or indulge your curiosity.
In nearby Central Market, the shopping experience is different and yet still culturally satisfying. This stylish art deco building is the souvenir hunter’s haven: sculptures, carvings, batik outfits, postcards, key rings, even Petronas Tower toothpicks can be found in abundance within the neat and pretty corridors of what used to be the city’s main market. Stop for a drink and some local food at the food court, before ploughing on, buying packs of the local savoury snacks and intricate tribal carvings from East Malaysia to take home: a reminder of the heritage that is still applauded here in the city.
If it is traditional clothes that you seek, then a trip up Jalan Tunku abdul Rahman is well worth your time. This area may be pretty hectic on a Saturday afternoon, but the crowds have the right idea as the area is packed with Malay and Indian clothes shops. The rainbow display of saris, glittering with sequins and embroidery, will tempt any female off the pavement, while men take themselves off to buy their baju melayu and songkok before retiring to a nearby stall for a restorative teh tarik.
One of the best parts of the city to go for the Indian shopping experience of yesteryear is the recently tarted up Brickfields, and the main stretch along Jalan Tun Sambathan is crammed with stores piled floor to roof with bangles in every colour you can imagine and shimmering saris, while shops selling spices, sweets and even Bollywood movies are just as popular with those looking to spend their cash.
The true historical shopping experience however, can only be fully appreciated at a street market. Saturdays are prime time for the pasar malam, and both Kampung Bharu and Lorong Tunku abdul Rahman incarnations offer a noisy, crowded retail extravaganza, where every sense will be ambushed by colours, smells and tastes as you move down the street, admiring trainers hanging beside freshly-roasted sweetcorn or t-shirts and jeans displayed in the shadow of the durian stall. This may not be a calm and cool shopping outing, but it is the place for bargains and a great way to experience the KL that was.
If the past can be seen and smelt at the crowded markets and in the quirky shophouses, then the future can surely be glimpsed in the steel beasts that dot the skyline and pull in thousands of shoppers every day: the malls.
For people with serious money to spend, Bukit Bintang is the beating heart of the shopper’s paradise. On one, crazy street shoppers can select from numerous malls, each boasting their own character and offering the patient shopper their every desire.
One of the fixtures on the street is Sungei Wang Plaza, where the confusing, lowceiling floors will befuddle your mind as the anonymous shops draw you in with their rows and rows of clothes, shoes, watches, key-rings – you name it, you will find it, but perhaps just the once.
Its neighbour Lot 10 offers a more civilised experience and provides tourists with the shops they recognise from home, while Pavilion, standing mighty and proud at the top of the street, draws in the window-shoppers as well as those with cash to spend at the high-end boutiques. Starhill Gallery, Fahrenheit 88, BB Plaza – the choice for shoppers is unlimited – but IT enthusiasts should make a beeline for Plaza LowYat (hidden behind BB Park) and indulge in an afternoon at the best onestop shop for the techno-geek’s every desire.
No guide to shopping would be complete without mentioning the iconic Twin Towers, which stand tall above Suria KLCC. This comprehensive mall draws in serious crowds on the weekend thanks to the chain stores such as Isetan, Topshop and Harrods, as well as the lure of the cinema or the chance to enjoy a lazy drink on the park.
Shopping in the city centre is not for the faint-hearted and many people head out of town to get their wares. Midvalley City has become a hub for shoppers, with MidValley Megamall and The Gardens Mall standing side by side and fulfilling all the family’s needs in one fell swoop, although the queues to get into the carpark can be something of a mood dampener.
Residents of Hartamas and Mont Kiara tend to frequent The Curve and Ikano Power Station, where restaurants, cafes, chains and independent stores cluster together to provide a complete shopping experience, and home-owners will happily spend an hour browsing Ikea for new bits and pieces for their house.
But we are barely touching the tip of the iceberg here – shopping in KL is a full-time job and there are simply more malls than you could list in one humble article.The retail industry is booming and, reassuringly, it is not just the mega malls that are packed, but the historical, quirky markets and shophouses that are enjoying success too.
Whether you seek wood carvings or handbags, designer shoes or buttons, KL has something to offer, whatever your price. But more importantly than that, shopping is a chance to see where the city started and where it is going, rubbing shoulders with the locals and the tourists, the old and the young, Ferrari-driving elite and the wellington-wearing fish sellers while getting a deeper appreciation for the contrasts that make Malaysia such a unique country.
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