Imagine, if you will, that you’re a slightly unhinged military dictator with a country’s resources at your fingertips, a hefty dose of paranoia, and an inferiority complex the size of a crater. Your capital city is based on the coast, you’re convinced that US will attack at any minute, and that they’ll come from the sea.
What do you do?
Build a new capital city, of course.
Now first you’re going to need a location. Best to start in the middle of nowhere; fresh start and all that. How about this gigantic tract of virgin rainforest, uninhabited for at least 2,000 years? Labour’s no problem. Just ship in a load of peasants, give them machetes and absolutely no communication with the outside world. Slash and burn, mix some cement, eradicate the mosquito infestation; boom, you’re laughing.
You’ve never done this before, have you? You’ll probably need some architectural and financial assistance, not that we’ll acknowledge either. What about the country that’s always nudging you about cooperation? You know, the one which knows what they’re doing when it comes to magically erecting enormous cities from scratch with no immediate promise of inhabitation? Yeah, China. Get them on board.
First things first. Get rid of that ridiculous system of neighbourhoods, with their charming sense of homeliness and accessibility. It makes far more sense to have sectors. Over there you can have all the hotels. The shopping centres should be the next bit along. (Keep the tourists together, you know? They bloody love a bit of shopping). Ok, put the parliament right here. We’ll keep this chunk for the embassies. Stick the workers over – oh, I don’t know, wherever there’s space, just wedge them in that small bit, they don’t like freedom anyway.
Now obviously you need to bear in mind that those rascally citizens are prone to meeting up in shady corners and public spaces and discussing ways of overthrowing the government (which is remarkable when one considers how tenderhearted and humanitarian you are, but then they’re ungrateful sods and not to be trusted). You should just nip that in the bud right now by not having anywhere for them to actually meet up. Bingo! And how? Why, by ensuring that you and your mates own everything the light touches and keeping an eye on whatever happens within your walls, but also basically just making the city totally fuck-off huge.
I don’t mean haphazardly cramming in millions of buildings or, you know, providing housing for loads of citizens or anything. Good god no! Can you imagine the danger of allowing a critical mass? I mean spread. That. Shit. Out. We are talking space. SPACE. You’ve got so much of it! A whole bloody rainforest! And didn’t you always think those grubby old cities in other, less progressive, more touchy-feely countries were far too cramped? Seriously, the mess. The lack of visible sky. The clutter! The HUMANITY.
So get rid of all that. You don’t need it! We’ll put each of these sectors a few kilometres apart, you know, for safety. Then join them with enormous naked concrete roads, intersect those with concrete roundabouts, which you should top with giant flowers (may I suggest concrete?). That’ll give you a real sense of unity and togetherness, so that nobody forgets this is all one mega city, and that you built it, you clever thing.
I guess maybe you should give the locals something to do. Obvs they’re born to work and everything but let’s be modern, shall we? Provide entertainment! How about a park? A really nice park! A concrete one. With a concrete fountain that has a light show and plays music. Every night! And everyone will congregate there but only under strict supervision and then watch the fountain show and think how lucky they are to be living in such a glorious city because we’ll tell them that they are, every day, in case they forget.
Back to that whole spacing stuff out thing; it’ll really kill two birds with one stone (and by birds I mean underground conspiracies and by stone I mean draconian legislation, lol amirite?) because not only will it destroy any hope of shady rendezvous on street corners or natural meeting-points but it’ll also look way impressive. All that space, all that grey! It’ll be like Paris! These are basically boulevards! What’s the difference anyway? None, that’s what!
And here’s another example of double-efficiency: you should make the roads even wider. Like, add extra lanes. A couple? Six? Oh hell, this place is going to be super popular when it’s finished, and you know what they say: if a job’s worth doing then it’s worth doing properly, and let’s kill everyone who disagrees. So 12-laners as standard throughout the city and then a 20-lane highway immediately outside the parliament building.
Now this is what I’m talking about! Have you seen those celebrations in London, when the citizens all line up in front of Buckingham Palace along the Mall? They’re so crammed in! How stupid! I bet the Queen wishes her grandparents thought this far ahead and made that piddly little alleyway a 20-lane-highway! But that’s the Brits for you. They always think so small!
