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.
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.
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.
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.
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.