Southeast Asia can offer bargain shopping, with electrical equipment, cameras and fabrics all selling at competitive prices. What’s more, the region’s ethnic diversity means you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to souvenirs and handicrafts.
One point to be aware of is that a lot of the crafts on sale in Malaysia are in fact made elsewhere in the region, particularly in Indonesia. Also be aware that prices in small outlets such as family-run shops tend to be negotiable, and bargaining is expected. Asking for the “best price” is always a good opening gambit; from there, it’s a question of technique, though be realistic – shopkeepers will soon lose interest if you offer an unreasonably low price. If you buy any electrical goods, it can be worth ensuring you get an international guarantee, endorsed by the shop.
The art of producing batik cloth originated in Indonesia, but today batik is available across Southeast Asia and supports a thriving industry in Malaysia. It’s made by applying hot wax to a piece of cloth with either a pen or a copper stamp; when the cloth is dyed, the wax resists the dye and a pattern appears, a process that can be repeated many times to build up colours. Note that some vendors try to pass off printed cloth as batik. Make sure the brightness of the pattern is equal on both sides – if it’s obviously lighter on one side, it is likely the cloth is printed.
Batik is used to create shirts, skirts, bags and hats, as well as traditional sarongs. The exquisite gold-threaded brocade known as songket, used to make sarongs, headscarves and the like, is a big step up in price from batik; RM200 for a sarong-length of cloth is not uncommon, and prices soar for the finest pieces.
Unique to Sarawak is pua kumbu (in Iban, “blanket”), a textile whose complex designs are created using the ikat method of weaving. The cloth is sold in longhouses as well as in some souvenir outlets.
Woodcarving skills, once employed to decorate the palaces and public buildings of the early sultans, are today used to make less exotic articles such as mirror frames. However, it’s still possible to see statues and masks created by the Orang Asli. As animists, Orang Asli artists draw upon the natural world – animals, trees, fish, as well as more abstract elements like fire and water – for their imagery. Of particular interest are the carvings of the Mah Meri of Selangor, which are improvisations on the theme of moyang, literally “ancestor”, the generic name for all spirit images. In Borneo, look out for tribal face masks and rectangular shields adorned with intricate motifs. It’s also possible to buy hardwood blowpipes, though these are drilled rather than carved.
Of the wealth of metalwork on offer, silverware from Kelantan is among the finest and most intricately designed; it’s commonly used to make earrings, brooches and pendants, as well as more substantial pieces. Selangor is known for its pewter – a blend of tin, antimony and copper, which can result in some elegant vases, tankards and ornaments.
Rattan, cane, bamboo and mengkuang (pandanus) are traditionally used to make baskets, bird cages, mats, hats and shoulder bags. The best items make surprisingly impressive accessories, and in Borneo it’s possible to find baskets and bags bearing traditional motifs, too. Another unusual raw material is breadfruit bark; in Sarawak it’s pressed to produce a “cloth” that makes excellent hats and jackets, as well as a canvas for paintings.
Malay pastimes throw up some interesting purchases: leather wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets, portraying characters from Hindu legend, are attractive and light to carry; equally colourful but impractical if you have to carry them around are Malay kites, which can be a couple of metres long.
Pottery, though sometimes mass-produced, can be a worthwhile decorative acquisition. Examples include the Malay labu, a gourd-like slender-necked water jug (it’s made in, among other places, Perak) and Sarawak pots and jars bearing tribal motifs. Finally, it’s possible to buy some fine examples of beadwork – from pricey Peranakan beaded slippers to Kelabit jackets from the northern highlands of Sarawak.
A standard feature of local townscapes is rows of shophouses – two- or three-storey buildings traditionally containing a shop at street level, with residential quarters behind and above. For visitors, their most striking feature is that at ground level the front wall is usually set back from the street. This creates a so-called “five-foot way” overhung by the upper part of the house, which shelters pedestrians from the sun and pelting rain.
Shophouses were fusion architecture: facades have Western features such as shuttered windows and gables, while inside there might be an area open to the sky, in the manner of Chinese courtyard houses. Some, especially from the early part of the last century, are bedecked with columns, floral plaster motifs and beautiful tilework, while later properties feature simpler Art Deco touches. Sadly, shophouses ceased to be built after the 1960s and many have been demolished to make way for modern complexes, though some have won a new lease of life as swanky restaurants and boutiques.
Malaysia has no duty on cameras, watches, cosmetics, perfumes or cigarettes. Labuan, Langkawi and Tioman are duty-free islands, which in practice means that goods there (including alcohol) can be a third cheaper than on the Malaysian mainland, though it’s not as though a particularly impressive range of products is on sale.