And when everyone comes to visit, can you imagine the looks on their faces? Wow, you won’t need to worry about being forgotten any more. All those people who thought your country was poor. Everyone who suggested you didn’t know how to rule or where to spend money. Those political leaders and foreign kings and queens. You’ll show them. They’re going to be laughing on the other side of their faces when you unveil this masterpiece! They’ll be all “Ooh, this is so elegant and splendid! Wow, you really must be rich! Is that a museum for gems? You are so creative! I would never have thought to build roads this wide. If only I’d had the wherewithal, financial clout, bravery, aptitude and pathological genius to raise a capital from the jungle like you have! This truly is the city to end all cities and you are the greatest leader the world has ever known!”
And anyway, look, here’s the other thing; you know everyone’s out to get you? Like, right now. Conspiracies all over the shop. One day you’re the world’s most benevolent governor and the next you’re fending off disgruntled citizens and packing up the good china. Need to escape? How about a network of tunnels? Haha only joking, that’s so old-school. (I mean we’ll build those anyway, but let’s not make a big deal of it.) No no, you’re a serious leader. You’re going to escape through the AIR. You see how this incredibly straight 20-lane highway with no middle section looks like a runway? THAT’S BECAUSE IT IS! I mean, in theory. Right? The angry mob approacheth, you radio for help, and before they’ve even passed the You Will Have Fun Here sector, your fleet’s already landing right outside, you’ve hopped into your private jet, and the army’s spilling from the belly of the others. Beautiful.
My friend, you’ve just built Naypyitaw.
Now hold on to your hats when I tell you that this background of its construction is – from what we know – as explained. Paranoia, misplaced grandeur, hideous exploitation. The city really does look the way I’ve described it, for reasons not entirely wide of the above mark.
Actually, it’s worse.
Peter had read about Naypyitaw – also written Naypyidaw, and loosely translated as “seat of kings” – before we started our trip. It instantly became an essential destination on our unofficial list of “man-made oddities slightly off the tourist trail”. Thus far, Sarajevo’s abandoned 1984 Winter Olympics bobsleigh track, the world’s largest Lenin head, and Belarus (in general) had all held similar attractions. But Naypyitaw was a city-sized folly which few people on earth even knew was being built before they unveiled it, complete and ready to be inhabited, in 2005. It was the government seat, geographically central, and a major confluence on the country’s rail system, but until recently required special permits to be visited. It had a sector filled with custom-built properties so that every country’s embassy could relocate there from Yangon, but which only Bangladesh – out of the entire world – had agreed to do. Why did the city exist? Who was it for? Was it really as empty, featureless, and expansive as the photos suggested?
Trains head there from all over the country – it is the capital, after all – but when we bought our tickets the guard still looked at us in some consternation and seemed confused as to why we wanted to visit. The train was by far the nicest we experienced during all of our time in Burma; fast, smooth, air-conditioning, seats so spaced out that we could put our enormous rucksacks on the floor in front and still have room to stretch our legs.
Instead of the hawkers who usually leapt on at a station and roamed the carriages for a few stops, selling home-made curries, freshly-picked bananas, boiled eggs and other goodies, here the train was patrolled by all-male uniformed employees, two or three at a time pushing carts like cabin crew, sliding past every few minutes.
We were the only foreigners to get off the train, amongst barely a handful of Burmese people, alighting into a gigantic, elaborate, and entirely empty station: a sign of things to come. We all traipsed through the corridors to the crowd of taxi drivers at the entrance.
“How much to this hotel?”
He told us. We laughed in his face. Utterly ridiculous. It had cost us a fraction of that to reach the station in Yangon. Our train tickets had barely cost more than he was quoting. But he was unrepentant, and slightly apologetic. The other drivers shrugged, we checked the Lonely Planet, got it down by a few thousand and then gave up. There was no other way into the city; we would have to accept this rip-off merchant’s offer.
Except it soon became clear why the price was so high: our hotel, in the centre of the city (if such a place can be said to have a “centre”) was half an hour away. But unlike in literally every other Asian city I’ve visited, this delay did not come from intense, unmoving traffic jams. Far from it: the vast roads were absolutely, completely, entirely empty. The architects of this brand-new city had simply decided, in their infinite wisdom, that creating a central train station was not in keeping with its ethos, and had instead located it 25 km away. And during the entire 30 minute drive, we saw less than a dozen other vehicles. On the main road from the only train station. In Burma’s capital city.
