My Adventure in Naypyidaw, the Bizarre Capital of Myanmar

My Adventure in Naypyidaw, the Bizarre Capital of Myanmar

Wai Kwan explored the eccentric capital of Myanmar to find out what the city had to offer.

Naypyidaw had been on my to-visit list for quite some time. I remembered watching a TV programme that showcased its vast emptiness and ridiculously wide boulevards devoid of vehicles, which I thought was unbelievable. The idea of having the sprawling but empty capital all for myself intrigued me. In fact, I was eagerly looking forward to visiting this capital city once my tickets were booked.

So, where the hell is Naypyidaw?

Naypyidaw’s cityscape.

Basically, it’s in the middle of nowhere!

The reclusive city is located between Myanmar’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Built out of nothing, Naypyidaw probably take the honour as the most sparsely populated capital in the world! There has been some speculation on the reason behind the relocation of the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw. Officially, the government offices had to move due to increasing congestion in Yangon. However, at that time when the secretive military junta still controlled practically everything, any reason is as good as anyone’s guesses. Some suggested that the junta was afraid of a maritime attack on Yangon since it is close to the sea, so they decided to build a brand new capital inland. A friend of mine commented that educated citizens found this totally ridiculous as it’s a total waste of resources in the already impoverished nation back then.

Getting there

In its rather recent early days, the capital was inaccessible even to the general population. It was reserved exclusively for the high ranking officials in government administrations. Even then, many of them refused (but were still eventually forced) to move there because of the isolated and inconvenient location. It’s located so far inland and there’s practically nothing there! With the transition to civilian governance, what was once a secretive planned city for the country’s elites opened up to locals and tourists, if any to begin with.

Today, getting there is straightforward. A bus ticket could be easily booked online or through the receptionist at your accommodation in Myanmar’s major cities. However, as public transport is virtually non-existent, you’ll need to depend on taxis for your last mile connectivity (more like last several miles) to your accommodation in Naypyidaw. When I boarded the taxi, my driver must have been baffled about why some random Asian dude would want to visit Naypyidaw. He wasn’t even sure how to get to my hotel! I ended up relying on Google Maps and directed him to the destination.

The Accommodation

Never in my life have I stayed in such a luxurious hotel on a backpacker’s budget. The five-storey building really stood out – it was off the main road, practically in the middle of nowhere, and the only building that was lighted up in the midst of pitch darkness. A hotel staff was ready to receive me for check-in, and I found myself making my way to my room.

Eerily quiet and empty corridor in the hotel.

The corridors were brightly lit but eerily quiet and empty. It seemed that I was the only guest for that night. My room certainly didn’t fail to impress, with a huge king-sized bed for just S$35 per night! After sleeping in shared dorms for most of my trip, I felt as if I was treated like royalty!

Feeling hungry for dinner, I made my way to the hotel restaurant at the ground level, which is void of any sort of decoration. To my surprise, there were two travellers sitting there! In such a location, I wasn’t expecting anyone at all. They invited me over to their table to have dinner together and we shared about our adventures in Southeast Asia. Later, two backpackers arrived and we joined them at the lobby area. We effectively turned it into a backpackers’ gathering in a hotel setting. It’s funny to think how a three-star hotel catered for business travellers ended up hosting a group of somewhat unintended consumer group.

With nothing else better to do, I decided it was time to head back up to my room to enjoy the luxury that I’ve yet to have after months of backpacking. Before that, I took one last glance outside of the hotel and noticed that the lights at the top two floors were turned off. It felt kind of freaky.

The next day…

I woke up to another fine day after a very comfortable sleep in my own well-equipped hotel room. I headed down for breakfast and the hotel staff was all ready to serve the few guests that were staying there. I helped myself to fried rice, eggs, and some sausages. When I wanted to get some drinks, one of the staff politely but persistently offered to help. I relented. Well, I guess they were too free and just wanted to do something badly!

Then, it was time for some adventure in the sprawling capital. Well, it does have something to offer. I had already researched on the places of interest, and I approached the hotel receptionist to arrange a tour. We discussed and finalised the places that I wanted to visit, and she, acting as the translator, relayed the information to the motorbike taxi driver who arrived shortly. And off we go!

The adventure begins!

My first stop was the Gems Museum where I had to book in and hand over my passport before entering the compound. Gem mining is one of the biggest industries in Myanmar. The ground floor was brightly lit with glaring lights beckoning to each individual stall where mining companies sell gems and jewelleries. Then I went upstairs and paid the entrance fee for the museum proper. And wow… the place is huge! The exhibition hall was dimly lit and eerily silent. The staff vastly outnumbered the visitors. In fact, I was the only visitor, and there were no less than ten staff manning that empty exhibition hall alone!

