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March 03, 2009

Malaysian Markets Are Not for the Meek

Outside the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur. Don't be afraid to bargain like a local--
and move on if you don't get the right price.

Photo: Phalinn on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Dinda Elliott

As an editor at Condé Nast Traveler, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of travel. How to be an environmentally responsible traveler? How to be culturally sensitive to my surroundings? In that context, a few of us at Traveler have had discussions and debates over the last year about the ethics of bargaining. The current politically correct view seems to be that bargaining is a bad thing, nothing more than wealthy Westerners exploiting the hardworking locals, squeezing them out of their tiny profits.

So I had to laugh today, on my first day in Kuala Lumpur, as I headed to the Central Market to look for traditional batik sarongs, when my Indian cabdriver warned me to bargain everything down. (I am a bit of a batik fetishist: My stepmother used to be in the business, and I got hooked traveling to Indonesia's northern Java on a buying trip for her a million years ago.) My driver didn't just warn me, actually; he yelled at me, as if to say, you dumb foreigner, get with the program! "Bargain HARD!" he exclaimed. "They will charge you way too much--at least 50 percent too much!"

Earlier I had visited the 88-story Petronas Towers, which have become a symbol of Malaysian pride, to discover that the economic crisis hasn't hit Kuala Lumpur yet. The towers' luxury mall, with everything from Chanel to Fendi, Armani, Prada, Versace, and Paul Smith stores, was throbbing with shoppers. There were Middle Eastern women in black chador, young Chinese Malaysian hipsters in knit hats and T-shirts, and Malay, Indian, and Chinese families out for a Sunday of browsing, eating, and shopping. Definitely no batik there, among the luxury designer shops.

Astounded by such commercial activity, I headed to the Central Market, an outdoor mall full of knockoffs, which was bustling, too. Sure enough, as I walked past row upon row of counterfeit designer bags, the merchants manning the stalls shouted their prices at me. "Hermes--lah! Seven colors!" one Chinese lady shouted. I stopped to look at one particularly appealing Kelly bag in powder blue, which she said she would give me for 300 ringgit, the equivalent of about $80. I really was looking for batik, not bags, so I put the bag back in her hands, thanked her, and walked on. "How much you pay--lah? she screeched. "I give you for 200 ringgit! Okay, how much you offer?!" And that was without me even opening my mouth.

So much for our do-gooder Western concern about treating locals unfairly by haggling. In this part of the world, bargaining is very much part of the culture. My Taiwanese host mother, when I was studying Chinese 30 years ago, used to bargain bitterly at the vegetable market, in a dramatic performance repeated on a daily basis with the very same merchants. In Beijing, a Chinese friend used to insist on doing the bargaining for me at street stalls. "Otherwise they'll give you the foreign devil price," my friend would say. At the risk of sounding like some sort of ingrate, I daresay there is almost the sense in many parts of Asia that if you don't play the game, you're just spoiling everyone else's fun. At the very least, you're being dumb.

I didn't find the batik I was looking for: The sarongs in Kuala Lumpur's Central Market were all cheap quality, machine printed instead of the delicate, hand-tooled designs found in Indonesia. They say that the quality of the batik on Malaysia's east coast is highest, so I will continue my quest for sarongs when I get there.

Further reading:
* Dinda's first day in Kuala Lumpur, when she got all the gossip
* Dispatches: On the road


That was a good article on K.L. You'll certainly be able to find better-quality batik on the East Coast, especially in Terengganu and Kelantan where it's a centuries-old home industry. One small note though: the open-air market you visited in K.L. was the infamous Petaling Street market with its hundreds of stalls selling fake designer watches, bags and clothes. The Central Market you referred to is actually a covered market (i.e. in a building) across the street which is now a handicraft centre - there's a corner in that market that has batik-making demonstrations and the stuff there is quite good, and yes, you can certainly bargain there. Enjoy your trip!

Quite right: thanks so much for the correction. I plan to go to Central Market tomorrow to check out the batik there.

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