Myanmar is a land that’s been essentially cut off from the world for the better part of five decades. Over the past few years, much has been written about its first official steps into the 21st century as the military slowly (sloooowly) loosens control on media, politics, and travel.
Time to Move
In 2002, it was decided that the country’s capital city would be moved from Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyidaw (also spelled Nay Pyi Taw). The only problem – Naypyidaw didn’t exist yet. The reason for the move was never really made clear, but theories ranged from an astrological omen, to a more strategic military location, to the fact that Yangon was just too cluttered. A site about 300km north of Yangon was chosen, and in 2002 construction crews literally started to hack a space out of the jungle for their new capital city. Oh yeah, this was all in secret. [Tweet “300km north of Yangon (Rangoon) is Myanmar’s new capital city, Naypyidaw.”] The plan was that once the city was finished, the entire government (ministries and employees included) would move to the new location and everything would be awesome. But Myanmar’s (then) leaders had never been known as the most, uhh, rational bunch of people. Government workers were only told of the plan two months ahead of time, and their families would not be allowed to follow. No information was provided to anyone on the new city, resulting in a snowstorm of rumor and guesswork. When it was finally announced, foreign embassies were told they didn’t have to move, but, you know, if you want to be close to the government in Myanmar, well… It sounds ridiculous, but never underestimate the power of sheer will – not to mention the enormous sum of money that was spent. Think about it – how much does it cost to build a city from scratch? But on November 6, 2005, at 6:37am (an auspicious time, according to an astrologer), thousands of trucks began moving everything from file cabinets to ministers into the new capital.
Not a Person Around
Unsurprisingly, the city wasn’t finished yet – indeed, construction continues to this day – but the basics were there. Huge, wide roads (good for cars and tanks), massive civil works projects, schools, museums, ministries, statues, parking lots, shopping malls, golf courses, sports stadiums, apartment blocks, and a 600-acre zoo. And it was all completely deserted. Like popping the clutch on a stalled engine, Myanmar’s new capital slowly but surely began to work like normal – or at least as normal as something like this could. Today, almost 9 years after it was officially “opened” Naypyidaw remains a strange yet surprisingly functional capital city, doing what it must to keep the country running. Few locals outside of the civil service live here and even fewer ever visit; most visitors are foreigners who have come to see the strange place for themselves. Little official information has ever been made public, and there are restrictions on exactly where visitors can go and what they can photograph.
Where to go?
So, what if you want to visit? Well, most people say two days is more than enough to see what you need to see, and that includes a full day wandering around getting used to being in the middle of a huge city with no people. There isn’t a whole lot to do really, but there are a few places you might try dropping in to. The massive parliament buildings are worth checking out – they look like abandoned temples from afar, although most abandoned temples don’t have an empty 11-lane highway out front. The zoo and safari park are fun for a visit, and don’t miss Uppatasanti Pagoda, a replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, although this one is just a few centimeters shorter. There are also a few markets you can wander in.
Know Your Zones
The city is divided into zones, some that you can visit and many that you can’t. These include residential, military, ministry, hotel, shopping, and recreation. Most people get around either on foot (sidewalks are there but hardly used; why bother when you have a four-lane highway with no traffic?) or via motorcycle taxi, as the zones are set quite far apart. As for getting in, most arrive via a 4-hour bus or car journey from Yangon. There is an airport, but it’s very lightly used.
The last thing we want to recommend is this – after decades of isolation, the people of Myanmar are hungry for information about the rest of the world, and will likely ask you many questions about where you’re from. Due to it being a former British colony, many speak excellent English, and will take great pleasure in making a foreign friend. Use the opportunity to ask them about their life as well, and you’ll get a unique and wonderful glimpse behind the scenes of this golden land. [Tweet “The people of Myanmar are hungry for information about the rest of the world.”]
Don’t Do it Alone
Have someone on the ground with knowledge of the area to help you navigate the city and the country. Contact Smiling Albino firstname.lastname@example.org and check out “Asia’s Golden Land” tour with founder and Adventurer-in-Chief Dan Fraser this November 2014.
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