I had quite a lot to cover, and all the while I was the only visitor viewing the exhibits of different kinds of rocks and minerals as well as their associated products meant for people of high social class. Soon enough, I noticed how my movement was tracked and predicted by the staff working there. They actually turn on the lights for the next exhibits that I was going to view. When I have finished viewing certain exhibits, they turned those lights off! I was so tempted to document the bizarreness of this place, and I took out my phone to take a panorama picture. Alas, I was stopped by one of the staff and had to delete it. At the end of the visit, I concluded that the staff there had two jobs – switching the exhibit lights on and off, and to prevent people from taking photographs.

I met my driver and we hit the road again. To be honest, I didn’t know which would be the next destination at that time, and talking to the driver was of no effect as he didn’t know a single word of English. In no time, we’re cruising along what Naypyidaw is well-known for:

Never in my life had I ever seen such a wide and very empty road. It was a surreal scene.

I began counting the number of lanes… 1,2,3… 8, 9, 10 in one direction. So it’s 20 lanes for BOTH ways! I began to wonder why on earth the military regime would build this road that’s obviously too wide for such a small local population. If they’re indeed planning for the future, they did an awesome job. But what else would the highway be useful for? For communist-style military parade? For facilitating quick activation of military vehicles?

Yet another random and ridiculously wide highway.

After the bike ride that felt like an eternity, I arrived at Naypyidaw Zoological Garden. This was my opportunity to walk around and normalise my blood circulation after getting my butt numbed from the constant engine vibration.

things to do in naypyidaw

Honestly, I would have given this rather uninteresting place a pass if I had known how far it is from my accommodation. Then, with a check on Google Maps out of boredom, I realised that I was quite near the Defense Services Museum, something that I thought I would be more interested in. Meeting my driver again, I tried to convey my intention to make changes to my plan. Failing to understand, he called the hotel receptionist, and she effectively became my translator again.

My driver wasn’t sure about the way. This made me all the more excited – I knew it was going to be an adventure! Soon, we reached the front gate of an enormous complex in the distance. We booked in at a guard post beside a gift shop and collected our identification tags. The complex was so huge that my driver had to ask which porch we had to drop off.

Even my driver was stunned by the immense scale of the complex. It was excessively large and disproportionate to the number of tourists. The spanking new museum complex is made up of five gigantic exhibition halls linked by long, gigantic walkways devoid of visitors.

Each of these halls had air conditioning at full blast, sending the chill down my spine. The first hall exhibits the history of defence in Myanmar, as well as its milestones and achievements. It’s all in Burmese and I barely understood anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were all propaganda. The remaining four halls exhibit the respective divisions of the Myanmar army. My driver gave up after viewing the exhibits at the first hall. I still had four more halls to cover!

It took forever to cover all these exhibits! Due to potential sensitivity, I refrained from taking photos of the exhibits themselves. I’d rather be safe than sorry!

I hardly expected that my visit to the museum would be the greatest highlight of my day, but it was. After viewing all the five halls, it’s time for us to head to our fourth and final place of interest: Uppatasanti Pagoda. I was already tired from all the long rides between gigantic and empty attractions within this enormous capital, but I persevered on.

things to do in naypyidaw

I quite enjoyed the environment at the place of worship, which is also known as the Peace Pagoda. A replica of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in the former capital, the complex is rather empty and has a serene atmosphere – a far cry from the one in Yangon. I strolled around the pagoda and enjoyed the evening. It was a respite after a day full of travelling from one place to another. After that, it was one last hurrah on the 20-lane highway on the way back to the hotel!

things to do in naypyidaw

Should you visit Naypyidaw?

If you are truly fascinated with that surreal feeling of being in a barely-developed city, I would say give it a go. Where on earth could you easily find ghost cities of such a scale where every landmark is so ridiculously big and empty at the same time? Its reclusiveness and vast emptiness are what make Naypyidaw stand out, yet it’s easily accessible from both major cities of Yangon and Mandalay with buses departing regularly from their respective bus stations. A full day of exploring with a hired driver (motorbike or car) could be easily arranged; just approach the reception at your accommodation and they should be more than happy to help out.

Naypyidaw isn’t really about its attractions. Rather, its status as a legacy of military rule gives the place a uniquely eccentric atmosphere compared to other developed cities in Southeast Asia. If you happen to visit a few places in Myanmar, it wouldn’t harm to drop by Naypyidaw along the way. All I could say is that it will definitely leave you with the impression as a weirdly interesting city!

About Author

Tang Wai Kwan
Tang Wai Kwan

Tang finds joy through immersing himself in a local environment, savouring street food and meeting new people. He finds transit maps fascinating and loves navigating through different modes of transportation. While on the streets, he's easily distracted by cats, and he often wonders if cats in different countries "meow" in different languages. When he's not travelling, he's often seen consulting maps and exploring creative ways of getting between places for his next adventure.

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