Myanmar’s Quixotic Capital City

  • Farmers tend to rice paddy on a so-called model farm close to the house of President U Thein Sein. The President is a financial investor in the project.

    Farmers tend to rice paddy on a so-called model farm close to the house of President U Thein Sein. The President is a financial investor in the project.

  • A sole motorbike travels along the 20-lane road that leads to the country's parliament complex in Naypyidaw.

    A sole motorbike travels along the 20-lane road that leads to the country's parliament complex in Naypyidaw.

  • A gardener at the City Golf course in Naypyidtaw is photographed beside the netting of the driving range.

    A gardener at the City Golf course in Naypyidtaw is photographed beside the netting of the driving range.

  • A group of women pay homage inside the Uppasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw.

    A group of women pay homage inside the Uppasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw.

  • Uppatasanti Pagoda is a 99-meter-high replica of Yangon's historic Shwedagon.

    Uppatasanti Pagoda is a 99-meter-high replica of Yangon's historic Shwedagon.

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While Naypyidaw’s military cantonment is self-contained and off-limits, the rest of the population gets by as best they can. Despite the best efforts of the city planners, residents —mostly construction workers and civil servants—have managed to re-create some of the semblances of “normal” Burmese life. “If you go to Naypyidaw looking for oddities, you’ll find them,” says Nicholas Farrelly, an associate professor at Australian National University in Canberra. “But there’s still plenty of humdrum action that is just as intriguing. Shopping malls, golf courses, wet markets, noisy drinking spots: the town has its own weird patterns and a population that has arrived from across the Myanmar heartland in the hope of finding income and security.”

The city’s focal point has become the commercial area around Thabyaygone Market, which comes alive at night with vendors. A small hill to the east is home to Shan, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, as well as cheap and cheerful “beer stations.” For breakfast one morning I was taken by motorbike through a nearby maze of side streets to a teashop on a small rise, where bureaucrats, businessmen, and journalists sat side-by-side on plastic stools, enjoying samosas, rice with boiled  peas, and sweet Burmese tea. More unsavory delights can be found along Yazarhtani Road, which links Naypyidaw with the township of Pyinmana. The six-lane stretch is so notorious for its massage parlors and karaoke bars that locals have dubbed it “Massage-htani.”

A 20-minute drive from the city’s sterile hotel zone, Pyinmana existed long before Naypyidaw, but has since been integrated into the capital district. Old, compact, and thoroughly Burmese with its wooden houses and towering tamarind trees, Pyinmana is a world apart from the colossal sculpted roundabouts, McMansion-style houses, and immaculately maintained golf courses of Naypyidaw. In need of a dose of reality, I had dinner there one night with a group of friends, drinking beer and eating Chinese-style barbecue in the open air. In some respects it felt as though we could have been anywhere in the country. It was, however, impossible to completely escape the reach of Naypyidaw’s city planners: even from three kilometers away, the illuminated dome of Uppatasanti Pagoda, built in 2009 as a near-replica of the Shwedagon in Yangon, bathed the restaurant in a golden glow.

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As Yangon grows ever more crowded and traffic-clogged, the benefits of having an administrative seat away from the country’s economic hub become clearer. In 15 years, Farrelly suggests, the decision to shift the government to Naypyidaw may appear more well-executed and visionary than it does today.

For now, however, there’s little chance of the city pulling tourists away from the temples of Bagan or the leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake. While Naypyidaw will have almost 5,000 hotel rooms by the end of this year, its gleaming airport, built to handle 3.5 million passengers annually, sits mostly empty. Just 1,250 tourists arrived in Myanmar via the capital in 2012. The country’s new Tourism Master Plan, drafted with support from the Asian Development Bank, mentions only that Naypyidaw will be “promoted for business meetings, conferences, and exhibitions.”

Those who do visit will find it a dislocating and generally dispiriting experience. The generals’ earlier attempts to create tourist attractions—a water-fountain park, a zoo, a gem museum—only add to the sense of unreality. Rarely do you get a feeling for exactly where you are, either in relation to the rest of the city or the world. Foreign visitors are segregated in the hotel zone and the civil servants in their ministry quarters. The wealthy own houses in the capital proper; everyone else resides in Pyinmana. Apart from the teams of migrant laborers who tend the median strips and roundabouts, there are few signs of life,  and certainly no spontaneity. The city functions, in short, exactly as planned.

THE DETAILS

GETTING THERE
Daily flights by Air Bagan connect the capital with Yangon. In October, AirAsia will launch its own daily Naypyidaw service from Bangkok. Driving is another option, though the five-hour haul from Yangon is only for the die-hard road warrior.

WHERE TO STAY
Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort (95-67/420-746; doubles from US$59) has teak-floored cottages set around a small swan-filled lake.

WHERE TO EAT
On a small hill overlooking Thabyaygone Market, no-frills eatery Maw Kham Non is worth seeking out for its excellent Shan food.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2013 issue of DestinAsian (“Dispatches: Naypyidaw”).

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