A visit to Burma's bizarre in–progress new capital, Naypyidaw: a city of sprawling zones and long walks.
Pretty much no one in Burma knows a thing about Naypyidaw, the nation's new capital. Many locals don't even know what to call it, translating its name as "adobe of kings" or "royal capital" or "new capital"––or just calling it by its nearest neighbor, "Pyinmana, " a highway town five miles east. If you ask about visiting the city, some locals warn, "no, it could be dangerous." Even the Rangoon staff at the government–run Myanmar Tours & Travel isn't sure about it: "maybe it's possible," one said. But this is Burma, a nation run by an ever–secretive military dictatorship, so it's not all that surprising. The surprise is how easy it is to visit.
Burma's commander–in–chief, Senior General Than Shwe, never explained why he suddenly moved the capital in November 2005 from Rangoon (250 miles south) to this arid, mountain–framed spot in central Burma: a place where practically no one bothered settling over the past 2000 years. Some say he followed an astrologer's advice, others say he feared an Iraq–like invasion. Either way, such escapades are nothing new for this Texas–sized country set between Thailand, China and India. Before the British took over in the 1800s, kings played capital hopscotch for centuries, each regime searching for "auspicious" locales to ensure eternal prosperity. It never seemed to work. King Bodawpaya's 18th–century capital Amarapura (aka "City of Immortality"), for example, lasted just a dozen years.
Far from finished, building Naypyidaw is costing untold millions to create a city that will supposedly out–size 120 Manhattans and house a million. The money comes from Burma's rich resources of oil, teak and jade sold to willing neighbors not signed onto US/EU sanctions. Considering that few people in Burma get more than three hours of power a day, and many earn just $1 for a day's work, one local told me, "It's depressing. I've worked 40 years under this government and they just don't care." Even Burma's closest buddies, the Chinese, shook their heads over the move.
Many outsiders compare Burma with North Korea, but visiting here is a far different experience than of that dictatorship, where visits are limited to tightly controlled (and expensive) group tours. In much of Burma, you can plot your way as you go, stopping in random villages and teashops, staying in family–run guesthouses, joining locals in rickety buses, or riding on the back of horse carts to village markets. Inspired by my hassle–free itinerary across central Burma, I jumped off a Taungoo–Mandalay bus when I passed nearby Pyinmana in late December. Just to see what would happen.
The Highway to Nowhere
"Naypyidaw?" the first motorbike guy at the Pyinmana bus stop repeated when I asked. "Yes, 3000 kyat", or about $2.50. I hadn't expected such a quick offer. He propped my suitcase between his knees and the handlebars and we took off onto a road that looked nothing like the entrance I expected. A pig with a muddied butt wandered onto the cracked two–lane highway, men in skirt–like longyi and women with dollops of thanakha (powdered bark) on their faces peered out from a passing pick–up. Framing the road were long, sun–burnt rice fields, occasional huts and far–off mountains––all blurred by the mix of refuse fire smoke and waves of settling dust. No signs, no official buildings, no passport checks, no "city" to speak of. It looked like just another typical Burmese road.
"We go to Naypyidaw, yes?" I tried to confirm. Before he could answer, an all–black Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows zoomed by––practically a UFO in a country more prone to transport by ox––and, as if willed to do so by the passing officials, the road soon widened to a smooth, six–lane, modern highway lined with a freshly painted red–and–white curb and rows of street lights shining nonstop for the rare passing vehicle. A mile up, we passed a mammoth Chinese–style building, set in an open field; a handful of guards at the gate had M–16s lazily plopped on their laps and didn't bother to notice us, much less have me deported. "Naypyidaw city hall," my driver shouted over his shoulder. "No photos." We were "downtown."
Locals across Burma long for discussions with outsiders. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi's travel boycott, everyone you meet in Burma seems grateful to see travelers. Many thank you for the chance to just talk about everyday things like family, soccer and Buddha. On my recent visit, many asked me too about the US presidential elections, or lashed out at the government's brutal response to the peaceful monk–led protests last September. I certainly wouldn't expect such openness in the government's own stronghold. The little we outsiders have heard or seen of the city tends to be limited to Google Maps' long–outdated satellite images, and a rare, one–day invitation of foreign journalists to attend a March 2007 "Potemkin parade" by the statues of three famous battle–tested kings. A New York Times piece covering the event included a few quotes from locals who seemed, unconvincingly, in love with their new home. Probably someone in uniform had been watching.
No one seemed to be watching when my motorbike taxi and I pulled into a $65 hotel in the two–mile long "hotel district" on the road toward a small, new airport. Unlike the $10 family guesthouses I stayed in elsewhere in Burma, no one greeted me. I walked my bag up the lobby steps. Inside, a pudgy official wearing a longyi and giant turquoise ribbon on his white button–up shirt sat on a wicker sofa by a Christmas tree. A couple English–speaking receptionists quietly checked me into my room, then preemptively apologized, "Sorry sir, you will have to eat in your room or wait till 8pm when the Ministry of Information finish their banquet in our restaurant." I found my way to my stand–alone bungalow, next to a prison–style watchtower, and dropped my bag in a quite modern room (with CNN on TV), then headed out to look around.
