As a frequent traveler, I admit that I get stumped every now and then when it comes to buying souvenirs for my friends and family back home. As a certified shopaholic, this may be hard to believe about me, but there’s only so many times that I can bring home a key chain, a fridge magnet, a mug, or another t-shirt before my loved ones start getting tired of getting all these things. Sure, it’s the thought that counts, but I feel like I have to step up my game when it comes to souvenir shopping.
This time around, I vowed to get only the most authentic and the most unique items that are somewhat indigenous to the country that I’ll be visiting. As I’m back in Malaysia, I figured that I probably would be toting home a batik-heavy collection to give to my friends. As it turns out, it’s not only this unique fabric that’s going to make it on my must-buy list. Who knew that there were so many unique items that I could find in Malaysia?
Here’s a list of totally worth it souvenirs to bring home to your family and friends:
1. Malaysian Snacks
Best for: friends with kids; your preteen brother or nephew; basically for anyone who loves to eat
Cost: about $1.00 for a sealed bag of snacks
Malaysians love their snacks, and they make about a hundred different ones to suit anyone’s tastes. Craving something sweet, salty, spicy, or all three at the same time? They have it all. From traditional rice cakes, candies, water chestnut cakes and sweet bean cakes, these yummy eatables offer a break from potato chips which will be much appreciated by the avid snacker.
For Indian snacks such as cassava chips, jalebi (deep fried sweet batter), puffed rice, roti, and samosa, head on over to Kuala Lumpur’s Brickfields area. For traditional Malay snacks like rice sweets or curry puffs, check out Chow Kit.
2. Traditional Chinese medicines and herbs
Will be appreciated by: your hippie friend; your aunt who’s into healthy and organic living
Cost: From $3.00 to $7.00, depends on what you buy
With its large Chinese population, Kuala Lumpur has many shops and market stalls selling traditional Chinese medicines and herbs. There are herbs used as traditional remedies to cure asthma, stomach aches, headaches, and incontinence, and there are also herbs used for cooking. One of the best places to shop for herbs is Jalan Petaling in Chinatown, as it has some of the best herbal medicine stalls in Kuala Lumpur.
Don’t know what kind of herbs to get? Try assembling an herb kit for common ailments. To treat a cold, get some cinnamon twig, apricot seeds, and licorice. For a cough, some ginseng would help. And for a headache, nothing beats Chuan Xiong Cha Tiao Wan along with a cup of green tea.
3. Batik Fabric
Best for: your mom; your best friend; anyone who loves fabric and making things out of fabric
Cost: block printed batik at $3.00 per meter; hand printed batik at $62.00 per meter
This is one of Malaysia’s most important and unusual handicrafts. Batik is a fabric on which wax is used to create patterns on the cloth. Afterwards, the cloth is dyed with different colors, and the end result is a gorgeous piece of cloth that is truly unique. Malaysian batik is different from the ones made in Thailand and Singapore. Most of Malay batik has flowers, leaves or trees on it. Under traditional law, batik should not incorporate the images of animals or people on the design. That’s how you’ll know that what you have is the real thing.
There are two kinds of batik in Malaysia: the hand drawn batik, where the designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax using a metal object called a canting, and then the dyes are brushed on by the artist; and the block printed batik, wherein a block that has been carved with designs on the bottom is dipped into wax and printed on the fabric, and dip-dyed. The hand drawn batik is more expensive and more intricate, and is usually available in 2-meter or 4-meter bolts. The block printed batik can be bought in 20-meter bolts and are more affordable.
Malaysian batik can be bought in bolts, pieces, or even made into clothing and accessories. The exquisite fabric can be bought at markets, handicraft stores, or shopping malls. Just don’t buy your batik while you’re on a factory tour—it’s a guaranteed way to buy batik at almost five times the recommended price.
If you decide to buy some bolts of batik for yourself and you’re wondering what to do with the fabric, you can make pillow cases, throw pillow coverings, or even dresses out of the fabric. A nice piece of hand drawn batik can be framed and hung on the wall in lieu of a painting. I once saw a tablecloth made out of batik, it was very nicely done and it brightened up an ordinary kitchen table. You can even use it as a spread on the ground for a picnic lunch, or as a beach towel.
4. Pewter Ware
Best given to: co-workers; your best friend who loves collecting unusual things
Cost: starts at $8.00, depending on what kind you’ll get
Another must-buy in Malaysia is local pewter ware. You’ll see it all over Kuala Lumpur in craft stores, shopping malls, souvenir shops, local markets, and also at high end specialty shops. You can get wine accessories, pewter beer mugs, key chains, boxes, picture frames, coasters, and even cuff links made out of pewter.
What is pewter anyway? It’s actually a form of metal alloy comprising about 85 to 99 percent tin, along with small amounts of copper, antimony, bismuth, and lead. Before you think that what you’re getting is just an ordinary tin ashtray or mug, think again. The quality of the wares here are simply spectacular, and the designs are intricate and shows the Malaysian people’s mark of excellent craftsmanship.
The biggest pewter company in the country is the Selangor Company, which has a long history of making pewter ware. The company was founded in 1885 in Kuala Lumpur, and was a favorite of British colonials. In fact, the Brits bought a lot of ash trays, tankards, and tea services which were all in demand in the United Kingdom back then. Today, Selangor Company is the most prestigious among the many pewter ware makers in Malaysia, and if it’s quality you’re after, check out their shop in Kuala Lumpur.
Best for: kids, like your favorite nephew or niece; your friend who collects anything kitschy
Cost: Starts at $5.00
You know how that miniature of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and Big Ben all look so good on that shelf that you had expressly made just to display such tiny wonders? I don’t know about you, but I like to collect miniatures of famous landmarks. It makes me remember the places where I’ve been and the adventures that I had. And besides, they’re all so freaking cute, and my kids sometimes borrow them when they’re playing Barbie Goes Around the World.
For me, I bought a miniature of the famous KL Towers. There are also miniatures of the Penang Bridge, mosques, and other places of worship, but to me, the KL Towers symbolized everything that Malaysia is. Elegant, standing tall and proud, it is both a feat of architecture and a sight to behold.
There you go, all the best souvenirs you should get the next time you go to Malaysia. Make sure to shop around and buy only from highly recommended vendors or shops to make sure that you’re getting the genuine article.