The ferry-bus was taking us across the tarmac at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. The destination was the plane into Myanmar. It appeared a relatively new jet, which was reassuring as air travel safety is always a concern – you hear stories. As the idea of living to see tomorrow settled in the mind, the bus pulled around this wonder plane to reveal our true destination – an aged prop plane. You felt your life expectation suddenly shorten. Yet, you could spot the Myanmar people; they were the excited ones taking selfies by the antique. Those of us that travelled more frequently felt it better not to look at the plane at all. Ours was a pensive and sombre tone. Never look a flying death-trap in the face.
My seat number was 1A; ‘at the front’, the flight attendant said.
Mercifully, the flight into Naypyidaw International Airport was an incident-free 90 minutes. The contrast between the two airports couldn’t have been greater. Front of house Suvarnabhumi airport is frenetic chaos. Once past immigration, the confusion turns into the standard sterile shopping experience. A more perfect metaphor for Thailand doesn’t exist.
In contrast, Naypyidaw International Airport serves a handful of flights a day; the only international one being the connection taking NGO types back and forth to weekends in Bangkok. The Friday afternoon flight was always at capacity. The staff generally outnumber the customers in the airport. The seats in the arrival lounge still had their plastic wrappings on after more than a decade of operation.
The road into the city is several miles of empty dual carriageway that cuts through rice fields and small communities. The road-sides and central divides are curiously well-landscaped, water-fed and attended by a large army of labourers, presumably the souls kicked off their land when the city was built. There is decorative greenery and fresh grass yards from the sun-baked earth of farmsteads.
The first major indicator of entering the nation’s administrative heart passed on your left: the headquarters of the Union Solidarity and Development Party – the USDP – the Junta party ousted from power in 2015 after it managed the transition to democratic reform. The people said, ‘no, thanks’.
Across a gaudy island, you pass into the first of the city’s zones – the hotel zone. The majority of the hotels are junta-owned fronts for laundering money; zero guests and 100% occupancy. If you arrived in the early hours, you would see the prostitutes leaving the military’s orgies. On the right is the Thingaha, where Top Gear were ‘refused’ accommodation. Around any of the hotel bars, you might meet anyone from German free-divers to disaster relief specialists to Belarusians ranting about ‘homosexual Jews’. Obese Trump supporters were well-represented until the administration cut foreign aid.
The building’s themselves were used as the athlete’s village during the South East Asian (SEA) Games in 2013; locked, abandoned and decaying fossil facilities could still be seen around the city. Oddly, there were two fantastic Italian restaurants. I had the good fortune to introduce many people to damn fine pizza.
After the hotels, you pass the Jewel Museum, site of the annual auctions of uncut stones. For several days, men in suits walk the town handcuffed to briefcases. A jewel dealer lived not far us, he ran the business from his gated home and had cages of uncut stones stacked in easy sight. Their value was chalked on the side: $40, 000, $20,000. Just off the main road was an industrial estate devoted to the jewel trade, except all the buildings were empty and unused. The signage suggested registered addresses.
Passing into the ministry zone, your cross the twenty-lane highway. To your left, the parliament building and the road to the majority of the ministries. If you have seen the Top Gear Burma Special, you will have seen them having a drag race along the empty highway. It’s here that they filmed this. I showed their documentary to civil servants in one of the ministries off this road. The right turn takes you to Uppatasanti Pagoda and to Pyinmana
As you continue along the highway, you pass more landscaping and unusually, herds of cows and goats being watered along the main road in a capital city. People returned to herd cattle in much the same locations after their eviction during the construction of the city. If you are on the twenty lane highways at the right time of the evening, you would see water buffalo crossing between the rice fields on either side.
On your left, you pass the National Bank of Myanmar (a colonial throwback by all reports) and the National Library; you had to put your passport number in the big book to get into the place. In one of the rooms, I found the journal of the Christian Burma Research Society (from the late 19th Century until the 1930s). The first article was a report on child cannibalism and sacrifice in the provinces.
You pass the Ottarathiri Township, which is full of second homes for people connected to the Junta. Many stand empty, many are half-completed. Most have an attendant family living out of shanty attached whose job is to maintain the property in the owner’s absence.
The neighbourhood has a better and more reliable power supply than the rest of the city. Most of the civil servants live in single-sex hostels prone to outages that lasted days. There are two malls next to each other in Ottarathiri. One, ironically, called the Living Mall, never had any customers. There were at least two other abandoned shopping complexes around the city.
Looking down on the township from nearby Mount Pleasant hill is a large Buddha, apparently built by former president Thein Sein to atone for his sins. Orwell mentioned this practice in Burmese Days.
Before the city bleeds out into local villages, the final zone is another hotel one. Experience taught that these were ‘entertainment’ hotels with ‘karaoke’. Euphemisms all. Many half-completed hotels, concrete shells full of mud and stray dogs, were just decaying away and returning to nature.
The dual carriageway ends at a traffic island, the exits of which take you out into more rural areas. One of these areas is an estate of decaying wooden houses; I imagine these were temporary accommodation for the workers that built the city. People still live there. The other leads to a faithful recreation of Buddha’s birthplace.
On the outskirts on the city, the National Monuments Museum has to be seen to be believed. It is a vision of Myanmar’s famous landmarks realised in concrete. Except, it hasn’t been maintained since it opened. Water-flumes and water-slides end in pools of stagnant mosquito-filled green slime. The concrete landmarks were crumbling. A lot of rebars protruded. ‘Depressing’ doesn’t describe it. Much like the Military Museum next door, its intended audience clearly had lower expectations of its tourist attractions than our own and a greater appetite for celebratory nationalism.
In the Top Gear Burma Special, Clarkson comments that Naypyidaw was built in anticipation of the future. Whether or not that future was ever realistic or the envisioned one lost its validity when the coup happened, it is certainly a monument to an ill-defined something. For a city that had no organic growth, what exists is a product of those forcibly relocated to it. It isn’t a destination of any glamour but I would certainly go back and I enjoyed living there. It was a unique place to be and the right time to see it. Laughably, we may have seen it at its democratic peak. Perhaps the city is merely its own witness.
That said, from what I hear about how the civil servants are being treated by the Junta, it is starting to resemble the Orwellian hell that many had previously claimed it to be. It was public knowledge by 2017 that Min Aung Hlaing wanted to hold political office; the coup of 2021 was no surprise. We suspected that our work was just to modernise the bureaucracy and the democracy project a way for the military to let the NLD discredit itself in the eyes of the outside world. Once the Junta had the upgrades it wanted, many predicted the doors would close again.
So that is Naypyidaw, the administrative capital of modern Myanmar: an empty airport and a dual carriageway that ends at the Junta’s museum to itself. These are the surface features, of course. The civil servants posted there have no illusions about the city. Most hate it passionately and resent the fact they are away from their families. Yet, many believed in their work and felt they were building a better brighter future for their country.
How they feel since the military took power in February 2021 is a different matter.