In 1888, when the Chinese kapitan Yap Ah Loy first marked off the site where Malaysia's Central Market stands today, the plan was to build a "wet market" (marketplace for meat and other farm produce) to cater to the tin miners who once populated Kuala Lumpur.
Today, kapitan Yap might barely recognize the market building standing on the site today, but certainly not the building's contents.
The present-day Central Market building houses lanes upon lanes of stalls selling a veritable Aladdin's cave of tourist-friendly goods: antiques, kitschy pop products, cosmetics, artwork, traditional fabrics, handbags, and clothes, among others.
Given the latter's central Chinatown location, travelers to Kuala Lumpur have no excuse to miss out on a Central Market shopping spree. (Site: centralmarket.com.my; location of Central Market on Google Maps.)
Shopping Streets Brimming with Culture
The place has always been called the Central Market, but its Malay name is more recent - "Pasar Seni" means "Handicraft Market", and the building's focus on arts and handicrafts dates back only to the 1980s, when it avoided demolition by rebranding itself as a haven for the artistically-inclined.
Today, the Central Market's 70,000 square feet of shopping space line up around themed lorong, or lanes, that reflect aspects of Malaysia's culture.
On the ground floor, the central promenade branches to the west into Lorong India, Lorong Melayu, Lorong Cina, Lorong Kolonial, and Lorong Kelapa.
The first three lanes are named after Malaysia's three main ethnicities – Indian, Malay, and Chinese respectively – and most stores in each lane sell products and services particular to the assigned ethnicity. Lorong India, for instance, offers sari, henna, Indian jewelry, and a wealth of handicrafts imported from as far away as Kashmir.
Lorong Kelapa specializes in stores selling traditional Malay snacks, from keropok to kueh.
Two Floors of Shopping in Central Market
A parallel lane on the eastern side of the building splits into Jonker Street and Rumah Melayu. Both lanes are lined with replicas of traditional Malaysian houses and stores hawking batik goods and Malaysian antiques.
On the mezzanine floor, the eastward corridor is a batik emporium selling Malaysian handicrafts derived from that traditional patterned cloth, while the westward corridor is divided into clothing stores and restaurants.
A food court filled with Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese concessions can be found here, sandwiched between a Thai restaurant and a traditional Straits coffeeshop. (Read about Top Must-Try Malaysia Street Foods.)
Kasturi Walk's Street Shopping Experience
The length of Jalan Hang Kasturi on the eastern side of the Central Market building was converted into a covered outdoor mall in 2012. The shopping street is lined with fifty-plus kiosks selling cheap knick-knacks, clothing and traditional snacks.
A translucent roof overhead provides shelter from the rain while letting light through; the roof terminates on the southern end facing Petaling Street in a giant replica of a Malay kite.
Contributing to the sound of the traffic nearby, street musicians ply their trade on Jalan Kasturi as the shoppers mill about. A more regularly-scheduled entertainment happens at an events stage nearby; Malaysian dance and martial arts shows are staged nightly at the Central Market at 9 pm.
Annexe Gallery's Fine Arts Experience
An annex north of the main building that used to hold a cinema now hosts a series of art galleries, including the large Annexe Gallery. The annex's interior is also filled with performance spaces and art shops. The annex is also used as a venue for art-related lectures, one-man shows, and art exhibits.
If you have time, you can commission a portrait of yourself at one of the shops inside the gallery or at Art Lane, the walkway between the main building and the annex.
You'll also find the Museum of Ethnic Arts within the annex, a mini-museum of ethnic art from all around Southeast Asia and China. (Visit their Facebook page.)
What to Buy at Central Market
What you get out of shopping at Kuala Lumpur's Central Market depends on your budget. (Read more: Money in Malaysia.) With a few hundred bucks, you can come away with a guaranteed authentic antique from Afghanistan; a little less can buy you authentic freshwater pearls or a beautiful batik dress.
Here's a short list of items you can blow your spending money on within Central Market's confines.
Batik. Indonesia may have invented the batik, but Malaysia has put its own spin on this patterned cloth, local artisans preferring to use stamp blocks or brushes instead of the handheld wax pen known as the canting to make the floral designs preferred by customers. Shops selling batik are all over the Central Market but are mostly concentrated on the eastern corridor on the mezzanine floor.
Laser-cut sculpture. Knick-knack store Arch (www.archcollection.com.my) specializes in laser-cut portraits of Asian landmarks and landscapes, carved out of wood veneer and layered to create a 3D effect. You can buy these works of art in the form of framed pictures, pencil holders, even phone cases.
For a larger selection, visit the main Arch store at the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery.
Antiques. If you want to buy antiques without worrying about authenticity issues, then Kota Pinang on the ground floor gives the goods: the antiques in stock come in all forms, from Chinese porcelains to Persian carpets to Malay anklets to carvings from Cambodia.
Pearls. The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo produce fine pearls of different sizes and colors. Borneo Pearls (www.borneopearl.com) specializes in hand-assembling these pearls into jewelry pieces; many of the designs reflect traditional patterns typical of the indigenous groups who populate East Malaysia.
Pewter. Malaysia made its fortune on tin mining, and while the country's tin reserves are currently undergoing a steep decline, the pewter industry continues apace. The world's largest pewter craft corporation, Royal Selangor (www.royalselangor.com), is based in Malaysia, and its branch store in the Central Market does brisk business.
Other stores in Central Market sell pewter craft too, with lower prices (and corresponding lower quality).
Spa products. The spa supplies store Tanamera (www.tanamera.com.my) sells specially-formulated bath and beauty products in its ground floor store.
The soaps, lotions, and detergents are made from locally-sourced ingredients, using traditional Malay recipes.
Pottery. Good-quality handcrafted pottery can be purchased at Tenmoku (www.tenmokupottery.com.my), a Malaysian earthenware brand with a stall on the Central Market's ground floor. The pottery comes from Tenmoku's kiln factory near the Batu Caves; the designs are "inspired by natural forms", translated into vases, plates, bowls and other ceramic products.
How to Get to Central Market
Central Market can be found at Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a few minutes' walk from another popular shopping street in Chinatown, Petaling Street.
Thanks to Central Market's location, getting here is fairly easy using KL's public transport system – you can come by train or by bus. By train, you can take the Kelana Jaya LRT Line and disembark at Pasar Seni Station; Central Market is a short three-minute walk north from the station.
You can also ride Kuala Lumpur's Free Go KL City Bus, which terminates at the foot of the aforementioned Pasar Seni Station.
If you want to stay nearby, thus negating the need to commute to Chinatown and Central Market, check out our list of Top Hostels in Kuala Lumpur.
What you get out of shopping at Kuala Lumpur's Central Market depends on your budget. (Read more: Money in Malaysia.) With a few hundred bucks, you can come away with a guaranteed authentic antique from Afghanistan; a little less can buy you authentic freshwater pearls or a beautiful batik dress. Budget shoppers can browse through the cheaper batiks, handicrafts, and toys and still get something for under $10.
Central Market, Kuala Lumpur Contact Details