Kuala Lumpur is famed for its cultural mishmashes when it comes to food, and the same goes when perusing for gifts to bring home to family and friends. The souvenirs you’ll find in Kuala Lumpur represent not only Malaysia but stem from the cultures of India and China as well. Plus, now that Kuala Lumpur has cemented its role as one of the economic centers of the world, modern shopping is popping up all throughout the city’s downtown. Around one sidewalk corner, you’ll encounter a row of designer clothing storefronts. Tread another few blocks and you’ll come across a long row of market stalls. Where else can you so easily shop for luxury goods for a fashion-minded family member one minute, and then pick up something cute and kitschy for coworkers back at the home office the next?
You’ll find an array of things to buy and stuff into your suitcase, but here are the 8 souvenirs you’ll want to look for when entering into consumer mode in Kuala Lumpur.
Nyonya beaded slippers
Whether you’re strolling through Chinatown or window-shopping in Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market, you’re sure to come across Chinese-inspired but uniquely Malaysian beaded slippers, called Nyonya beaded slippers. They’re often made with deep-hued and vibrant fabrics (such as evergreen or deep red velvet) and then beaded with elaborate designs like animals, birds and flowers. While the term “slippers” implies that they should just be donned around the house, think again: while these shoes are shiny, pretty and detailed, they’re also much tougher than they look. Women here wear them to work as if they were any regular, professional (albeit, statement-making) shoe. Additionally, since they’re slip-ons, as long as you have a general idea of the recipient’s shoe size, you can pick up a pair that will be sure to fit someone fancy in your life.
While in Kuala Lumpur, you’ll also want to pick up a few bolts of fabric, whether they’re intended for a person in your life who likes to sew, or just as a gift for someone to hang upon their wall or drape around their neck. Malaysia, China and India all have centuries-old reputations for making and dealing in high-quality cloth: you’ll find fabric designs that stems from all three cultures here, as well as cross culture-created cloth, unique only to Kuala Lumpur.
Here are a few types of fabric to look for: While beautiful layers of songket hanging on a merchant’s walls might catch your eye with their interwoven gold and silk thread, you can find other attractive alternatives if you’re looking for more affordable wares. Pua kumbu is one type of fabric to consider. Made from a dyed thread, it’s usually decorated with vivid-colored patterns and used as a blanket, a wrap, or for spiritual purposes in the communities that originally made them. Malaysian batik is another excellent option. It may remind you of vintage or Hawaiian clothing, as the waxy silk or cotton is often decorated with tropical-looking purple, pink and teal orchids or butterflies.
In the West, you’re more likely to see a pewter cup on the most recent episode of Game of Thrones than in someone’s kitchen cabinet, but you can remedy this at one of the many shopping centers around Kuala Lumpur that sell pewter goods. While a metal flask or piece of jewelry might be more sensible when in Rome, buy the rare pewter items that are available to you…? Analogies aside, this town was originally built on the business of tin. Therefore, the prices for pewter—which is comprised of a mix of metals but a majority of tin—are shockingly low. Go ahead and buy your uncle Robert that unapologetically large pewter goblet. Or, if that just feels too silly, maybe go for the stunning tea sets instead, complete with a pewter tea tray. They’re sold at multiple stores around the city.
When in doubt of what to buy (or if you’re in a hurry to get back to work) go with a Kuala Lumpur staple: literally anything woven. You’ll find a nonstop parade of these items: Purses? Woven. Wallets? Woven. Hats? Woven. Place-mats? Also woven.
Malaysian women have been crafting goods out of woven rattan, bamboo, pandan leaves and coconut shells for years, and this art has been beautifully perfected. (As well as extrapolated to many purposes, obviously) These materials are often dyed first and then meticulously bent and wrapped to create smooth, even surfaces. Luckily you can find them at any market both inside or outside the city center, or even in the airport terminal. Pick a few items up to get a sense of their weight: they’re a light solution to the burden of having to overload your suitcase with souvenirs and thus might save you some money in baggage fees.
If none of these goods grab your attention, here are a few other options to consider:
A Wau Kite has nothing in common with your common toy store’s plastic kite except for the fact that it can fly. Resembling the shape of a canoe, they are decorated with long tassels, elaborate patterns and punchy, sunny colors. Another cool buy is traditional dried Chinese herbs, which can be bought from any medicinal shop in Chinatown. This is a great gift for your most all-natural friend or family member (everyone has one) and can be selected for specific purposes such as headaches, flu or even skin issues, all with the help of a wise merchant.
Lastly, if trying to find souvenirs for those in your life who are difficult to shop for, keep it easy: candies and tea are a staple of everyday life in Kuala Lumpur. Why not pick up a box of loose green tea leaves (you’ll find dozens of varieties to choose from) or a bag of Dodol. While the addition of the famously-stinky durian fruit in Dodol might shock some people’s taste buds initially, the sweet toffee flavor eventually wins over.
Paige Towers is a writer living in Milwaukee with her husband and a pack of rescue dogs. Her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number, and many other publications. You can read more of her work on www.paigetowers.com.