Mall-time in Malaysia

By Jane Phare

Jane Phare tours the markets and malls of Kuala Lumpur to snap up bargains, drool over designer labels and hunt for a scooter.

The atrium at Pavilion Mall is breathtaking. Photo / Tourism Malaysia
The atrium at Pavilion Mall is breathtaking. Photo / Tourism Malaysia

Ranjit is determined to help. He spots me, looking perplexed, near his fake-bag stall in a deserted corner of a far-from-flash mall in Kuala Lumpur.

No, I tell him, I don't want to buy a handbag or wallet. I want to buy a scooter, I say apologetically.

Business is slow for him, he says. "No one comes up here," he laments. "Everyone's on the lower ground... but the rents are too high down there." He gives me a but-what-can-I-do shrug and then cheers up, apparently deciding to devote himself to solving my dilemma.

And it is a dilemma. I've promised my son a scooter for his birthday and I had counted on finding a well-priced one in Malaysia. Silly me. I have just over an hour left and have already systematically searched KL's bustling Bukit Bintang shopping district without success.

I started at the top, visiting the gorgeous Starhill Gallery shopping mall with its acres of marble and gilt, soaring atrium and upmarket shops. Plenty of watches, jewellery, shoes, designer clothing and igadgets, but no scooters.

I'll admit to getting a little sidetracked and leaving with a couple of shopping bags containing excellent bargains. In Malaysia, discounts mean proper discounts - not a mingy 10 or 20 per cent.

Then I searched the equally glitzy Pavilion mall with another breathtaking atrium and more beautiful shops. I tried the giant Suria KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) by the Petronas Twin Towers, decided against Fahrenheit88 (aimed at gadget crazy and funky shoppers - young, but not that young) and baulked at searching the enormous Berjaya Times Square.

So I headed for the not-so-upmarket Bukit Bintang Plaza, where the ceilings are low and the goods and watches have designer labels that at first glance look like the real thing.

That's where I meet the smiling Ranjit. As we stride along narrow corridors of cheek-by-jowl stalls he calls out to shop keepers, makes phonecalls and pushes elevator buttons.

Along the way, Ranjit tells me his story. Born in Mumbai, he came to Kuala Lumpur more than a year ago to study accounting. But his agent ripped him off, stole his passport and his money. Since then he has been working in the mall. Now, he tells me, he has a new passport and has saved nearly enough money to complete his studies, which means someone must be buying his fake bags. When he finishes studying he will return to Mumbai to help his family.

In the meantime, he is hell-bent on finding me a scooter. When we start to run out of options, we cross over into the adjoining Sungei Wang Plaza. Same story. Hundreds of items to buy, all at bargain prices, lots of helpful stall holders making suggestions, but no scooter.

We end up back at Ranjit's stall where he makes a good-natured attempt to sell me a weekend bag at a "special price". I say I really don't need a weekend bag, lovely though it is. He grins, we shake hands and he refuses to accept the money I offer for his tour-guide services.

And that's what I liked about shopping, and just being, in KL - its people. They're a polite, graceful fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian, and all that comes with it. Their food is a delicious blend of flavours, spices and traditions; Kuala Lumpur is an interesting combination of impressive modern architecture against a backdrop of British and Moorish influences, peppered with temples, mosques, churches and clan houses.

Even if I didn't find exactly what I was looking for, I had a good time and I felt safe shopping on my own. Who wouldn't with 15,000 CCTV cameras keeping an eye on things? There were two alone watching me have breakfast in the dining room, just in case someone swiped my butter while I was away getting a croissant.

Back at the Traders Hotel that evening, hanging out in the über-cool Sky Bar on the 33rd floor, the hotel's Australian general manager Rob Weeden tells me his wife bought their kids scooters in KL - yes, I bored him with my shopping story. He'll make a call and find out where from, he says obligingly. Five minutes later, he has the answer. Turns out it was Sydney, he says apologetically.

But who could feel glum sipping the bar's signature Rose Lychee cocktails and gazing at the glittering lights of the 452-metre high Petronas Twin Towers looming nearby?

It was after the swimming pool complex was built that the hotel management realised the night view was one of the most spectacular in the city. So after hours the 33rd floor becomes a dimly-lit bar, the pool loungers transformed into cocktail spots. Now it's listed on hottnez.com as second in the world's Top 10 Skybars.

After three cocktails we navigate our way, carefully, past the pool and head for Chinatown's night markets in Petaling St. It's busy and noisy, and crammed with people and fakes.

I spot a pair of black-and-red Ferrari shoes, perfect for a car-mad husband expecting a bargain to be brought home from Malaysia. I ask the stall holder what they're made of. He flicks out his cigarette lighter and holds the flame against the shoe.

"See," he said, "won't burn." Very reassuring.

The size 8 looks a little small so I ask for the next size up. His assistant disappears and comes back with a size 11. Too big, I argue. No, he insists, this is the next size up. Oh well, I figure, for $30 who cares if they're too big. When I get them back to New Zealand, the fit is perfect, and they're guaranteed to survive a house fire.

Next a Ferrari watch. I joust and bargain with a couple of stall holders with the help of a few tips Ranjit has given me earlier in the day. Apparently there are fake watches - cheap ones that just tell the time - and then there are the AAA-grade fakes. These are the Rolex of fakes, chronograph watches with self-winding movements and extra features.

Don't expect the little dials to actually do anything or keep working for very long. And you won't really be able to dive to 30 metres without it leaking.

But it will look good and usually tell the time quite well.

As for the scooter, I never did find one. Instead I drove straight from Auckland Airport to a shop in Newmarket, paid three times what I had planned for an MGP scooter (the only one left before a new shipment and, sadly, the most expensive in the range).

If I ever get back to KL, I'll track down Ranjit and suggest he open a scooter shop. He might do better than hawking fake designer bags identical to scores of other stall holders.

But he's probably figured that out already.

Shopping tips

* Don't be intimidated by the swanky malls and their designer stores. They are a great place to window shop, cool down and get away from the hustle and bustle outside. And they have excellent cafes and restaurants. Some of the shop assistants are so laid back they don't seem to notice you have rifled through their clothing, tried things on and left without buying anything.

* If you are unfamiliar with bargaining in markets, have a look around first. You'll notice that just about everyone has the same selection of watches and bags for sale. Pick a stall, ask how much for the watch, look shocked and offer a much lower price. Let the bargaining begin. Be bold, have fun.

Be prepared to walk away. Usually they'll call after you, "How much you want to pay?" If they let you walk away, you know you've reached rock bottom. That will give you a guide as to what you should be paying at the next stall.

* Be happy with your purchases and the prices you've paid. There will always be a smarty in your group who will boast they have paid $5 less for the exact same watch. So what? It's still cheap.

* About half an hour before Chinatown's night markets close, prices start to drop as stall holders get keen to make their final sales for the night.

* Don't miss KL's Art Deco Central Market which opened as a fish market in the 1880s and was rebuilt in the 1930s. You'll find cheap local dishes and a vast array of multi-ethnic arts and crafts.

Shop til you drop

Shopping is good year round in Malaysia but never better during the giant sales.

* Coming up is the Malaysia Year-End sales (M-Yes) which runs from 10 November to 1 January.

* Then there's the Malaysia Grand Prix sale which runs between March and April.

* The Malaysia International Shoe Festival is on from 5 April to 7 April in Kuala Lumpar, a festival that draws international designers, including Jimmy Choo, who lives in Malaysia.

* The Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival runs between July and August next year.

Jane Phare flew to Malaysia courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysia Tourism Board.

- Herald on Sunday

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