What better way for a country that is one of the least developed countries in Asia to spend their money than on a shiny new capital?
The new, purpose built capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, was built in secret and at enormous expense, beginning in 2005. Home to huge highways and ridiculous numbers of roundabouts, it’s really the most bizarre place – Gungahlin meets Pyongyang.
It’s actually quite common in Burmese history for rulers to move to a new capital – Mandalay was founded for the same reason in 1857. Rumour has it Nay Pyi Taw was founded on advice of an astrologer. Kind of understandable if this was still 1857, but hard to believe in 2005. However, I guess it worked for Ronald Reagan.
The city is separated into zones, one for hotels, ministry buildings, residences etc. It sort of misses the point, since generally the most useful thing about hotels is that they are near the places you actually want to go. It makes getting around a bit difficult and doesn’t give you a lot of easy options for eating out. Each of these zones is separated by highways. Walking is impossible, not because of traffic (you go minutes at a time without seeing a car or bike and the only time we were stuck in traffic was to give way to a herd of buffalo) but because they are just so far away from each other. Some have speculated this is to make the capital immune to public insurrections. By the time a group gathered and marched on the parliament to protest and demand the Government’s removal, they would all be so exhausted and dehydrated the security forces could easily round them up. Not that they would need to worry, the parliament is surrounded by a giant fence and moat. No danger of someone getting in here, Canada style.
The Government claims Nay Pyi Taw is home to a million people. Hard to believe given we hardly saw a soul, but if true most of them are employed as gardeners. The median strips of the miles and miles of highways are all impeccably maintained (note the phrase “impeccably maintained median strip” need not be a euphemism).
Like any purpose-built capital, Nay Pyi Taw’s main reason for existing is to house the government. Government officers are provided with housing based on their marital and career status. The different colours of the roofs denote which department they work for. Yes, you have to live with the people you work with. It would be just like being on a work trip, but all the time. This sounds like fun for approximately three days. Then it sounds like hell. Although it probably reduces attrition (imagine moving house with every career move, surely job applications are bad enough!).
There aren’t a lot of sights to see in Nay Pyi Taw, the main reason to come is to experience the strange ghost town atmosphere. In a delicious irony sadly lost on most visitors, the main attraction in this hugely expensive city in the middle of nowhere is an exhibit of white elephants. Whoever said military juntas don’t have a sense of humour?