Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nay Pyi Taw - the capital of Myanmar

Yangon, probably the best known city of Myanmar together with Mandalay, is the former capital of the country. Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, is a city build from scratch, largely in secret, which was announced to the public only in 2005 by the military junta; since then the planned city is still being developed.

There are a few versions as to why the capital was relocated from Yangon 390 km to the north, close to Shan State in the jungle, a region flanked by mountains. It is said that before looking for a new place for the new capital city, the astrologers (astrology and fortune tellers are very popular in Myanmar) have been consulted and they indicated this area as being the best-suited to build a new capital. Others believe that the military junta was concerned with the formal capital Yangon being an easy to reach and occupy city in case of an attack by sea. Some say that the military junta also wished to make a statement and build a new capital to reflect Myanmar's power and differentiate with the old capital which had been declared by the British colonial power as to be Rangoon. The official version of the authorities is that the old capital Yangon was overcrowded and the traffic in a permanent congestion and the best solution was to build a new capital from scratch.

The move for the civil servants came unexpectedly in 2006. The capital was being build up since several  years and then in 2006, from one day to another, some ministries were ordered to pack and move their staff and belongings to the new capital. The buildings were still very much under construction. Some press articles of the time say that the civil servants who refused to move or resigned were sent to jail. For a period no family members were allowed to join. Nowadays many of the civil servants are driving or flying back (the generals) to Yangon for the weekends to join their families which chose not to move due to lack of infrastructure and schools.

As the capital continues to lack infrastructure, buildings, schools and hospitals, the embassies and most of the international organisations refuse to relocate and continue to be based in Yangon. The city is largely deserted. The ministries are scattered on a vast area being connected by an impressive array of roads, including one with 11 lanes in front of the Parliament buildings which it is said it was built for allowing huge (military) airplanes to land in case of emergencies. The emptiness of the place strikes you when you arrive from bustling Yangon. On the way from the airport the streets are mostly empty and the only people you notice are wearing their traditional sun hats to protect themselves from the sun while taking care of the huge flower beds which lie between the street lanes or around impressive roundabouts. The sun is shining, you drive your rented car (taxis are almost non-existent) and you watch outside the emptiness of the place trying to spot some buildings at a large distance and hidden amongst trees.

The ministry buildings are soulless and one can notice they were build in a hurry. They do look like Soviet buildings with Myanmar decorations inside the reception halls.
The capital continues its development and may one day welcome foreign embassies, international organisations and other expats. Better hospitals and schools still need to be built in order to prepare for a possible relocation of embassy staff. For the moment, the government allocated, on paper, in the so-called international zone, plots of land for each embassy and international organisation. There is also a hotel zone in Myanmar where the few foreigners who work permanently in Nay Pyi Taw are allowed to live. Foreigners are not allowed to rent a house yet in the new capital.
Therefore Nay Pyi Taw is not a touristic city. The only few things of interest are the huge and impressive Parliament buildings (Hluttaw) but which can only be admired by tourists from outside and the Pagoda with its huge stupa. Next to the pagoda there are a few white/pink elephants unfortunately chained and kept to be seen by the Pagoda's visitors. There are also a Gems Museum, a Zoo, and a water fountain park.

The return flight from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw costs around 300 USD which is rather expensive. But the airlines take advantage of the need of the people to commute between the two cities and keep the price high. The planes are always full. The drive up the fairly new constructed highway which connects Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw still takes over 4 hours.

It is worth noticing the impressive airport in Nay Pyi Taw which cannot be compared with the one in Yangon (which is now being expanded due to the increase in tourists; a new one is currently build close to Bago city). The Nay Pyi Taw airport was built to serve daily large numbers of travellers but it looks very much deserted. There are a few international flights from Nay Pyi Taw to Thailand and China. But, in such a modern airport, during the check-in, one staff person is hand writing the tickets and the boarding passes. Definitely a place that will continue to amaze its visitors.

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