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Here a mall, there a mall, everywhere a mall, mall…
March 12, 2011  |  by jess c  |  Buying stuff, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Alright, so, here’s a bit of a confession: before our first trip to Thailand in 2006, the image in my head of what Asian cities would be like was a bit off the mark. Embarrassingly, I imagined whole cities that looked essentially like Chinatown in San Francisco. Our arrival in Bangkok that first trip shattered my misconception.

Like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is a modern, cosmopolitan city––but even more so. “KL” (as the kids are calling it these days) is the capitol of Malaysia, and a city of 1.6 million people (7.2 in the metro area). It has a substantial public transportation system with bus, train, light rail and monorail (Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!) services. It has cafe culture. It has free public WiFi in most areas of the city. It has museums, and lovely public gardens, a fairly thriving economy (KL is a major world financial center, and we saw help-wanted signs all over the city), and it has malls. Lots, and lots and lots of malls.

In addition to seeing the sights, we came to KL to sort out some tech issues. So, rather than staying in KL’s usual backpacker haunts, we chose a guesthouse in the Golden Triangle area of the city. A neighborhood of about ten square blocks. A neighborhood which, we kid you not, contains no less than six gigantic malls. Malls which are separated by only an alleyway or perhaps a major street.

The fanciest is Pavillion. Six floors and two city blocks of high-end and luxury shopping. At Time Square Mall, you can get your kicks on the roller-coaster, complete with loop-dee-loop, at it’s indoor amusement park.


Perhaps a spin on the tilt-a-whirl before buying some shoes?

Our favorite, though, was the Low Yat mall, which is seven stories of nothing but tech, where you can buy everything you need for your “IT lifestyle.” Including my new factory-unlocked iPhone 4!


Laptop? Level 2. Camera lenses on Level 4. Unlock your iPone? Level 6. Snacks so you can refuel to find a case for your new iPhone on Level 5? Food court's in the beasement.

The prevalence of air conditioned indoor malls perhaps isn’t so surprising when you consider the heat and humidity in KL. But the apparent enthusiasm for consumption is, truly, something to behold. And we’re saying this as Americans. Honestly, we felt a pinge of national defeat in the face of KL’s frenzied consumerism (a contest we’re ultimately happy to concede). And its not just a thirst for buying lots of stuff either; KL’s relatively new middle and upper classes are clammoring for the good stuff. Around the corner from our $20 per night guesthouse was a wine bar that served cheese and chocolate tastings, which you could enjoy with a nice $6,000 USD bottle of wine.

What’s most striking, though, is the close contrast between KL’s relatively recent fascination with luxury, and what seems to be the economic reality of most of the city’s residents.

This alley leads to Changket Bukit Bintang, one of KL's hottest new spots for boutique eateries and hip lounges.

One block over from the pricey wine joint and only a few blocks from the Pavillion mall, is Jalan Alor, a long hawker street with every kind of savory, spicy, sweet delicious dish you could hope for. Once you’ve adjusted your eyes to the prism of colors and lights, and once the olfactory senses have settled a little, you choose one of tables placed on the street. Immediately, your table is literally covered with menus and you’re surrounded by each menu’s owner, who hastens to offer that his or her dishes are the right ones for you. If you dare to take a moment to read a menu or two, you need to be assertive about it. Each hawker stand owner is eager for your order, and those working alone must return to their stall to prepare your dish while keeping an eye our for newly arrived diners so that they can make sure then menu is, well, on the menu.

Jalan Alor, where the tastiness lives.

Your eyes aren't lyin'. It's a whole hawker stall that just sells bacon. All kinds of bacon.

Much of KL displays the same growing pains. On one corner, you can sit in an overstuffed chair inside an air conditioned Starbucks of Coffee Bean, sipping a latte and eating petite scones, while just outside, enterprising street vendors are selling anything from satay to sidewalk shoe repairs. In KL’s Little India (the old one next to the Masjid Jamek mosque, not the new one in Brickfields), hawkers line the streets to sell food, clothing, and (surprisingly, to us anyway) every variety and color of hijab (head scarves) imaginable. In nearby Chinatown, light rail cars whiz by overhead, while down below knockoff watches, purses and sneakers can be yours for cheap if you’re in the mood to haggle.

You could eat nonstop for a week and still not taste everything offered in Little India.

Many people we’ve talked to have described Malaysian food as “fusion”––which, in the handful of days we’ve spent there, we think might be a good description for the city as a whole. A bubbling pot (and perhaps a truer melting pot than our own) of cultures and heritage, of religions, of languages, of old and new, rich and poor, and just about every shade in between. While in the brief time we were in KL we couldn’t hope to know such a complex and fascinating place, we were there long enough to become intrigued and more than a little bit beguiled. We’ll definitely be returning throughout our travels to learn (and taste!) more of what KL has to offer.

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  1. …did you just say, “as kids are calling it these days”? O.L. D. Are we.

  2. My taste buds have a serious case of envy!

  3. “That’s What I”M talking About”…food,shopping and electronics-OMG! Sound like Heaven on earth :-)


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