The sur­real majesty of Myan­mar’s im­mense – and empty – new cap­i­tal of Naypyi­daw

Built in 2005 as Myan­mar’s ti­tanic new cap­i­tal, the city of Naypyi­daw is a sur­real stop between Yan­gon and Man­dalay – and an un­miss­able ex­pe­ri­ence for travellers look­ing for a glimpse into a golden era yet to come

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents -

Naypyi­daw is post-apoc­a­lyp­tic in per­haps the most pos­i­tive sense of the word: a city whose time has not yet come, wait­ing with open arms and empty streets for some dis­tant gen­er­a­tion. Now, though, more than ten years af­ter its in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2005 as a new cap­i­tal for a new Myan­mar dur­ing the rule of the astrol­ogy-ob­sessed dic­ta­tor Than Shwe, the na­tion’s in­fa­mous “ghost cap­i­tal” re­mains a sur­real stop on the long road from Yan­gon to Man­dalay.

Ten-lane high­ways lie bare be­neath the sun, as­phalt un­touched by all save the steady hooves of the wa­ter buf­falo that roam in lazy herds across the city. Row upon row of iden­ti­cal flame trees spill their burn­ing blos­soms un­heeded onto close-cropped lawns be­fore van­ish­ing be­neath the brisk brooms of the landscapers who seem at times to be the city’s only in­hab­i­tants. Stately min­istries built like So­viet pago­das loom on the edge of vi­sion, se­cure be­hind coil­ing rings of mil­i­tary block­ades. In the latenight seafood restau­rants branch­ing off the pitch-black roads, there is life, of a sort, and light, and ner­vous servers wait­ing with faces daubed in thanaka to bring an­other plate of stir-fried shrimp, but the well-fur­nished food halls are never more than half full. Af­ter the crowds and chaos of Yan­gon, it is a jar­ring and oth­er­worldly sight.

But now that you’re here, it’s time to ex­plore. Here are a few things you’ll need to know if you ever visit this most baf­fling of South­east Asian cities.

WHERE TO STAY

If you’re a trav­el­ling dig­ni­tary or other mem­ber of the di­plo­matic corps – and if you find your­self in Naypyi­daw, chances are you might be – Kempin­ski Ho­tel Nay Pyi Taw is the last word in lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Although most re­sorts in the des­ig­nated Ho­tel Zone of­fer a level of ease and lux­ury to ap­pease most travellers, none can boast a guest list as au­gust as this ex­pan­sive com­pound’s: for­mer US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Myan­mar’s own State Coun­sel­lor (and de facto leader) Aung San Suu Kyi have each booked out the ex­trav­a­gant Grand Royal Suite, with its pri­vate pool, gym and spa fa­cil­i­ties, con­fer­ence rooms and – this is essen­tial – foy­er­ad­ja­cent bed­rooms to house their pri­vate body­guards.

For guests with less-pres­i­den­tial needs, Kempin­ski of­fers a range of lux­ury suites suitable for ei­ther an ex­ec­u­tive busi­ness trip or just a week­end’s in­dul­gence up from Yan­gon. Sprawled across three sep­a­rate com­plexes, Kempin­ski’s charm lies as much in its space as in its ex­quis­ite taste – and in a re­gion where per­sonal space comes at a pre­mium, Naypyi­daw has hectares to spare in breath­ing room. From the mo­ment you drive through the or­nate wooden arch­way ris­ing above the en­trance like palace gates, Kempin­ski blends gilded lux­ury with the un­beat­able ex­panse of Myan­mar’s nat­u­ral splen­dour.

From its lav­ish spa, pool and fit­ness cen­tre to the spa­cious Ran­goon restau­rant and glitzy Di­plo­matic Bar, Kempin­ski brings an ef­fort­less class and grace to a city that has been planned down to each blade of grass. Sip­ping on a cock­tail at the or­nate bar, guests run their gaze over walls adorned with pic­tures of vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries ea­ger to es­tab­lish di­plo­matic ties with the once-reclu­sive na­tion – and, per­haps more ur­gently, the lo­cal bar­tenders wait­ing for the nod to bring the next round.