Everything in Naypyitaw is owned by the government and their unscrupulous cronies, which means that if you visit, there’s nothing you can do to avoid putting money into their pockets. There is a limited number of hotels and they’re all pretty much identical, poorly-built, located along one (massive) road, and all similarly overpriced – and all, it seems, empty most of the time.
In keeping with the city’s integral theme of “space”, the rooms were far enough away from the reception and dining area that it required a golf buggy to shuttle us between the two. We had to call ahead and request a ride when we wanted to leave our room. After returning from a tour of the city, we were deposited at the hotel’s main entrance and asked to wait for five minutes whilst the buggy trundled down to collect us. Partly, I imagine, this is because they were so busy showing off that they forgot to factor in the practicalities of guests walking everywhere in intense heat . . . and partly because they wanted to keep an eye on us at all times.
Yet despite this excess of space, the rooms themselves were surprisingly small. Certainly not tiny, but considering the incredible distances the city covered, it was remarkable that our first room in Yangon had been significantly larger; that we had to take ungainly steps over our luggage, stuffed between the bed and the window, to get around the room.
And more than that, it was just so grim. In typical modern Chinese style (similarities abound throughout the city, because – not that it’s yelled about – the Chinese blatantly built it), it was painted in a neutral, grubby, cream. This perfectly showed up all the smeared marks on the walls, mostly from mosquitoes slammed to death by previous guests; an inevitability since the windows didn’t close properly and the door frames didn’t fit into the walls, so the bloodsuckers buzzed merrily throughout the room. They were so desperate to demonstrate their modernity that they’d got it completely wrong: the TV had no cable channels but instead a DVD player; the chairs in the dining room were decorated in a faded faux snakeskin; the staff uniforms were made from shiny, poorly-fitting polyester.
But worst of all was the unapologetic wealth divide and open exploitation of the citizens. Under baking air, in the middle of a drought, the hotels unfailingly watered their emerald-green lawns; outside the city limits, shrivelled crops withered and died. Despite a total lack of guests, they were busy building new rooms. But to our horror, the workers – busy shovelling cement or manhandling pneumatic drills – wore ragged clothes and flip-flops, or no shoes at all.
In a country where 50% of the people struggle by on less than US $1 per day, the government saw nothing wrong with charging US $40 for the cheapest hotel room and then choosing to pay their workers so little than they couldn’t even afford to wear shoes whilst working heavy machinery. It was disgusting, and heartbreaking. It was a catch-22. I would never have seen this exploitation if I hadn’t visited Naypyitaw; yet by visiting, I condoned it, by putting money into the pockets of the government. I don’t know what to suggest to future visitors, short of supporting the Burmese people in their quest to overhaul the system of government.
Whilst our intended destinations were popular enough that the receptionist was unphased by our request to see “the really big road”, visitors in themselves clearly remain a rarity. Unlike every other capital city I’ve visited, there was no infrastructure, no hotel-organised tours, no taxi drivers proffering business cards in the hope of a day’s hire. Until very recently it was necessary to acquire a permit before visiting Naypyitaw and even now most foreigners visit only out of necessity – NGO workers, diplomats, civil servants – before heading back to normality as speedily as possible.
It’s hardly surprising that nobody wants to hang around. Naypyitaw is, to quote the Guardian, “like a David Lynch film on location in North Korea”.
The streets had been empty at 11pm the previous night and at noon on a weekday, they were, if anything, even emptier. We saw a single bus. There were no street food stalls nor individual shops; the only commerce was to be found neatly placed inside the city’s two shopping centres. Even these depressing focal points conjured up small-town malls in a town which was once bustling before the council put in a ring-road.
The park (literally the park; there’s only one in the city), which previous accounts had suggested was the most popular place to meet up, was once again empty but for a few workers sleeping in the shade of a giant Viking-esque long boat randomly on display (why? I honestly have no idea).
