Monday, 9 October 2017

Myanmar: A bizarre 24 hours in Naypyitaw


Visiting Myanmar - was Burma - was one of those travel experiences that really sticks with you. 

The madness of Yangon left us feeling totally overwhelmed. The beauty of Bagan left us in complete awe. The hill tribe villages near Kalaw left us feeling humbled. The sixty-five kilometre trek left me without two toenails... but that's another story for another day!

And the surreal emptiness of Naypyitaw left us feeling... unnerved. 

Naypyitaw is the new, purpose-built capital city of Myanmar, and since being built in 2006 has begun to find itself as a stop on the tourist trail. It's fairly centrally located, and we visited the capital after spending a few days in Yangon. What is bizarre, however, is how sparse the city is. At just over 7,000 square km in size - four times the size of London! - the official population claims to be around 1 million. That quite clearly is just not the case. It is desolate! And what's more unnerving than a brilliantly clean, modernised city in an otherwise impoverished and simplistic country? The empty 20-lane highways and un-occupied hotels intrigued us, but left us feeling... discombobulated. 

How we got here

We arrived from Yangon by bus - or 'elite express coach' should I say - costing a modest £5 each (April 2016) for the six hour journey. We booked this through our hotel and travelled on the JJ Express Bus (info and tickets here) which was quite honestly the nicest bus we had the pleasure of using during out six months in SE Asia! Clean, reclining seats, TV with USB ports, air con, free water, snacks and blankets - we felt like royalty. Megabus, sort it out! We stopped at a service station half way through our journey which again was pretty clean and modern - I only wish all the service stops were this nice!

Where we stayed

We booked a one night stay at Man Myanmar Hotel which cost around £35 in April 2016. We were given a superior room which was huge and clean, with a big bed and nice bathroom. Again, by Myanmar standards this was total luxury! The hotel was completely dead - like the rest of the city - and whilst there was a fairly inviting looking pool there was absolutely nothing else on site or in the vicinity. Oh, and a rat in the restaurant.

What we did

On arrival we checked in to our room and immediately headed out. There was little/no public transport available, and city is so large you couldn't access it all on foot. Motorbikes are banned for some reason, too! So, with the help of Google translate (after spending two months in Thailand where everyone spoke English, this felt bizarre!) we were able to arrange a taxi to collect us from our hotel and take us to see the sights. I mean, there aren't many. Half a day of 'exploring' was plenty!

First up, Uppatasanti Pagoda. A huge structure which is almost the same size as Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon - in fact just 30cm shorter, and pretty much a like-for-like replica. We were told that it was purposely built to be just shorter so as not to take away from Myanmar's #1 spiritual site in Yangon! On arrival we were pointed towards a lift, which took us to the elevated entrance of the temple. Of course, the site was almost entirely empty and being Westerners we attracted a lot of attention from the handful of locals we saw. The pagoda really is an impressive sight, totally gilded in gold, and houses a Buddha tooth relic.

We were then taken by our driver to a 'mystery location' (mystery 'cos we didn't ask for it, and language barrier meant we had no idea what he was trying to tell us) which turned out to be a caged albino elephant. This was really heartbreaking, and not something we wanted to fund or encourage in any way, so we made polite noises and jumped back in the taxi sharpish.

The final stop on our grand tour (no irony here) was the twenty lane highway. Allegedly built so the military government could land aeroplanes and helicopters in the event of protests - which should tell you something about said government - it is a sprawling motorway that was, naturally, completely empty of cars. Well, that's not entirely true. We were there, in a car, and we saw a couple drive past whilst we posed for a picture slap bang in the middle of it! Very bizarre.

And, well, that was it! Back to the hotel we went. In the evening we got another expensive taxi to the Emerald hotel down the road (too far to walk, and no pavements...) for weird Italian food. On the plus side the wifi was super fast both in our hotel and Emerald so we made the most of it by downloading films, books and the like. The rest of Myanmar struggles with internet connectivity, so we completely abused the lightening fast speeds.

I feel like I probably haven't sold Naypyitaw to you, but it was a creepy interesting 24 hours. A friend of ours had visited and told us to stop by just to check it out, and I'm kind of glad we did. Yes, it was weird, and I suppose that was the draw. It really signposted to us just how bizarre the government is there, and whilst it was fascinating to see just how sparse the city was, it did leave us feeling quite despondent. 'Cos in a country of huge poverty, this gross expense is just wasted. Super fast wifi, huge highways and an almost Western-level infrastructure - for the government officials and their families who live there. Only after later visiting some of the more remote parts of Myanmar did we realise how extraordinarily sad Naypyitaw is.

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