April 30, 2004

Malaysia: Tourists invited to new capital

Parts of Seri Perdana, the official residence of Malaysia's Prime Minister, are open to visitors to Putrajaya.
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) -- Inside the official residence of Malaysia's Prime Minister, one of the perks of power is a room with a view.
The west wing lounge of this mansion on a terraced hillside offers glimpses of a pink-domed mosque, a two-tiered concrete bridge and one of the world's largest manmade lakes.
These commanding sights are the pride of Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital, carved from rubber- and palm-oil plantations and built from scratch into what officials tout as an urban utopia.
The $5.3 billion city was the pet project of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and is not finished yet. Mahathir named it after this Southeast Asian nation's founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, adding "jaya," the Malay word for "success."
Mahathir's vision was grand. "It has been built for the next 100, 200, 300 years," he declared when government departments began moving from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's bustling largest city, to Putrajaya, about 25 miles away, in 1999. "It is a showpiece of Malaysia's ability to do things in the construction industry."
The 11,300-acre metropolis is carefully landscaped and architect-sculpted. Government offices include edifices the size of city blocks that blend futuristic facilities with centuries-old Islamic architecture, such as the "Palace of Justice," a new court complex.
Rows of cookie-cutter apartment blocks line wide boulevards, and cranes tower over many more under construction. But the city is eerily quiet, a sign of difficulties convincing people to move their lives from chaotic, vibrant Kuala Lumpur to the less colorful new city.
But a lack of crowds makes for simple sightseeing.
Visitors can enter parts of the prime minister's official home, called Seri Perdana, including a banquet hall bathed in light from chandeliers, a prayer chamber featuring walls carved with Muslim calligraphy, a meeting room and a guest lounge.
Officials estimate Seri Perdana has welcomed more than 1 million visitors in just over three years. The elegant residence, which sits on a 40-acre estate, is now occupied by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who succeeded Mahathir when he retired in October.
"This house is very, very beautiful," Wang Qi Hong, a college lecturer from China, said while admiring a fountain in Seri Perdana's bougainvillea-filled garden. "I would have liked to see more of it."
Another distinctive landmark is a massive mosque constructed in rose-tinted granite with a soaring 380-foot-tall minaret. Built to accommodate 15,000 worshippers, the structure also hosts a permanent exhibit of rare copies of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
The mosque stands on the banks of an artificial lake that covers more than one-tenth of Putrajaya's total area. On cooler evenings, kayakers paddle in the 4-mile-long lake and tourists cruise on gondola-like vessels.
Nearly 40 percent of the meticulously designed, environment-friendly capital is set aside for parks, manicured hills and freshwater wetlands teeming with swans, flamingoes and nearly 60,000 trees and shrubs.
Gondola tours pass the city's massive mosque on the banks of an artificial lake.
Besides trekking in the wetlands, nature-lovers can also head for Putrajaya's Botanical Gardens. A giant mechanical praying mantis greets visitors at the entrance to the gardens, which contains more than 700 plant species from across Asia and Africa.
The venue also boasts a 560-foot-long bridge spanning a valley planted with samples of tropical flora. Once the trees have grown some more, visitors will be walking through the canopy of a rain forest, officials said.
Authorities plan to build more tourist attractions in Putrajaya over the next three years, including a gargantuan shopping mall, artificial picnic beach, water theme park and maritime museum.
The efforts are meant to boost Putrajaya's modest number of foreign visitors -- an estimated 200,000 in 2003 -- and lure millions of Malaysians who have never set foot here.
"This is my first time in Putrajaya, and I'm pleasantly surprised," Malaysian schoolteacher Malar Rajah said while strolling through the botanical gardens. "I used to think there were only big buildings here, but there are also places where ordinary people can enjoy themselves."

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"