The world’s weirdest capital?

Three thirty pm. Sixty minutes to rush hour. In major cities around the world gridlock time would be fast approaching. In Myanmar’s capital things are……. a little different.
I stand at the edge of a monster highway, glance to my left, saunter out to the third lane and casually sit down.
Death would be certain in most cities. Here, the biggest risk is scorch marks on my arse from the baking hot road surface.
After sixty traffic-free seconds I get up and wander across seven more lanes to the central reservation. I poke my head through the bushes and see the same exact thing on the other side……nothing.
I exaggerate, but only a little. For a mile or so I can see five or six motorbikes. And that’s all. Twenty lanes of emptiness. And this in the very heart of the capital city.
But to be honest this place doesn’t have a heart. And it has absolutely no soul either. In fact, there’s not much that it does have. There are very few people, a tiny sprinkling of shops, no tourists nor taxis. The only way to get around is to pay for a ride on the back of a motorbike.

Hotel zone - full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Hotel zone – full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Oddly, it’s not short of hotels. There are lots of them, all shiny and new. Each and every one situated in the dedicated hotel zone. That’s how it works here. Everything in its own area. There’s a commercial zone (although it’s woefully short of businesses and offices), a ministries zone, a military zone and a zone where the generals live. Civilians, effectively government workers, live in the residential zone. The rooves of their apartment blocks are colour coordinated depending on which ministry employs them.
The zones are spread over a huge area, nothing is within walking distance. They’re linked by excellent roads, the only decent ones in the country. They intersect every few miles and at each stands an imposing security box and armed policemen. Nobody moves around here without being noticed. But that’s no big deal, there’s nobody here to notice.
One place I personally stood out was in the supermarket. It was incredibly well stocked by Myanmar standards but customers were scarce. I had my own personal shopper – a security man followed me through every inch of the store. He wasn’t even embarrassed as I twice deliberately double-backed after just turning into a new aisle. As we side-stepped around each other he would wait two seconds, turn around and resume his shadowing.

At this rate the roads will never wear out

At this rate the roads will never wear out

The city didn’t even exist until 2005. Yangon, or Rangoon as the British called it, was the country’s capital. But after years of secrecy the people woke one day to an announcement that a new capital city had been built. It’s called Nay Pi Taw, which translates grandiosely as Royal Capital. Situated half way between Yangon and Mandalay it cost an estimated four BILLION dollars to construct. In such a dirt poor country this money would have transformed the country’s desperate health, education and transport infrastructure.
The exact reasons the generals built the new city are unknown. But rumours are rife, just take your pick. It’s easier to defend against foreign invasion; it’s designed to prevent a popular uprising; an astrologer told the generals it would be the smart thing to do.
Whichever, it’s clear Nay Pi Taw is an act of self-love and self-preservation on an epic scale. A monument to the madness of military men who became rich and paranoid on the broken backs of their countrymen.
After decades of abusive control reform is slowly being introduced, elections are due next year. If the people ever truly wrest power from the military this will be a safe haven for the men in uniform. It is in essence their folly of fear.

Uppatasanti Pagoda - utterly deserted by tourists

Uppatasanti Pagoda – utterly deserted by tourists

Nay Pi Taw does have two or three tourist sites – that’s an average of about one attraction for every tourist in town. There’s a zoo and safari park, I went to neither.
The Uppatasanti Pagoda is the pick of the tourism spots. It dominates the skylines for miles. It is just 30 centimetres shorter than Shwedagon, Yangon’s sacred and world-renowned Buddhist monument, on which it’s modelled. Lifts and staircases are needed to reach the hollowed out entrance. It is immense. Amazingly it was said to have been personally paid for by Than Shwe, the country’s former military dictator. Quite how he could have afforded it on the pay of a mere, humble general,I really don’t know…….
In December the city did have a moment in the international spotlight when it hosted the South East Asian games. New stadia and sports halls were built, foreign media and tourists came to town.
However, the word is the hotels are now back to empty, the streets deserted and the Uppatasanti pagoda is once again quiet.

The perfect symbol for the capital - white elephant

The perfect symbol for the capital – white elephant

Across the road from the complex is another ‘tourist attraction’. Several white elephants are brought out each day to amuse a handful of spectators. In Myanmar they are considered lucky and a sign of justice and power. When the British were here they came up with an alternative definition of a white elephant – something that is excessively expensive in proportion to its usefulness. That’s as close to an accurate definition of Nay Pi Taw as you can get.

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Post navigation

10 thoughts on “The world’s weirdest capital?

  1. Avril

    Get off the road!!!!! Seriously I have never seen or heard anything like that before, such a waste. Hope you’re still enjoying the travelling and look forward to your next blog. Take care xxxxxxxxxxxx

    • Hi sis, I’ll get off the road if you get out of the water. Are you flooded? Sounds like a grim few weeks over there.
      I’ll try and Skype at the weekend.
      Hope everybody’s well and staying dry.

  2. Kate and Joel

    So good to read more of your adventures, Arthur. Always so informative and entertaining! Looking forward to that book, Kate & Joel

    • Hi Kate and Joel

      Lovely to hear from you. I was thinking about you guys the other day. Hopefully you haven’t suffered too much in the snowstorm that hit the US. It looks like it has been a tough winter over there.
      Hopefully you have plans to get out somewhere sunny.
      Book has hit a bit of a wall in recent weeks for lots of reasons – it won’t now be finished until I get back to Australia.
      Stay nice and warm

  3. Anonymous

    Arthur, You are are still on the road, so to speak. When does your quest end or are you on your second tour?

    Some people, in the voluntourism business, have told me Myanmar is a must visit destination. In a sense it is.

    Hope to see you in Europe soon and looking forward to the next blog.


    • HiTony

      Yep, literally still on the road.
      The blog is lagging a little behind my actual travelling. I am now back in Vietnam to visit some of the places I missed first time around.
      Would definitely agree Myanmar should be on the ‘to do list’. Fascinating place but don’t bother with Nay Pi Taw.
      Europe is off the agenda for a little while. Do you have any plans to head back out east again?

  4. Anonymous

    An obscene waste of money . .absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  5. Anonymous

    Great to have your stories back, very funny and educational, too.
    I’m guessing that you miss the warmth on your arse, though…hope you found somewhere warm and cosy to write this and maybe more…xxx

    • Thanks. Backside is definitely missing the warmth now that I am in Vietnam where the weather is distinctly brrrrrr.
      Writing is a little on the slow side but hopefully that will change soon.

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: