Best artisanal buys in Malaysia

By Joanne Lane

Like all travellers I’m not averse to buying a few souvenirs and can tend to be a bit of an impulse buyer, but it’s always nice to know what some of the signature arts and crafts are to buy from a particular country or region.

Given the diversity of ethnic groups in Malaysia these vary from place to place, and because of this, and to avoid the need to lug everything around with you as you travel, many resort to going to KL’s Central Market at the end of their trip to fill their suitcase with items from all around Malaysia. However there are a few things you could look out for while you’re moving around, plus if you buy direct from the artisans themselves you’ll probably not only get a better price but you will know your money goes direct, or more direct, to the creator’s hands.

Kuching crafts

Craft stalls in markets like Kuching, Sarawak are good places to pick up locally made products. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Here are five main crafts to look out for during your travels.

 Batik and other fabrics

Yes this is inherently an Indonesian craft, but batik is also prevalent around Malaysia and somewhat different in style to its neighbour’s. Batik is basically created by drawing or printing a pattern on fabric with wax. It is then dyed. This design is often reproduced on anything from clothing to tablecloths or cushion covers, but you can equally find it simply as wall hangings or art works.

The best places to find batik crafts are on Malaysia’s eastern coast in Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu but you can also find it in Penang. In Malaysia most of the batik designs are floral motifs and quite colourful and the patterns tend to be simpler.

The Malaysian government is actively promoting the development of batik patterns and promoting it as a national dress. There’s also a biennial convention, Kuala Lumpur International Batik (KLIB) Convention and Exhibition, that brings in anyone related to batik. The last event was held in December 2011.

Another kind of fabric to keep an eye out for is kain songket. This textile with hand woven silver and gold threads was once reserved for members of royalty only. Now anyone can wear it but it’s usually only used for special occasions. Kelantan, Terengganu and Khota Bharu are where you’ll still find small cottage industries making this product.  A songket factory is located at Kampung Penambang north of Khota Bharu. Try the Buluh Kubu Bazaar, also known as Bamboo Fort Bazaar, for a variety of other textile products in Khota Bharu.

Sewing

Malaysia is renowned for its many fabrics and woven materials. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Metalwork

If silverwork is your metal of choice you may want to look out for the silversmiths of Kelantan where there work is generally considered intricate and of superior quality. They use two techniques here – filigree and repousse – and you’ll find everything from tea sets to brooches and bracelets. Visit the silvercraft factory at Kampung Sireh, Kota Bharu.

If brasswork is more what interests there are ample industries producing various work in Kuala Terengganu. Silverwork, textiles, woodcraft and kites are also produced here, particularly in the waterfront district of Kampung Cina.

Woven products

Various weaving methods are used around Malaysia to produce an array of gift boxes, mats, bags, hats, shoes, fans and more. You’ll see many of these practiced as a cottage industry all around the country.

Pua kumbu weaving is common in Malaysian Borneo amongst Iban people for producing ceremonial items for use in birth, marriage, funeral and other rituals. For example a child may be cleaned when first delivered and then laid on a pua kumbu, or a corpse may be screened with such a cloth. Pua kumbu are also used to veil structures. To produce the pua kumbu a special dyeing process called ikat is used by which the designs are dyed onto the threads before they are woven.

Mengkuang is the practice of weaving the strands of the pandanus tree that grows in mangrove forests and jungles. The leaves are stripped, split into strands, soaked, dried, boiled and dyed with vegetable colours. The colourful woven fragments are then used to make various products. This practice still thrives in the eastern states of Peninsular Malaysia.

Woodcarving

The Kenyah and Kayan peoples of Malaysian Borneo are generally considered very skilled carvers. In places like Semporna you’ll also find designs of lepa boats, a traditional wooden-hulled single-mast boat.

woodwork

A carved lepa boat in Semporna, Sabah. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Woven baskets

Woven baskets are commonly found in Malaysian Borneo and produced by a variety of ethnic groups including the Iban, Kayan, Kenya and Penan. Here you’ll find baskets, mats, seats and other materials made from rattan, bamboo, swamp grass and pandanus. These are commonly sold in markets around Borneo such as in Kuching but you’ll also find them in longhouses where they maybe available for purchase.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

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Author Bio

Joanne Lane (Australia)

Joanne Lane is an Australian freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane. A love of writing from an early age led her to complete a university journalism degree in 1996 with the idea of pursuing sports journalism, but she soon found the constraints of the newsroom too much. The travel bug soon hit and Jo has now travelled to some 40 countries or more and lived in a few as well, writing and documenting her experiences for newspapers, magazines and online sources around the world. For more details, see www.visitedplanet.com.