Nay Pyi Daw, literally, “the royal city of the sun”, the newly-built grandiose capital of Burma, isn’t frequented by tourists. Some of them skip it as a protest against the totalitarian government regime, others simply dedicate the short 28 day visa time for more advertised destinations in the country. After all, the city, built in 2006, lacks any sort of cultural attractions. The government is not at all interested in attracting non-official visitors either; in fact, tourists simply aren’t expected. When the announcement that the capital was moving from Yangon to Nay Piy Daw was made in 2006, most people were left asking the question “where the fu*k is Nay Pyi Daw?” – the construction of the city was a fairly strictly guarded secret.
According to the “legend” whispered by the locals, location for the new capital was chosen by an astrologist, a close adviser to the mighty general Ne Win. The main motive for moving the capital – to prevent the repeat of the protest occurring in Yangon (called Rangoon at the time), in 1988-08-08, during which thousands of students, monks and general population protested in the streets. Nay Pyi Daw is located in the central plains of the country, in the middle of what used to be a dense jungle, hours away from the two largest cities (Mandalay and Yangon). Its spread out across many square kilometers (you can’t go for a walk there), there is no noticeable city center too. What this achieves is two-fold: there are no people in the surrounding area that could come to the city to protest and even if they did travel from the main cities, it would be hard for them to mobilise against a single governmental building as they’re so spread-out, giving plenty of opportunities for the military to contain any protesters. There is an ultra-large parliament building, easily reachable, but its surrounded by a deep and wide ditch followed by a tall spiky fence, with the gates in front of a 20-lane road guarded by military troops at all times. Any protesters here would be easy pickings for the cannons of the regime, and that’s before they could even reach the main gate.
Given all of this info, there was no way we could resist the temptation to visit this city. “How did you manage to get here?” was the first question addressed to us from the managing director of a fancy 3 star hotel (all hotels here are multi-star rated, there’s no such thing as budget accommodation in the so-called Hotel Zone). The reception staff have also admitted that in the 6 years of hotel history, we were the first tourists to stay there; the usual visitors are smooth businessmen and grey foreign ambassadors. We’re told foreigners weren’t allowed to even enter the city a few years ago – if arriving on the bus, the police checkpoint before the city would collect any tourists and send them back to where they came from on the next bus; while with trains, tourists would simply be pushed back into the coach. These days restrictions aren’t so tight, but the government, doing what they can to look good before the World’s eyes (they’re really hungry for foreign dollars / pounds / euros / yen), prefer not to have them around in case anything happens that might attract bad publicity. We didn’t know any of this before boarding the bus for Nay Pyi Daw in Yangon, and, once here, even hitch-hiked to the hotel in the back of a pickup truck with 5 locals, who were going home after a day working at a nearby construction site. They were very excited to give us a lift.
The managing director of the hotel spoke impressive English and bravely shared jokes about the new capital – a huge zoo for huge animals. Its often joked in Burma that George Orwell’s Animal Farm depicts the political situation in the country perfectly. That said, before mouthing honest things about the ruling party people generally speak quietly and look around to make sure nobody’s eavesdropping – the jails in Burma are loaded with political prisoners. Confirming once more that we aren’t foreign journalists, the director arranged us an impromptu tour of the city, allocating a guide (one of the girls from the reception) and a driver (one of the bellboys), in the official hotel van, advising that sightseeing on a motorbike taxi eventually attracts attention from the local police, who insist on careful passport browsing and lengthy conversations over their radios before letting one go.
All the development in Nay Pyi Daw occurs in dedicated zones – bank zone, hotel zone, shopping mall zone, government ministers mansions zone, zone for simple houses of lesser government workers, bus station and market zone, parliament zone separated from everything else by an empty road a few kilometers long and so on. The two most impressive structures are the impossible-sized parliament building and a copy of the Shwedagon Paya temple from the old capital Yangon. The only area with any activity, market and bus station, looked at on its own wasn’t much different from any other town in Burma – youngsters with motorbike taxis picking-up newly arrived and women carrying wares to/from the market. All other zones were devoid of people, separated from each other by wide stretches of road and countless roundabouts, the centre of each decorated with a different flower. One feels weird calling this place a city, let alone a capital. Locals prefer to call it ghost town, and its easy to see why – the streets are empty and all of the residential buildings are already peeling.
Not much different was the new expressway linking the old and new capital cities. On the 4 hour journey we passed only a half-dozen other vehicles and not a single village or town, only a toll collection point and a mid-way restaurant complex serving runny beer and unreasonably expensive curries. The straight road seemed to be out of place in the landscape of green fields and distant mountain ranges and the occasionally appearing single villager and her nearby hut appeared to be in disbelief at this unnatural development. I wondered, as I saw them disappearing into the infinite distance behind the bus, if they knew where the road went, if they cared.