Kuala Lumpur shopping holiday: Retail heaven and KL

Kuala Lumpur knows how to welcome you and your money, writes Mal Chenu.

Kuala Lumpur's name is mud. Literally. According to the twice-daily "orientation" musical MUD, Our Story of Kuala Lumpur in the stately Panggung Bandaraya heritage building, Kuala Lumpur means muddy estuary or muddy river. As an  introduction to the beginnings of the city and an entertaining showcase of local talent, this is a good place to start.

Malaysia works hard on its tourism offerings and the effort was rewarded with nearly 23 million visitors – including half a million Australians – coming from January to October, 2014, representing an increase of 9 per cent on the corresponding 2013 period, despite a tough year.

English is ubiquitous but "Selamat datang" (Welcome) is written and spoken everywhere and you can feel it is genuine. You are made to feel as welcome as your money. KL is a clean, safe and hospitable city, even in the grittier parts of town. In five minutes walking the back streets not far from the Pavilion KL shopping mall, I am offered a selfie stick for $4, ramen noodles for 30 cents, 60 per cent off a bespoke suit, and sex, all with unerring politeness.

The welcome begins with a cheap and efficient fast train ride from the airport to the city. For 35RM ($A11.40), KLIA will take you the 57 kilometres in about 30 minutes, while you relax with a coffee and free Wi-Fi. You can even check in for your return flight at the train station on the way back to the airport.

Malaysia blends the cultural potpourri of its Malay, Chinese, Indian and English heritages seamlessly and the result is a stylish modernity with a healthy respect for the past. You'll find exquisite fine dining and enticing street food, relaxed pubs and top-end bars and, most impressively, el cheapo markets as well as high street and exclusive shopping.

My credit card and I visit all of these spectacular anodised edifices and find friendliness and bargains at each.

Last year CNN ranked KL the "fourth best shopping destination in the world" after New York City, Tokyo and London and ahead of Paris, Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore and Milan, to name but a few. The malls and the value for money are huge. Those with more expertise in this area than me estimated a discount of  about 40 per cent from Australian prices.

KL hosts three major sales "carnivals"  a year boasting discounts of up to 70 per cent – the 1Malaysia GP Sale in March (coinciding with the Malaysian Grand Prix), the 1Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival in July and August and the 1Malaysia Year End Sale in November and December. And you can still haggle on top of that (admittedly more so at the artisanal markets than at Guy Laroche, Rolex or Gucci) to stretch your tanking Aussie dollars even further.

KL's premier shopping district is the Bukit Bintang – KLCC district but the broader Klang Valley area – comprising Kuala Lumpur, its suburbs and adjoining cities are all retail paradises, where intense competition benefits shoppers. The major malls also invite you to register for a Tourist Privilege Card for even greater discounts.

Pavilion KL boasts more than 400 shops over seven levels and features Hermes, Michael Kors, Coach, Versace, DKNY, Jimmy Choo and Yves Saint Laurent as well as an enormous food court. Actually, this description could be applied to any of the malls, including The Gardens, Fahrenheit88, Starhill Gallery and Publika. My credit card and I visit all of these spectacular anodised edifices and find friendliness and bargains at each. Fashion is huge here and Malaysian label Farah Khan and favourite son Jimmy Choo are ubiquitous. Batik has been elevated to haute couture too with the release of English fashion designer Dame Zandra Rhodes' collection of batik dresses.

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The 452-metre-high, 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers is also a top-end shopping venue. Petronas – the tallest building in the world until 2004 and now ranked 9th – is imposing at ground level and there can be long waits for tours to the viewing platform. Grab a caffeine hit from Eight Ounce Coffee and check out the permanent F1 display inside the front door while you wait.

They love a festival here too and no less than 50 are scheduled for 2015. Malaysia was also recently named Asia's best country to spend your retirement years by International Living magazine, earning high scores for the ease of fitting in, entertainment, amenities and a low cost of living. Furthermore, Malaysia won Asia's Best Golf Destination at the 2014 World Golf Awards. Come for the shopping and festivals, stay forever. And bring your golf clubs.

 FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN KL

Cocktail at Traders Hotel SkyBar

The "Ivy" of KL, SkyBar has a huge swimming pool, a decidedly funky attitude and mind-boggling views of the city – dominated by Petronas Towers – from its 33rd floor vantage point. Best experienced at night.

Feast on nyonya nosh at Lot 10

A shopping mall at street level, the basement is renowned as the best place in KL for street and nyonya (traditional home style) food. Dozens of outlets offering inexpensive tucker of most Asian ethnicities.

KL Heritage and/or Nature Trail walks.

These adjoined trails feature galleries, museums, heritage architecture, a bird park, botanic gardens and Malaysian icons, including the National Mosque, Islamic Arts Museum and Tugu Negara, the national war memorial bronze sculpture. Easy terrain, also accessible by tram.

Kampong Bharu.

Meaning "new village", this collection of seven old-style villages is a portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of the traditional Malay lifestyle, in the heart of modern Kuala Lumpur. Try authentic cuisine in an authentic setting, like teh tarik (pulled tea), nasi lemak (coconut rice) and bubur lambuk (rice porridge).

Chinatown

More than 100 years old, buildings are restricted to two storeys for fear of collapse. Great food plus arcades filled with traditional Chinese medicines, dry shredded seafood, $3 Rolex watches and bongs. Centred around Jalan Petaling, the smell of roasted chestnuts and incense from the Hindu and Taoist temples provides a heady encounter.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See tourismmalaysia.com.au; Mud the Musical: mudkl.com/the-show

Hotels have a range of brochures and helpful hints on shopping and other attractions.

GETTING THERE

Malaysia Airlines – and many other major airlines – fly direct to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney and Melbourne daily. See malaysiaairlines.com

STAYING THERE

Sheraton Imperial KL, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur is comfortable, convenient and boasts classy bars and restaurants and a fulsome breakfast buffet. Rooms start from 270RM ($A96)  a night. See sheraton.com/imperialkualalumpur

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines. 

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