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Looking for an authentic cultural experience in Malaysia? Hang out at the Mall.

In this country on the cusp of the developed world the mall is a cultural and economic phenomena replacing the traditional bazaars, shopfronts and markets. If you want to mix it with the locals in Malaysia, go to the mall.

Now and again, in my Malacca hotel, I hear the muzac from the shopping mall below as it's carried on the breeze of the air-conditioning. From the lobby, I can walk in air-conditioned comfort and via pedestrian links that connect malls all the way to the historic district, passing shops and cafes, cinemas, a sports area and a theme park.


In Kuala Lumpur, the Bukit Bintang Walk is an 8 kilometre stretch of interconnected malls that eventually spits you out onto a skywalk to KLCC park. After a bit of fresh air, nature and synchronised fountains, you cross the park and re-enter the mall world under Petronas Towers.


Georgetown, Penang has a historic district full of streetside cafes and centuries-old shophouses. Marking the edge of the old town and the beginning of the new are the shopping malls, acting like gates to the citadel.


Pavilion Mall, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur

I don't normally hang out at malls and it's a weird place to be as a budget tourist, but this is where Malaysia's 'vibe' is. Families, shopping girls, pervy guys; they are all here. Not all of them buying either. The mall is an indoor public space where people can gather in air-conditioned comfort out of the equatorial heat. ​​


Malaysia's malls are a heady mix of multiculturalism; of colourful clothing, food and language. Chinese Malaysians wearing t.shirt and shorts mingle with Muslim Malays wearing hijabs and Hindus wearing floor-length saris. The shops cater for all. The food courts, a buzz of activity thronging with people and chatter, are where you find Malaysia's hawker food...right next to the 24hr McDonald's and KFC. It's a strange mix the old and traditional, juxtaposed with the new and international.


Mall life isn't just an air-conditioned cool way to shop. In Asia, it marks the economic and cultural assent from the developing world to the developed. Malls are the bastion of western affluence and capitalism. They are shiny, bright, colourful, multi-story buildings of stuff. Of brands and gadgets and things not necessary to sustaining life, but which determine our social status. It speaks not only of wealth but of culture: the urban tribe we belong to.


Chinese New Year decorations in the mall

Where a country stands in its development status is curiously important to many ​​Malaysians. Speak to them of a country they don't know well and it will be the first thing they ask "is that a developed country or is it still developing?".


The majority of Malaysia's population live well. Many have travelled, worked or studied overseas. They own cars, drive them on well maintained highways, healthcare is good and education is compulsory. Even in the most far flung villages, there is clean water, electricity and sanitation. Malaysia appears, on the surface at least, to be firmly part of the developed world. But most Malaysians I spoke to considered their country was either not quite there yet or only recently there, either way sitting tentatively on the cusp. As a result, the economy becomes part of many conversations, from the fall in the ringgit, the cost of public spending and, more importantly, the price of oil.


Shopping malls have had major impact on social interaction and retail strategies in many western countries but are less common in the developing world. street fronts, bazaars and market places are certainly a phenomena in Asia. Findings of a report :Malaysian students were motivated to visit malls primarily by the interior design of the mall; products that interested them; opportunities for socializing with friends; and convenient one‐stop shoppin"more youth otherieatied than older gens and similar characteristics to use of the mall as western nations.(link to research https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13555850710827841/full/html)


The first 2 days of Chinese New Year are public holidays in Malaysia. Chinatown's store fronts are locked and the normally busy streets are empty. Instead, everyone is at the mall. The malls are painted red in celebration and decorations fall from the ceilings with banners wishing luck and prosperity. Lion dancers, pop singers and traditional Chinese musicians enthral the crowds crammed into amphitheatre type seating. The malls restaurants, cafes and food courts are filled to overflowing with people enjoying the CNY 'prosperity meals'. It has the same level of excitement as an old fashioned street festival but less touristy and more culturally relevant to modern Malaysia.

Clearly, there are other cultural tourism experiences to be had in this amazing and diverse nation. With a hectic mix of asian cultures and religions Malaysia is place of food, festivities, art and history. Malaysian Borneo has over 40 distinct ethnic indigenous groups while you'll also find across the country Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, Hindu, Tamil...with western colonial influences from the Dutch, Portuguese, English and Arabs. The nation was a significant part of the old world trade. But don't overlook the modern world trade. If you want to find out what the locals do, go where the locals go.

 

 

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