If you’re a chaser of oddities off the beaten tourist path, then add the vast, silent Naypyitaw to your quirky bucket list: a city-sized folly which few people on earth even knew was being built before the Burmese president unveiled it, primed for habitation, in 2005. Burma’s capital is geographically central, but its population is scant. It’s a major hub on the country’s rail system yet receives almost no visitors. It has a sector filled with custom-built embassies so that every country could relocate from Yangon, but which only Bangladesh agreed to do. It’s 7,000km2, and devoid of humanity. Newspaper articles painted it as desolate, expansive, Lynchian, and despotic. We knew we had to visit.
We were the only foreigners to alight from the train, alongside a dozen Burmese passengers, peering around a gigantic, elaborate, and deserted station: a sign of things to come. We traipsed through echoing corridors to the huddle of taxi drivers at the entrance, horrified by the prices they quoted. “Half hour drive” they shrugged.
Yet unlike every other Asian city I’ve visited, this lengthy journey was not due to honking, gridlocked traffic. Far from it: the enormous roads were alarmingly empty, and the station just really far away. During the 25km drive, we saw a grand total of ten other vehicles. On the main road from the only train station. In Burma’s capital city.
Everything in Naypyitaw is owned by government officials and their unscrupulous cronies, which means that if you visit, there’s nothing you can do to avoid putting money into their pockets.
This includes the accommodation sector, which boasts a line of identical, poorly-built hotels, all similarly overpriced and virtually unoccupied. Under baking air, in the middle of a drought, the hotels unfailingly watered their emerald-green lawns; outside the city limits, shrivelled crops withered and died. Despite a total lack of guests, they were building new rooms. But to our horror, the workers – shovelling cement or manhandling pneumatic drills – wore flip-flops, or no shoes at all.
In a country where 50% of the people struggle by on less than US$1 per day, the government charged US$40 for the cheapest hotel room and then paid their workers so little than they couldn’t even afford to wear shoes whilst operating heavy machinery. It was disgusting, heartbreaking, and a catch-22. I would have remained unaware of this exploitation if I hadn’t been to Naypyitaw; yet in visiting, I condoned it, by directly funding the government.
If the streets had been hushed the previous night, at noon on a weekday they were even quieter. Silent stillness hung over the colossal city: a stark, endless expanse of concrete, blazing in the tropical sun. For where were its inhabitants? Our eyes strained for pedestrians. We saw a single bus. There were no street-food stalls, nor individual shops; all commerce was neatly placed inside the city’s two pristine shopping centres. At the Gems Museum we were the only visitors, observed by taciturn, glassy-eyed attendants. These depressing focal points conjured up a once-bustling town, now circumvented by a ring-road.
The only park in the city was deserted but for a few workers dozing in the shade of a giant Viking long boat. Its miserable playground, weathered and peeling in the scorching sun, was bereft of children.
We headed to the parliament building down a road of 14 lanes, split by a central grassy island, marvelling at the size and sheer emptiness. But around the corner it got even stranger: an astronomically wide, featureless, 20-lane highway. With traffic amounting to our taxi and one curious motorcyclist, this epic expanse could easily accommodate a jumbo jet, and supposedly that’s precisely why it was built: to provide an escape for the paranoid president in case of attack. We slowed to a crawl outside the parliament building, hidden down a long road and ringed by a moat, and poked our cameras through heavy metal gates to the disinterest of the listless guards.
Then we strolled over the capital city’s largest road, lay down, and stretched across the silent central lanes, just because we could.
Naypyitaw is both a triumph and a failure of town planning; a jaw-dropping achievement and spectacular absurdity; an ethically-bankrupt concrete conundrum.
It lacks that essential component of a city: life. But then it would be impossible to fill it with the people necessary for such a behemoth to successfully operate, short of paying them (which the government won’t do) or coercing them (which they already have) or shuttling them in from outside (whether they want to be shuttled or not). It shouldn’t exist, but it does. It’s the quietest capital city on earth. It may not be the record-breaking accolade Burma’s president hoped to achieve, but it’s one they’re unlikely to lose any time soon.