Editor’s note: Sadly, the SD card Dennis Jones used during his explorations of Nay Pyi Taw got corrupted and the photos were unrecoverable. Instead, he shares a few photos of the interesting people he met other places in Myanmar. This is the fourth article in a series on Myanmar. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first three installments.
What if they built a Las Vegas and nobody came? This is my impression of Myanmar’s new capitol city, which opened in 2005. It is a sprawling complex of deserted business parks, eight-lane roundabouts, an inaccessible government quarter, forbidden military zones, multi-level shopping malls and even, if you can believe it, a 20-lane highway! You can dream big when you’ve got absolute power.
Wanting to experience Myanmar’s notorious trains and feeling we could handle the three-hour trip from Taungoo to Nay Pyi Taw, I had our guesthouse make the arrangements. At the station, vendors balancing platters of food on their heads swarm the carriages, wheeling and dealing through the open windows. We find our $6 upper class seats and settle in as the train lurches forward.
Leaving Taungoo behind, the train picks up speed, making perhaps all of 20 mph. With the condition of the tracks, built by the Brits early in the 20th Century, any faster could and has proved disastrous. As it is, the train often lurches violently side to side or bucks like a bronco, creaking and rattling while lifting us out of our seats.
We promenade through miles of rich farmland, slowing for the frequent towns and stopping for new passengers. Most stations are one or two room affairs, some only a platform and a thatch hut. Thus, the ginormous multi-track, marble mausoleum of Nay Pyi Taw station is all the more jarring.
But for one or two Burmese, Yolanda and I are the only passengers to disembark. Crossing over multiple empty platforms, we exit through the immaculate marbled halls of the empty station to find a solitary taxi waiting for a fare.
The eight-lane boulevards are practically empty. Immaculately landscaped roundabouts every few miles intersect other eight-lane boulevards, colorful sculptures adorning their apex. The landscaping adorning the wide median and sides of the road is beautiful with bougainvillea, flowering trees and lush greenery.
Stopping for gas at a sparkling clean station, neatly uniformed girls fill the tank under the watchful eye of police sitting inside the empty shell of what may become the convenience store.
After 45 minutes, we arrive in the hotel district where 61 resort hotels await guests. We find we’ve been upgraded to a beautiful bungalow suite on the lake because the five stories of standard rooms are “under renovations.” Yeah, sure. They didn’t want to open that building for their only guests. Yes, we are the only guests.
Guests or no guests, all hotels though must be fully staffed. At dinner and breakfast in the cavernous Balinesian-style main building the lonely manager joins us, sharing insights into the recent changes in Myanmar. Guidebooks warn against talking politics with citizens so we’re surprised at what we’re hearing. He feels he can now talk freely with friends and foreigners without being afraid of getting arrested or harassed.
Asking us what brought us to Nay Pyi Taw, he’s surprised to learn we’re tourists, thinking we were either government or business people. “No tourists ever come here,” he exclaims.
The next afternoon, I arrange a taxi to drive me around the city. The 12-lane boulevard through the hotel zone is empty but for a few motorbikes, bicycles and the rare car. Dominating the expansive plain is a huge golden pagoda built by the former dictator Nye Win to gain reincarnation merit. Only a foot shorter than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, it is already showing signs of wear as the thin layer of gold is revealing its underlayment of bricks. An apt metaphor for this new city?
We pass a neighborhood of colorful stucco homes, which wouldn’t be out of place in a wealthy Florida subdivision.
“Homes of high government officials,” says the cabbie.
Farther down the road is one of the only traditional villages not displaced, its thatch huts set inside an oasis of palm and banana trees.
Turning off one of the beautifully manicured roundabouts I’m astounded to find the widest highway I’ve ever seen. I count 20 lanes! We are the only car. Toward its end, an armed soldier manning barricades prevents us from continuing to the new government buildings.
In a country so poor, with a people so humble, it is bizarre to find such extravagance awaiting the eventuality of a populace. With a history of kings building new capitals at will, this “Royal Capitol of the Shining Sun” is unsurprising. Yet, the grandiosity of the vision juxtaposed with the poverty of the people takes one to the realms of the Twilight Zone.