Suburbs in a Land Without Cars
The string of bungalows is atop a sweeping plain––from my doorway you could see miles of scattered housing projects, several construction sites and a lot more scrub–brush fields. Back in the lobby, the official had gone, and one of the staff––a post–graduate guy from near Rangoon––lit up a conversation. "You're the first foreigner to stay here," he said in excellent English. He offered to show me around while I waited for dinner; we walked by the swimming pool outside to a gift shop stocked with pleated slacks from Singapore (for small–sized men) and then the small reading library, which included an issue of Time with a ripped–out article about the Burmese military.
Essentially every "local" in Naypyidaw is a transplant from somewhere else, seeking work in a fast–growing city, he explained. Many work on roads or building sites. He's thankful for his indoor job, but he's ready to move on. "I came here only for a couple months for training. But I'm still here a year–and–a–half later." I suggested, diplomatically, it must be interesting to be in such a place for a while. "Interesting? Yes, in–te–res–ting," he said dryly. "It's like a big video game. Everything's the same." We talked about volleyball when a steady stream of government officials––wearing as many turquoise ribbons––filed past, at 8pm exactly.
The Inner Sanctum of a Planned City
The next day, I had the bulk of a day to look around before hopping on an evening bus to Meiktila. With no clue where to go or what to see, I found another motorbike taxi guy and suggested going to some typical Burmese destinations: "a pagoda, a market and a teashop." I soon learned that getting anywhere means passing a lot of nothing. Outside the hotel, we passed unused bus stops and a couple locals ignoring sidewalks and walking down empty six–lane roads. A nearby sign plopped into an empty field read "Mitsubishi Showroom: Coming Soon!" A mile west, we reached the ghost–like "shopping district," with 185 matching, pillared storefronts standing like cubist Monticellos in rose–pink and sky–blue. "Only five stores open," my Burmese–speaking driver told me using various hand gestures, meaning 180 were empty. I stopped in one for gum. Another mile west, we came to a simple golden zedi temple next to the fire station tower. From the zedi's base, you could see pastel–colored housing blocks in all directions. I was told just 10% are in use. "Big investment––what a waste," as one local put it.
Divided up into such spread–out and clearly defined districts, Naypyidaw is already joining the ranks of intentional cities that must look good on paper, but are just awful to live in. Unlike Stalin's planned cities or Brasilia––Brazil's 1960 project that caught Unesco's appreciative eye (but not tourists')––the Naypyidaw center is devoid of any grand administrative buildings to look at. The "center" is marked by a landscaped, well–watered roundabout, with five bare roads leading in all directions (including two road–blocks towards the "ministry district" and the generals' homes to the north). The generals could have followed something like Kabul's $9 billion development proposal for a compact urban zone of homes, offices and parks tailored for pedestrian–oriented public––with buildings offering mid–day shade from a hot climate (like here). But instead they built an SUV city for people without wheels.
I finished the day at the busiest place in town: "beer station hill," where a collection of open–air barbecues overlook the housing blocks' reservoir on one side and the sprawling night market and bus station on the other. I stopped at one, and a smiling young waiter, from Shan State to the east, lingered at the table to watch me drink a beer. Afterwards, I wandered the night market, passing stands set up on a parking lot's ground to sell t–shirts, army jackets, radios and boiled pig parts on a stick––the typical Burmese market. A 50–something guy stopped me as I passed a teashop. He told me he used to teach in a town near Mandalay, but moved here six months before because he had no money. "I came here to work, but the generals keep nearly all the money," he said. "This town is very strange. Big distances and empty buildings. I don't like it much, but I at least I have a job. I have no work back home."
I mentioned how I had hoped to see the three king statues, or visit a ministry building, or at least get a photo of one, but everyone said it wasn't possible. "No problem!" He pointed me up to a teashop back on hill. "First teashop on left––you will see." I had no idea what he was talking about: we were several miles from any government building other than the post office and fire station. But I went up to see anyway. Inside the bare–tile shop, a crowd of young men sat around a small TV set playing the Scooby Doo movie. Confused I sat for tea, then saw it: a wall mural of a Naypyidaw ministry building. That's about as close to the real thing, I think, that my friend would have wanted to go.
In December and January, Robert Reid traveled in Burma to seek out privately run services for Lonely Planet's Myanmar (Burma) guide. He's also created a free online guidebook to Vietnam. He includes no names of locals he met, and changed some details, to protect their identity. He doesn't recommend overnighting in Naypyidaw, but locals would be happy to see you for an hour or two. If you have questions about travel to Burma, contact him through his site. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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