Travellers choose Asia for a whole host of reasons, from fun in the sun and great food to healing arts and cultural inspiration, but an increasing number of vacationers also appreciate the region for its stupendous shopping options.
I often send gifts to friends and family from Asia, and the recipients are often amazed to learn that I bought them in mega-malls that offer far more variety than their counterparts in the West. The less worldly folks back in Europe or North America are still under the impression, despite images of cities in Asia on their TV sets and computers, that the region is mainly comprised of rice paddies and tiny local markets. While such features are still important components of Asian life; all cities of significance in the East now boast a choice of malls that cater to everyone from brand conscious teenagers to upmarket collectors of antiques and fine art.
Fashion is a major driver for retail in Asia and countries like Indonesia and Thailand now host regular events in their shopping malls to highlight local fashion talent. Meanwhile in Singapore, the Audi Star Creation is an annual competition for fledgling designers, with a one-year internship with locally based international retailer FJ Benjamin for the winners. International retail brands such as Uniqlo, Cotton On and H&M have also been significantly expanding their reach in the region, which may be why the local population in places like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Manila seem much better dressed than the tourists visiting these fast developing cities.
Here’s a brief tour of some of the best mega-malls in Southeast Asia.
Philippine Purchasing Power
In Asia it sometimes seems like mall developers are constantly looking for a world record, whether it’s for overall size, number of stores, square footage of retail space or design approach. On a recent trip to the Philippines, I experienced this first hand at SM Mall of Asia. This behemoth, with its 406,962 sqm of gross floor area, draws about 200,000 shoppers daily and was for a spell the country’s largest shopping mall. It’s not surprising when you learn that it has over 1,000 shops and 360 restaurants, six parking buildings.
More than just a shopping mall, you can take in a concert at the open-air music hall that fronts Manila Bay – the fresh sea air lends a lovely touch to an evening performance. The six-story entertainment complex also has an IMAX theatre, of course, and the cinema was filled with triumphant cheers on opening with a special showing of the movie “Everest”. Luckily, three days prior to the event, Leo Oracion the Filipino tri-athlete had summited Mt. Everest, making the entire country proud beyond words.
You can climb higher than Mall of Asia in terms of mall heights with a visit to the giant that recently eclipsed it as the country’s largest such retail and dining space. Appropriately called Megamall, the massive place opened in January 2015 and was also built by SM Prime Holdings, the country’s largest mall operator. It has over 506,000 sqm of retail space and attracts daily foot traffic of 800,000 people. That the mall is contained in just two buildings, A (Food Court, Toy Kingdom and anchor stores) and B (SM Department Store, SM Supermarket, Cyberzone and other anchor outlets) speaks for the place’s size. A gigantic bridge connects the two buildings and there’s an eye-catching artistic circle-based design theme emblazoned into every floor and wall.
Singapore Shopping Sensation
Though it might not be the record holder for its size; Singapore’s HarbourFront Centre is linked to an international cruise centre as well as VivoCity, Singapore’s largest retail and lifestyle destination. HarbourFront Centre is also one of the most well appointed malls of the region, in my estimation. It also has its own station on the MRT line, and the lively walkway art touches, including a unique cool-spray system, give this mall a fun, light energy, along with an engaging use of spaces and attractive designs.
The atriums between stores often host fairs with many items for purchase at discounted prices, as well as frequent entertainment events. There’s also plenty of dining options, of course, mostly located in the mall’s wings for a pleasing meal with a view. Or, you can get your fill for home at the Giant Hypermarket, a huge grocery store. For movies, there’s a choice of 15 screens including an extra-wide screen at GV VivoCity.
As part of Singapore’s largest mall, the HarbourFront Centre seems roomy enough to fly a small plane through, but if you need some fresh air, ascend to the Rooftop Amphitheater, where you’ll often find performance artists plying their craft, or you may be lucky enough to catch an art show in progress. If you have little ones, take them to the open-air playground at Level 2, where there are active playground features to explore.
Jakarta Retail Jaunts
Mal Kelapa Gading, located in Jakarta’s area of the same name, has 130,000 sqm of floor space and over 600 stores. While this is not on quite an SM Megamall parallel, the design is unique and fun, with brightly coloured stores dominating the scene at every turn.
Significant in size for Indonesia, the mall is quite a draw for tourists and Indonesians alike. I not only enjoyed the fine clothing in The Catwalk section, a part devoted to high-end and exclusive apparel, but also had fun traipsing though the Fashion Hub with several friends shopping for gifts. At Bridal World, where, as you can imagine, the girls “oo’d” and “aah’d” at the most resplendent of wedding gowns and bets went down as to the number of pearls in a 20-foot long wedding train on display.
We all won in the end, by eating from no less than four different eateries at the 6,000 sqm Food Temptation food court, with coffees and treats from cafes located in Gourmet Walk. To sample the best cuisine the mall has to offer, we even went back in the evening for a spin through La Piazza, where you can get an assortment of international fare in restaurants of all types.
Bangkok Bargain Hunting
To shop in CentralWorld – Bangkok’s largest mall and the world’s sixth largest shopping complex – is to appreciate the vitality of Thailand’s growing dominance in the Asian retail industry. With its expanded size reaching 550,000 sqm of retail space in an overall complex size of 1,024,000 sqm, this is one of the most amazing shopping malls around, and there’s always a generous sale on, whatever month you visit.
Originally called the World Trade Center, the complex thankfully changed its name before opening and is also home to a large convention centre, a hotel and office tower, which together now form a whole new city centre for Bangkok. With a Cineplex that rivals many others in Southeast Asia, 18 floors of shops and ZEN megastore, ZEN World and copious amounts of parking space, CentralWorld is an impressive sight to add to the must-see list on a trip to the Thai capital.
Some Extra Tips
To do justice to any of Southeast Asia’s giant shopping and entertainment centres, it’s advisable to make a few trips over several days. If you try to get everything seen, eaten, bought and visited in a day, you’ll soon be facing exhaustion. Below are a few additional tips to help you plan a shopping tour.
- On the fifth level of the SM Megamall Atrium you will find The Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord, a Roman Catholic chapel of the Archdiocese of Manila that was inaugurated on October 13, 2008.
- When at the Singapore HarbourFront Centre, be sure to also stroll through the many shops of the VivoCity shopping centre. Then take the cable car ride to lovely Sentosa Island where you can even visit Universal Studios if you have the energy.
- Mal Kelapa Gading is a good place to seek out some traditional Indonesian food, although you might find it hard to distinguish local dishes from all the other Asian and international fare on offer.
- Bangkok CentralWorld’s Genius Park is an exciting learning adventure for kids, with a shopping arcade section, a full playground and an assortment of learning centres dedicated to teaching the grown-ups and their kids about our world. Another section is TK Park, a complex that comprises Internet centres, a modest library, as well as a 4D movie theatre. If you need more active attractions, try The Rink IceSkate, an indoor rink located on the 2nd floor Forum zone.