19 Mar 2012

A new guide to Burma's capital city, Naypyidaw

Channel 4 News Asia correspondent John Sparks writes his own travel guide to the capital city of Burma, Naypyidaw

Pick up a travel guide to just about anywhere and you can be sure it will dedicate a couple of pages to the capital city. They’re not always the most exhilarating of places (you know what I am talking about, veterans of Ottawa** and Canberra) but there’s sure to be a historic building or a museum or a silk-weave textile exhibition that warrants an hour or two.

Not Naypyidaw though. The capital of Burma gets a piddling few paragraphs in my Lonely Planet. It might as well say “Naypyidaw: Don’t bother“. But I’m here to tell you that all discerning travellers should consider a trip to Burmese capital – not because of what you’ll see, which isn’t particularly impressive. In fact if you were to draft in a bunch of generals to build you a community, Naypyidaw is what you’ll get. No, you should go there because what this place is likely to become in the future – which is a whole lot more interesting. So I am going to re-write the entry for Naypyidaw for the folks at Lonely Planet – and I’m not going to charge them for it either.


I wonder what the generals said to each other around the board table when the “new capital” file was passed out. I presume someone said “let’s make it big” and the rest of them nodded. Construction began in 2005 on a patch of dried-up scrub land 4 hour’s drive north of the previous capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon). No one is exactly sure why they moved it. Some say the junta made the decision in consultation with their astrologers.

At a reputed cost $4bn, they have now got themselves a monster 31 building Parliament called the “Hluttaw”, several well-tended roundabouts, a large Buddhist temple gifted to the city by former ruler, General Than Shwe and a huge bit of public sculpture called the “Statue of the Three Kings” – but you can’t go there because it’s in a military zone.

It’s also got itself a fearsome reputation. Photography is not exactly encouraged – taking photos of public buildings and military personnel is forbidden (and there are a lot of both in Naypyidaw). Add to that the horrified looks you get when you tell people you’re making the trip – “could be dangerous,” we were told by kindly folk in Yangon. A translator flat out refused to accompany us when we told him the gig was in the capital.

Not a great start, right? Well, here’s what’s going for it. Start with the eerie feeling of unrealised ambition. You see it in the 20 lane highways, the ‘Orange County’ style villas being thrown up on the outskirts and yes, the monumental roundabouts. This, a city built by men who want their country stand out, to achieve on the global stage – but wholly lacking the ability to achieve their goals. (In an interview with Channel 4 News, the general secretary of the USDP Party – which is intimately linked to the country’s leadership, told me, “We accept that there was no development in the country because of the one party system. Based on that acceptance, we have changed to multi-party system.”)

And that’s why it’s about to get a whole lot more interesting. The up-coming by-election, scheduled for 1 April, should shake the place up a bit. Democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to take a seat in the People’s Parliament – and the lion’s share of the other 47 seats up for grabs should go to fellow members of her National League of Democracy. She’s been attracting hundreds of thousands of people on the campaign trail – just imagine the interest she’ll generate when she’s haranguing government ministers in the assembly. If only the staff at the parliament would open the public gallery to, well, the public.

Still, I think her star power will transform the place. They’ll need new hotels and restaurants for all those camera-toting visitors witnessing the creation of Burmese democracy and they better build a couple of museums and a textile display while they’re at it – although the authorities are going to struggle to find an historic building.

But won’t they just move the capital back to Yangon you say? Well, we made enquires with National League of Democracy officials and they told us they’ve got no plans to move it anywhere.

So it seems that Naypyidaw’s future is secure. The generals started it and now the people may just be about to make it real – the demonstrators, lobbyists, tourists, twenty-something ministerial aides and all the ordinary folk who make capital cities reasonably interesting places to be. Watch out Ottawa, there’s a new sheriff in town.*

Do’s and don’ts

Do talk to locals. We found the vast majority of Burmese to be warm, friendly and willing to help

Do visit the Parliament (if they’ll let you in). There are thirty one buildings situated on a massive site, representing the thirty one planes of experience in Buddhism that lie between hell and nirvana. Many of buildings within the complex look empty.

Do keep your eyes peeled for roundabouts. The best that money can buy.

Do bring your golf clubs. There are two courses and a driving range. Popular, because there’s not much else to do.

Don’t take photos of public buildings or men in uniform.

Don’t talk politics. That’s going to take a little while.

** John Sparks is a Canadian and is actually quite fond of Ottawa.

Follow @c4sparks on Twitter.