Nay Pyi Taw – the new capital of Myanmar

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Lonely Planet Myanmar guide suggests that ‘it can feel soulless – Canberra meets Brasilia with a peculiar Orwellian twist.’ I’ve not been to Brasilia, but that’s very unfair to Canberra. Compared to Nay Pyi Taw the bush capital of Australia is compact, crowded, easy to navigate, much more human and far better built. Although it doesn’t have anywhere near as many hotels. Officially Nay Pyi Taw’s population is around 900,000 against Canberra’s 390,000. I reckon if you knocked a zero off that Nay Pyi Taw figure it would still be far too high. I visited Nay Pyi Taw on my way north from Yangon to Mandalay for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. I was hoping to make some sense about what was happening to the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine district.

▲ The standard view of Nay Pyi Taw – wide roads with hardly a vehicle in sight. In front of the Parliament Building the road widens out to 20 lanes! Empty lanes. Nay Pyi Taw is far too big and spread out to walk from place to place, wheels are necessary.

Nay Pyi Taw – which might translate as Royal City of the Sun – opened for business in 2005 as the new capital of Myanmar. It’s about half way between Yangon and Mandalay and might have been built because the astrologers told the military chiefs they needed a new capital, might have been built to escape protesters in the current capital, or perhaps the military government just felt like it. Clearly there was no need to move, foreign embassies certainly haven’t shifted, only the Chinese, who have added a consulate in Nay Pyi Taw, have showed up, but even they have kept their embassy in Yangon. The USA had just built their biggest embassy in Southeast Asia in Yangon, they certainly weren’t going to move.

▲ Polishing up the Parliament corridors.

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, which I’ve also recently visited, is eerily empty like Nay Pyi Taw, but it’s also far more bling, a city of gold and marble. Nay Pyi Taw’s Parliament Building, which usually you’re not allowed anywhere near, reminded me of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. That was appallingly big, appallingly bling and in appallingly bad taste. Assorted statistics noted that only the Pentagon occupied more floor space, but the Pentagon certainly had far less marble surfaces and way way fewer glass chandeliers. Nay Pyi Taw’s Parliament is just echoingly big, in comparison to the Romania building it’s utilitarian and dull, inside and out.

▲ One of the bridges to the front of the Parliament.

▲ Beautiful models of important Bagan temples in the National Museum, which has some remarkably similar exhibits to the Yangon National Museum. The Nay Pyi Taw edition is far better lit and while the Yangon museum is uncrowded this one is more like empty. I was the only visitor in the entire museum when I dropped by. Nay Pyi Taw also has the Uppatasanti Pagoda, an almost full scale replica of the Shwedagon in Yangon. Unfortunately I did not get to visit it.

I did drive by the endless line of hotels you pass as you drive in from the airport into the ‘centre’ (if there is such a thing) of the city. They’re spaced far enough apart so you couldn’t simply walk from one to the other and the sheer number of them clearly far exceeds the number of visitors Nay Pyi Taw attracts. I stayed in the Thingaha Hotel which had interesting design, comfortable rooms, a big swimming pool and a handful of guests. It was also beginning to show its age, looking slightly faded and in need of some love and attention. Amazingly as I drove out of the city, heading north to Mandalay, there was another hotel district with hotel after hotel, some of them not even finished yet, others looking already abandoned.

◄ Just north of Nay Pyi Taw, en route to Mandalay, is a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in India, the site where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It even has a bodhi tree which the sign seems to indicate is the very one the Buddha sat under! Like Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Buddhists can gain merit by visiting the key sites in the Buddha’s life in India and Nepal. Here in Nay Pyi Taw they can quickly get that whole Buddhist pilgrimage completed, in replica fashion at least.

▲ Turning off from the Mahabodhi replica they soon reach Lumbini in Nepal, where the Mayadevi Temple marks the Buddha’s birthplace. A baby Buddha statue takes the eight steps right after his birth, a lotus flower springing up at each footstep. Nearby is a hollow replica of the Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath, where the enlightened Buddha first taught the dharma in the deer park. Then there’s Kushinagar where the Buddha reclined to enter Parinirvana when he died.

They certainly didn’t build their new capital because they had cash to burn. Myanmar is still a very poor country, desperately in need of foreign aid. The current Rohingya disaster in Rakhine State is blamed, amongst other things, on poverty. Which makes Nay Pyi Taw that much more obscene. You shouldn’t be building unneeded 20 lane highways when a large part of your population is impoverished.

For comparison purposes Myanmar’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita is US$1275. That’s just slightly less than Bangladesh, where those unfortunate Rohingya Muslims have been shoved. Turkmenistan in Central Asia, with that amazingly bling gold and marble capital, is at US$6500. Romania, down at the bottom of the European economic heap, but with that very big parliament building, is at US$9500. Australia? About US$50,000. If you’d like another – more enthusiastic – take on Nay Pyi Taw try the Bohemian Blog.