WHAT TO DO

Un­doubt­edly the most pop­u­lar of Naypyi­daw’s sparse at­trac­tions is the Up­patas­anti Pagoda, ba­si­cally a replica of Yan­gon’s glim­mer­ing Sh­wedagon Pagoda that stands a de­mure 30cm shorter than its iconic cousin at a mere 99 me­tres high. It was built over three years, start­ing in 2006, around a tooth that is said to have been taken from the mouth of the Bud­dha (sourced from China). Up­patas­anti of­fers a panoramic view of Naypyi­daw’s pre­cisely cal­cu­lated boule­vards. Stand­ing in its vast golden shadow, the sky opens above you as the sa­cred spire blazes with the sun’s re­flected glory, ev­ery inch of its height painstak­ingly built ac­cord­ing to the re­li­gion’s own ge­om­e­try of faith. If the milling crowds cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ing Sh­wedagon stopped you from achiev­ing that promised in­ner peace, you’ll find no such bar­ri­ers to en­light­en­ment here.

If this sim­u­lacrum of one of the na­tion’s most sa­cred sites has awak­ened in you a fever for fac­sim­ile, your next stop should be Naypyi­daw’s Na­tional Land­mark Gar­dens. Do­ing noth­ing to dis­pel the im­age that Myan­mar’s cap­i­tal is not so much a city as it is the blue­prints of a na­tion stripped of strife and strug­gle by the clock­work ma­chin­ery of mil­i­tary might, this sprawl­ing gar­den fea­tures maps of Myan­mar’s ma­jor sites scat­tered across 400 acres of lawn, and lit­tle else. Sprin­kled between kitschy fun­fair rides are repli­cas of Golden Rock, Inle Lake and – yes, in case you’d for­got­ten – Sh­wedagon again, all shrunk down to a more man­age­able size. If you have the time to drive 40 min­utes from the end­less malls and high­ways of the Ho­tel Zone, Land­mark Gar­dens rep­re­sents must-see to­tal­i­tar­ian chic.

As vast and empty as the city in which it stands, Naypyi­daw’s Na­tional Mu­seum hosts ex­hibits cov­er­ing mil­len­nia of Myan­mar’s his­tory. The pride of the na­tion, a jaw­bone locked in stone 40 mil­lion years ago, teases at an al­ter­na­tive cre­ation story where hu­man­ity arose from apes not in the cra­dle of Africa, but right here on Asian soil. Relics from the glory days of Ba­gan, whose stu­pas still scrape the sky and draw mil­lions of tourists from across the globe, show­case both the splen­dours and daily strug­gles of Myan­mar’s golden years. Fi­nally, art­works taken from the na­tion’s tu­mul­tuous 20th cen­tury chart Myan­mar’s re­birth into a thriv­ing mod­ern na­tion.

Im­mense, empty and aus­tere, Naypyi­daw’s frozen per­fec­tion seems cen­turies away from the sarongs and san­dal­wood of Myan­mar’s more pop­u­lous cities. But it is pre­cisely this con­trast, this vi­sion of a na­tion seen solely through the prison of or­der, har­mony and strength, that makes the na­tion’s new­born cap­i­tal worth the trip.

Clock­wise fromleft: Up­patas­anti Pagoda; the grand gate­way to the Naypyi­daw Wa­ter Foun­tain Park; the ma­jes­tic Kempin­ski Ho­tel

Clock­wisefrom top: A gar­dener wa­ters the flow­ers around Naypyi­daw’s lo­tus foun­tain; res­i­dents stroll past the just-com­pleted Up­patas­anti Pagoda in 2010; labour­ers work­ing on the cap­i­tal’s new par­lia­ment in 2010

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