Its very sad-looking playground, already weathered and peeling in the scorching sun, was bereft of children.
The Gem Museum cost a hefty $5 to enter and promised little of value, so we chose to forgo it and instead wandered around its gift shop. This took up the entire ground floor, covered with individual stalls hawking jade objects, carved ivory, both uncut and polished gemstones, beaded pictures, wooden furniture, objets d’art made from petrified wood, and any other beautiful, exotic, often surprisingly classy souvenir one might hope to find. But I was forbidden from purchasing so much as a bookmark, knowing the conditions in which the raw materials had been excavated, and exactly where the profits went. We were the only visitors there, of course. Still the many dozens of sellers stood behind their wares, glassy-eyed and perma-smiling, pressing us to take a look but apathetic when we left empty-handed.
We popped along to Uppatasanti pagoda; an unintentionally comical replica of the gigantic, famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which we had yet to visit. Naypyitaw’s version was lit up at all hours of the day and night, sparkling on the horizon as we had pulled into the train station, high up on a hill and grandly overlooking the city. Close up, it was cheap, tacky, and already falling apart. Bricks piled up where building work had inexplicably halted, gold paint was rubbing away, foil peeled from the stupa. The cavernous interior was decorated with an LED-lit Buddha, a cheap green carpet, and dramatic and deeply ironic Buddhist messages encouraging the abandonment of material needs. It was paid for by president Than Shwe and his wife, a grand and ultimately hollow gesture when contrasted with the uncountable suffering which underpins the city’s construction.
Outside, bringing a whole new meaning to the term “elephant in the room”, three actual white elephants lounged under an awning. Rounded up and shipped in for visitors to admire and remark with awestruck wonder at the president’s decadent tastes – and definitely not to take the attention away from his anatomical deficiencies (I mean really, who builds a stupa that big, you feel me?) – the poor beasts stood there looking about as comfortable with the whole situation as I did. I wheedled a few details from their enthusiastic guard who was eager to practice his English; surprisingly, they seemed relatively well cared-for. That, at least, was something for which to be thankful, even as they enjoyed their constant baths and regular mealtimes opposite a man outside the pagoda charging 15p to hold on to visitors’ shoes.
And finally, we headed to the parliament building. We drove down a road of perhaps 14 lanes, split by a central grassy island, marvelling at the size and the sheer emptiness. We thought this was it. We were wrong.
Around a corner, suddenly, there it was: a vast road which to all intents and purposes was, indeed, a runway: an astronomically wide, featureless, empty 20-lane highway which could easily accommodate a jumbo jet. We slowed to a crawl outside the parliament building, hidden safely down a long road (and ringed by a moat!) behind heavy metal gates through which nobody seemed overly concerned if we poked our cameras.
This was a photo opportunity too good to miss.
Finally there was just time for a spot of lunch at the local airport; sorry, I mean restaurant. A plane (god only knows where it came from) has been “transformed” into a bijoux dining spot outside the next-door hotel – and by transformed, I mean the seats have been removed and replaced with manky sofas and the windows lined with frilly gold lamé. Thanks, Naypyitaw tourist board! Boy do you know what we want!
Without doubt, Naypyitaw is the oddest capital city I have ever visited; and unless I get to Pyongyang, I’m willing to bet it’ll remain in that position for the foreseeable future. It’s both a triumph and a failure of town planning; a jaw-dropping achievement and spectacular folly; a bonkers endeavour, insane waste of money, and hideous, ethically-bankrupt concrete mass.
Presumably they never intended it to be a living, breathing city; it would be impossible to fill it with the people necessary for such a behemoth to successfully operate, short of paying them (which they won’t do) or coercing them (which they already have) or shuttling them in from outside whether they want to be shuttled or not (which is hopefully one of many behaviours that will change with the new “Union Parliament”).
Do I recommend you visit? It’s certainly not for everyone. I’m glad I did if only to witness first-hand the sheer scale, and confirm that the pictures aren’t photoshopped, nor the reports exaggerated. It’s a Brigadoon; a conundrum; it shouldn’t exist, but it does. It’s the weirdest capital city on earth. It may not be the record-breaking accolade Myanmar hoped to achieve, but it’s one they’re unlikely to lose any time soon.