Quiet capitals and nyonya treats

Many people consider Canberra too quiet and boring. They haven’t visited Putrajaya. Malaysia’s new capital contains some magnificent examples of Muslim inspired modern architecture, but it is as quiet as a tomb.

Putrajaya is an attempt to move the Malaysian government apparatus away from Kuala Lumpur and to an entirely new capital city. All the ministries have their own unique buildings along a single street overlooked by the Prime Minister’s residence. The pink stoned National Mosque stands adjacent, aside a man-made lake crossed by bridges of amazing design.

Yet, for all its architectural marvels, the city appears bereft of residents, but for the army of gardeners maintaining the immaculate lawns and hedges.

From Putrajaya B’s cousin Kent drove us down along the six lane tollway past oil palm plantations to Melaka, on the coast two hours from KL. Melaka has a long history as a centre for international trade between Asia and Europe. The city was ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, all of whom have left their influence on the architecture, language and food.

Last time B and I had visited Melaka we visited some of the many tourist attractions, such as the red stone Christ Church, the famous symbol of Melaka, and A’Formosa, the fort. We took a trishaw ride around the narrow shophouse streets. It’s a wonderful way to see the historic areas.

Melaka’s narrow shophouse streets have that old air of decay, a sense of history, of stories hidden behind their caged doors. It feels as if the shops and houses have been occupied for hundreds of years by the same families. While in some cases this is true, the area has probably seen much change.

This time we were only in Melaka for the food. Nyonya food, prepared by the Peranakans, the children of Chinese and muslim unions. The Putrajaya detour had delayed our arrival and we were hungry!

We walked along narrow Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, behind the more touristy Jalan Hang Jebat, with its red lanterns and banners celebrating Chinese New Year, searching for a nonya restaurant. I still remembered the way to Peranakan Restaurant, housed in a restored Baba-Nyonya house. Antique Chinese furniture lined the entrance room, which opened into an ornately decorated dining area cooled by overhead fans. There we had a delicious lunch of nyonya curries. Nothing was bad, but the coconut prawn curry (udang lemak) and kangkong belachan (water convolvulus with shrimp paste) were outstandingly good, better still washed down with sweet lime juice.

It was then time to shop for some specialities of the area, preserved fermented shrimp paste (chinchalok) and pineapple tarts. Somehow we managed to find more space in our stomachs for chicken rice balls and other dishes at the A’Famosa restaurant.

Now it was getting very late, as we wanted to return to Kent’s area of Klang to catch up with his family for a dinner. The drive took us back past the endless palm fields. The blue sky had disappeared behind tropical clouds, bringing an early sunset. It began to rain for the first time during our stay here, heavy tropical droplets.

Dinner was at an out of the way restaurant serving chilli crab and other seafood. A long chain red, blue and yellow lights was strung along between the street lamps, while red lanterns decorated the restaurant ceiling. As we ate fireworks exploded in the distance. I love the atmosphere at these outdoor restaurants and the Chinese New Year decorations just made it more magical.

It was 10:30 by the time we said our goodbyes at the restaurant. Kent drove us to the Klang train station so that we could take a commuter train back to KL city. Unfortunately, like in Sydney, the late hour meant the ticket offices were closed and the machines were only accepting exact change. We ended up catching a taxi, driven like a race car, for 60 ringgit back to our hotel. I can’t say I minded too much as I we were all too tired for the complexities of public transport.

Back in the hotel we were treated to one more Chinese New Year show with fireworks exploding outside our window over Bukit Bintang. Gong xi fa choi!

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