This week I visited the capital of Myanmar, Naypyitaw.
Oh, you thought Yangon was the capital? So did everyone else until about 2007 when the military junta pulled back the curtain on this new phantom city – constructed entirely in secret, magically materializing on the emerald central plain like the city of Oz. SURPRISE! We have a whole new capital city!
(I am the great and powerful Oz!)
Rumors abound as to why the new capital and why the secrecy around its construction. Its more central location renders state control of outlaying, often rebellious, ethnic minorities more manageable? An astrologer foretold of an invasion by sea and an invasion by land and urged the Generals to decamp to a more impenetrable location? I favor the second theory since just after the move Yangon, the former capital, was besieged by devastating Cyclone Nargis (invasion by sea) and then the Saffron Revolution (“invasion” by land).
Whatever the concocted, conjured-up reasoning behind its origins, foreigners who conduct business with the Myanmar government (which is most of them …) find themselves in a conundrum. Desert ensconced expat communities in Yangon to move a sea of resistant foreigners to a city with essentially no services and little social life OR shuttle back and forth (5 hours by car/1 by air) each time you need a meeting with a government official. For now, it seems each Embassy is waiting for another embassy to make the first move, pulling us all north eventually. Until then, we shuttle.
The road to Naypyitaw consists of, essentially, the only four-lane highway in the country. You’ll notice white gravestone-esque mileage markers pop up at regular intervals. 10/6 (10 miles and 6 parts), then 10/7, 11/0, 11/1 – Wait, what happened to 10/8 and 10/9? Is someone skimping on miles to garner good will for this middle-of-nowhere capital? No, the highway department decided to use furlongs on their signage. FURLONGS! A furlong, in case you aren’t boned up on your archaic English measurement conversions, are 1/8 of a mile – so instead of using decimal points (multiples of 10), they use furlongs. Of course.
The highway does serve its purpose well, one can zip up from Yangon in around 5 hours with minimal traffic – save for the occasional wondering water buffalo, wayward dog, schoolchildren skipping along, and motor bikes zipping up the wrong direction. Note the likelihood of motion sickness. I ralphed in a van full of work colleagues after a particularly butt-busting stretch. Officials luckily had the forethought to construct a “rest camp” smack in the middle at mile 115. Tasty bowlfuls of mohinga and fried rice can be had.
Pulling off the highway exit for Naypyitaw you notice … nothing. You notice there is hardly a soul around. There are rows upon rows of unoccupied houses and apartment blocks, whole zones of half finished hotels and a sprinkling of hastily constructed worker shacks – all spread out, seeming to maximize distance between buildings. Imagine the numbing geography of the most decentralized exurb of a decentralized city and that’s the city plan of Naypyitaw. Supposedly the planners wanted to make sure it’d be “inconvenient” for protesters to gather. When you plant the Ministry of Defence in the middle of a field, several miles from anything else – it’s kind of hard to rally an angry mob.
My favorite attraction in this nearly-attraction-less town is the infamous 18-lane highway parading past parliament. It’s urban planning in reverse – build it and they will (eventually) come. As with many decisions in Myanmar, this one also has rumored astrological roots. Nine is an auspicious number in Burmese astrology – so naturally anything divisible by 9 is considered powerful – 2 x 9 is even better! You see this crop up in plenty of other contexts too – old money that came in denominations of 9 (!), and stores with names like 999 Pipe Outlet and 999 Liquor Store.
Welcome to Oz! Oh I mean, Naypyitaw ….