Misadventures in Naypyidaw: Year 1, Part 1

I was so happy to get the job in Naypyitaw. I had seen the city on the Top Gear Burma Special and it was clearly a unique place on the fringes of the modern world. My anthropological curiosity peaked and kept climbing. 

Since I had left Spain, I had not had a good time. The job I had at the time was a nightmare. I was trapped in a boot camp pretending to be a university in Turkey. I was about three months into my contract. My friend walked out at the end of the second month; it was that bad an experience. I said ‘yes’ to the Myanmar job, got a taxi to the airport and was in Yangon before anyone at the university was even aware that I was gone. Walking out felt better than anything I had experienced.

In Yangon, the organisation put us up in a fading colonial hotel called ‘The Alpha’. You could see Shwedagon Pagoda from the rooftop bar. The hotel was uniquely awful but with some charm. There were holes around the bathroom extractor that had been plugged with paper to keep the bugs out. The city is blisteringly hot and everything is covered in mould. A century ago it must have been a beautiful colonial place. Now, everything was broken and everything dripped. The hotel staff were polite beyond imagining.

On day one, as I walked into the office, the centre manager looked me up and down like she’d scrapped me off her shoe. We were introduced around as ‘the Naypyidaw people’. Intakes of breath were audible and people would take noticeable steps back. Mental notes were made. Naypyidaw was ‘up there’ and we were told in no uncertain terms we were recruited as we demonstrated ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’. Sacrificial victims came to mind. We were obviously kept separate from the regular staff. We were invited to private houses ‘before we leave’ in vague ways that never actually turned into time and date. There was a Saturday house party/office gathering to which we were invited. We were accosted on Monday by a senior manager demanding to know why we hadn’t gone. One colleague we rebuked for only attending for ‘twenty minutes’. Clearly, there was a social accounting. 

The organisation then dumped us in Naypyitaw with no clue as to where we were, no map to help us orientate ourselves or no means of getting around a deserted city with no public transport system. The personality disorder that had been employed to ‘supervise’, she ticked the diversity box, had a hissy fit in the supermarket as she clearly thought she needed to organise our outing for basic provisions and we all ignored her. She then started asking for items in a restaurant that were not on the menu. The poor waiter, struggling with the language barrier and having visible hot sweats as he’d clearly never served a foreigner before, looked on in terrified incomprehensibility.

The four of us were accommodated in a palatial house, given special dispensation through diplomatic connections, that was officially the second home of a general who ran one of the government ministries. He had a wooden leg as he had stood on a landmine during one of the Burmese military’s unending internal conflicts. His son was Field Marshall and he was obviously proud when he joked he had to salute his own child. I dubbed the house ‘The Residence’.

On the first night, I went to the kitchen and discovered a trail of blood that ended in my drunken aged colleague; she was trying to open a wine bottle with a carving knife. Suffice to say, there was no first aid kit. She was a committed alcoholic from Manchester.

The agency arranged a local driver to take us to work everyday and who was generously prepared to shuttle us around if we paid a premium price per journey. My drinker friend and I went in pursuit of a swimming pool on Sunday afternoon and we found a nice one in a luxury hotel. It was fortunate that we did as our driver hadn’t been told what time he had to arrive to take us to work on Monday morning. Minor oversight? Par for the course, as we came to recognise.

Tensions in the house surfaced fairly quickly. There was myself, well-balanced and psychologically sound; our aged Mancunian drunk (Mina), the supervisor (Demi) and a polite aging English gentleman (Andrew). Andy and I got on like a house on fire from the day we met. He had a thing for war zones and had worked in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. His most recent job had been in Burundi. He turned 64 just after he arrived in Naypyidaw. Mina was great company when sober and a nightmare when not. Demi was insufferable and couldn’t talk to anyone without arguing with them.

She and Andy had mutual acquaintances in Africa; as their opinions on people’s character differed, Andy decided to dig. He smelt trouble in her past. The word ‘retarded’ was later used to describe her. She attempt to boss him about over some minor issue and in his own gentlemanly manner, he proceeded to tell to to respect her elders and to mind her mouth as he was old enough to be father.

I had huge respect for Andy from day one; he and I would sit in the car giggling like children on the way to work. It wound Demi up no end. Tensions between the three of us and Demi kept rising. She took to locking herself in her room and cooking very early in the morning to avoid interacting with people during the day.

Mina drank. She was nominally retired but claimed to be bored. When drinking, she would flounce around the house in a white nightie and would sit in various ways that left her underwear in the public domain. She was the first casualty.

Mina had being some work that had been constantly revised and the back and forth with Yangon was creating tensions. After an initial probationary evaluation, Mina stormed out, had a melt down in the offices of a local doctor who immediately prescribed her some anti-psychotics. Medicated, she never left her room, leaving two of us to deal with a basket case with deteriorating mental health. The most senior manager came to observe the situation, promptly dismissed Mina’s conditions and left again. Again, burdening the rest of us with duty of care.

At the same time, Andy stated getting headaches. The doctor suggested he was experiencing age-related contracture of the spine. He returned to the Residence with a lovely x-ray to take home to his wife. As treatment, he was told to go to the local hospital and have therapeutic massage. The masseuse practically fractured several of his ribs. His side went black. More x-rays for the wife. He was the second of us confined to barracks. Poor Andy was also confined with the medicated Ghoul. I frequently had to get him ‘strong beer’ to help him through the ordeal. He repeatedly told me to stop making him laugh as it caused him too much pain.

Andy had been employed on a short-term contract and sat out more than half of it as medically unfit for work. Mina left eventually; replacements were flown in from Yangon. Oddly, the first of these was a former colleague of Andy’s and the pair of them immediately reawakened a long forgotten conflict. This was before breakfast on the replacements first morning.

Eventually Andy and Mina were rotated out. Andy departed in full gentlemanly fashion, attired in a blue blazer. He was the only one to leave the project with any shred of dignity.

His replacement was an American with a hygiene problem. She got very excited when she saw adult nappies for sale. So convenient. She had worked for the state department in Iraq and told tales of how she used to walk across Baghdad alone late at night. On her second or third morning in the Residency, she announced she had to leave. Legal issues back home. She was the third to leave. Her room was so filthy we had to pay the cleaner extra.

The next in was one of the selected few that had the golden light of Yangon smiling on her. A truly odious individual.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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