Since coming to South Korea I’ve developed a strong interest in North Korean affairs. Consequently, and perhaps strangely, I’d now love to go to Pyongyang, for the uniqueness of it if for nothing else. There is no other city like it on the planet. Or so I thought. Now, I realize that such a visit would be entirely unethical and I’ve also seen enough documentaries on the place to kind of feel like I’ve been there. Throw in the extortionate cost of a visit, having to bite my tongue for the entire stay and enduring the ridiculous, absurd and monstrous propaganda of the regime and, frankly, the whole thing puts me off, to be honest. Not to mention that food would probably be in short supply so I’d have to make do with yet more kimchi and rice, which would make me very fortunate by North Korean standards, but given the fill I've had living here in the South, it's just one more reason why a trip to Pyongyang is off the cards, for now at least. But imagine my surprise when I learned a similar kind of city exists in Burma.
Capital cities are usually one of my strong points but until recently I’d never heard of the capital of Burma, Nay Pyi Taw. It turns out there’s a legitimate reason: the city was only founded in 2002. I'd been drawn to this new capital ever since I'd learned of it, read what limited articles exist and seen brief clips on news bulletins I’d been drawn to it. Rightly or wrongly there was something mysterious about it. It struck me as a place so bizarre that it was worthy of a visit. It also seemed a cheaper, more viable alternative to Pyongyang, and more ethical as well, albeit not by much.
The Burmese we spoke to, who worked in the tourist industry, had mixed opinions on their capital but no one really knew much about it. One man asked us why an earth my friend and I wanted to go there and told us there was nothing to see or do, adding that we were wasting our time. Sadly, we weren’t sure if this was the truth, or a ploy to encourage us to stay in his deserted hotel an extra night. His friend said he’d heard it was a good, modern city with two to three million inhabitants. We doubted him, but nevertheless we were curious enough to make the trip to see for ourselves. We looked at the map and saw the capital was central, we’d been told transport links were good (believable, given its location) and foreigners were now allowed to visit. So what better way to break up a twelve-hour bus ride to Inle Lake than to stop half-way in Nay Pyi Taw overnight and check it out? That we did.
Regretfully, it turned into a bit of a disaster. When we finally arrived in Nay Pyi Taw at 4:00 am feeling tired, exhausted and cold, we - being the only tourists in the entire city - were mobbed by moped drivers offering to drive us to the hotel zone at grossly inflated prices. We don’t like mopeds, and try to avoid them at all costs, but there was no choice. The solitary taxi was demanding a criminal price, and no agreement could be made, so...moped it was.
When we finally arrived to our very modern hotel, prices weren’t far off western standards. We were greeted by a receptionist who asked us if we had a reservation. I suspect he knew we didn’t, as there was no one else staying there - foreigner or otherwise - but still he asked. I assume he’s got to keep up the pretense. After paying a hefty rate, we crashed for the night. It would seem we were the first people to have ever stayed in the room or, at the very least, no one had stayed there for months. It was kind of eerie. The room was dirty, covered in dust and generally unpleasant. They didn’t even give us a double bed! Yet the hotel was fully staffed, and presumably had been for months. It was obvious the staff had nothing to do, yet whenever we walked into the lobby they all leapt to their feet and made themselves look busy.
We woke up the next morning to learn that transport links were virtually non-existent, except for one bus to Mandalay and one down to Rangoon. There was no chance of us following our plan and moving on to Inle Lake from here. So we decided to make the most of our stay and explore this 'new found' capital. Outside the hotel, we went for a short walk. The city is divided into zones: a hotel zone, a military/government zone, a residential zone, and so on. Distances are vast and the roads are enormous; I've never seen somewhere so spread out in all my life. The distances make walking around impossible. It’s also soulless, there’s nothing to see except for huge traffic-less boulevards and the occasional uninspiring building. Almost everything is hidden from view of the main roads. All in all, it's a really dull place.
We were the only people around, except for the occasional cyclist and construction truck. We went into the hotel next door to ours, about 400 m away, and that, too, was deserted, with a full complement of staff of course. It was pretty much what I’d envisioned: a ghost town.
It was the weekend, and it would seem the only people here were construction workers. The city is already immense, but it’s far from finished. The outskirts are a humongous building site, stretching for miles, quite literally. It’s apparent that billions of pounds/dollars have been spent on building this fantasy project for the Junta that has become one giant white elephant. That's quite ironic, considering the zoo here apparently has two white elephants.
Nay Pyi Taw is unlike anywhere in Burma, or probably anywhere else in the world for that matter. It’s a capital city built in the middle of nowhere for unclear reasons. Officially Rangoon had become too congested and crowded with little room for future expansion of government offices. Some Western diplomats speculate the government was concerned with the possibility of foreign attack, as Rangoon is on the coast and therefore vulnerable to an amphibious invasion. The popular belief among the Burmese is that a warning about foreign attack was delivered to the military chief by an astrologer.
An Indian journalist, who visited Nay Pyi Taw in January 2007, described the vastness of the new capital as “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative 'colour revolution' – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography”.
Either way I sincerely doubt the government's official reasoning. Ordinary Burmese learned of the city three years after construction had started when the military decided to start moving government offices at the ‘astrologically auspicious’ time of 6:37am on 6th November 2005. By the end of the week, eleven government ministries had already left Rangoon.
The mega bucks invested in this city could have and should have been spent elsewhere, perhaps on regenerating other cities and schemes to alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, [ed. though things are slowly changing] the Burmese government/military are a gang of criminals who have no interest in their people, except for stealing from them and living a life of luxury and privilege at their expense. Not to mention enslaving, imprisoning, torturing and murdering those courageous souls who have bravely threatened to challenge their shambolic, farcical rule.
It was a strange, strange place. Everything was over-priced and nobody could tell us where we could go or what we could do, or provide us with any information except how to leave, giving us the bus times to Mandalay. We’d have liked to go and see some of the government buildings, but that seemed out of the question. In the end, realizing the huge mistake we made in coming, decided to get the hell out as soon as possible.
If I hadn’t of gone to Nay Pyi Taw, I’d have always been curious. Having gone there, I regret it. We supported the regime financially by visiting and gained nothing from it. It should have been expected, but curiosity got the better of me. If any of you are going to Burma and share a similar curiosity to mine (which several other travelers we met around the country did) I strongly recommend you waste neither your time nor your money. We were curious because we hadn’t read of anybody visiting except for the occasional foreign journalist. Now we understand why: it's because there’s nothing here! Don’t make our mistake; spend time at the country's true attractions. Don’t waste it in a soulless, concrete, totalitarian despot fantasy.
We should have listened to the hotel owner after all.
About the Author After graduating from Cardiff University in June 2010, Daniel Plummer and his girlfriend Amelia headed to Asia to teach as part of the English Program in Korea (EPIK), and have been adventuring ever since. They write about their experiences travelling around Asia and teaching English in Korea, and sometimes their opinions on world affairs of the day. Read more of their musings and news on their blog, Plummer and Chin's Big Adventure, at http://plummerandchinsadventure.com.
About the Author
After graduating from Cardiff University in June 2010, Daniel Plummer and his girlfriend Amelia headed to Asia to teach as part of the English Program in Korea (EPIK), and have been adventuring ever since. They write about their experiences travelling around Asia and teaching English in Korea, and sometimes their opinions on world affairs of the day. Read more of their musings and news on their blog, Plummer and Chin's Big Adventure, at http://plummerandchinsadventure.com.