Unique Malaysian Souvenirs

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With the Christmas season soon upon us, it’s time to start and think of gifts to send to relatives and friends around the world. Being such an exotic country, Malaysia offers many uniquely Malaysian handicrafts which make great souvenirs and/or gifts. While you might have to search for some of them, wonderful items to watch out for are handicrafts such as batik, songket, metalwork, wood carvings, kris, jewellery, rattan, ikat, kites, ceramics, masks, indigenous artifacts from Borneo, and Peranakan beadwork. In various parts of the country, artisans still produce handicrafts as their forefathers did over the past centuries. Many of them still provide inspiration for contemporary designers, although technological advances have brought changes to production techniques. Here is a selection of five such handicrafts ideal for those with whom you want to share a little bit of Malaysia.

Though the textile production of batik did not originate in this country, unique Malaysian batik is keenly sought after. Batik production involves several processes – dyeing, waxing, and drying are used to create deep and rich colourful patterwns on a piece of fabric. The East Coast is home to the craft of batik making, and many contemporary designers incorporate elements of this ancient craft into their colourful creations. Possibly the most desirable batik pieces are sarongs measuring some 1.2m by 2.3m, which are usually woven from cotton, although silk is also used. While there are traditional patterned styles of batik, other contemporary forms feature such things as horses galloping through the surf, vivid coral reefs, or scenes of tranquil East Coast fishing villages. (It is worth being aware that much of the cheaper batik sold in Malaysia is actually from Indonesia.) If you are lucky enough, you will find somewhere you can create a batik of your own; that would be a special gift!

Wood Carvings
Woodcarving is another important trade that has mostly died out, although it is still often incorporated into modern buildings. Intricately carved wood was used extensively in constructing traditional Malay palaces and is still widely adopted in Terengganu and Kelantan architecture. Local fishing boats (or perahu) of the East Coast were traditionally decorated with carved wooden shapes at the bow to protect the fishermen at sea. Shutters, friezes, and panels from old Malay houses are infrequently sold in antique stores, while in Melaka it is common to see carved wooden ventilation panels from old Chinese houses. Carving is also popular on the island of Borneo and can include carvings as big as tree trunks, although the smaller pieces make more appropriate gifts. Colourfully painted hornbills carved from timber are revered by the Iban of Sarawak. While many of the timber carvings sold along the Main Bazaar in Kuching are modern reproductions, older and more expensive collectibles are available for a price. Theaboriginal Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia also craft objects from timber, with spirit figures and ceremonial masks being common.

Songket weaving is another old craft used to produce intricate fabric that is still popular for wedding events and official ceremonies; it is known as the “king of local textiles.” Songket is a brocade of woven silk or cotton interwoven with either silver or golden threads. Real gold was once used, so songket became an expensive cloth worn by the well-to-do or royalty. While the best songket supposedly comes from Sumatra, some of the original cloth produced in Malaysia was of the same high standard. Contemporary songket sold in Malaysia is not like the traditional forms; gold and silver are rarely used these days due to the cost involved, but the songket still has its own charm for women seeking cloth to make into formal evening attire. Like batik, the best songket is found in the East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

It’s not unusual to see kites (or wau) still flying in Malaysian skies, especially on the East Coast. Kites date back to the 15th century and flying them remains a passion for many people, most prominently in the state of Kelantan. These are not small, simple kites but rather very ornately decorated and large kites that often take several people to launch into the sky (typical sizes are 2m by 3m). Several kite makers still practice their traditional craft in Kota Bharu, with the best ones being located on the main road to Pantai Cahaya Bulan. Most kites are made from colourful waxed paper that’s been glued over a light bamboo frame. These are then decorated with flower motifs and come in a variety of shapes with the moon, cats, swallows and peacocks being common forms. Wau bulan, or moon kite, is the most common style, and can be glimpsed in the Malaysia Airlines logo. Kites make great wall hangings, and one of the best places to buy them is in Central Market in Kuala Lumpur.

In East Malaysia, woven ikat cotton cloth featuring ethnic patterns is commonly seen in local markets. Cotton ikat is produced on wooden looms and called pau kumbu, and it is still woven by villagers in remote communities. Traditional, cotton blankets were woven mostly by the Iban, and natural dyes were used, although the modern versions use more accessible commercial dyes. Designs were more symbolic and less explicit before tourism took its hold on Borneo. Abstraction is more common on older pua kumbu, which were mostly brown, black, and white in colour. The colour of modern pua kumbu is more wine red, white and black, and identifying figures such as crocodiles, hornbills, and lizards is easier. Today, there are many examples of these textiles in the souvenir shops lining Kuching’s Main Bazaar in Sarawak, and the cloth makes great wall hangings, throw-overs, or even blankets.

Source: The Expat October 2012

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