Myanmar’s Naypyidaw almost feels like Las Vegas if it had a population of 1,000 and took down most of the bright signs that paint the strip in the nighttime. Palm trees line 10-lane highways, the bright sun provides a beaming heat and big hotels can be found packed next to each other.
But there’s hardly a soul to be found.
It’s as if the Burmese government built a city for millions of people and everybody pulled out of their housing contracts at the last second.
The History of Naypyidaw – The Capital City of Myanmar
As far as backstory goes, Naypyidaw wasn’t always the capital. Yangon, a bustling city 200 miles south, held that title. In late 2005, the government moved the capital to Naypyidaw as it has a more centralized location in the country and is a crossroads for many popular Myanmar regions.
Some speculate that the capital was moved strategically because Yangon is susceptible to an aquatic attack being located by a large body of water. Others believe it was a more superstitious decision on the part of a Burmese government official. No matter what the reason, construction of roads, hotels and other infrastructure started shortly after and was slated for a 2012 completion date.
I can tell you that the goal wasn’t met. Not even close.
Shells of enormous, abandoned hotels sit on hillsides with open walls and wide roads (up to five lanes per side in some places) are scarcely used. In our travels, the most cars we saw on the road was around ten vehicles and the fewest were just us for about a half-mile stretch in either direction. It’s an eerie place that exudes the vibe of a Hollywood set producing the newest zombie series.
Dry hills and expansive stretches of sandy land break up the melancholy of half-finished houses and in some places, nice villas can be seen with no inhabitants. There’s also the occasional local lying in the shade provided by a roadside tree, a few gas stations and the tiniest mall I’ve ever seen. Other than that, emptiness prevails over Naypyidaw: the capital that time forgot.
As far as tourism goes, there’s a zoo, a water fountain park and a big pagoda (Uppatasanti Pagoda). The pagoda was as nice as all of the other heavenly pillars throughout the country, but again, we were two of maybe 150 some visitors, a sliver of the thousands of people that it could house.
Where to Stay in Naypyidaw
The biggest example of the vacancy could be seen in our accommodation. We stayed at a hotel called Jade City and besides a group of four backpackers leaving as we arrived, there were maybe only two other groups staying there. That’s four rooms in a hotel with well over a hundred rooms to occupy.
Jade City has two main buildings that it uses for rooms and dining and another building called “Jade Entertainment” where they have a club and the beginnings of what looked like a casino. The hotel is also run by a handful of staff, most of who range from the ages of 15 to 24 and appear to live in the rooms behind a secondary building.
We split the cost of accommodation and each spent $12.50 USD/ day on the room which, I must admit, was nicer looking than most, offered separate beds and came with free laundry cleaning and motorbike rental. We almost spent that on an Indonesian hostel where we had to share a bed!
The staff also doesn’t run the A/C in the dust-covered lobby because nothing’s ever used. Skeletons of small buildings with exposed cinder blocks and untended yellow-grass gardens show just how little care has gone into this hotel once people realised that nobody was coming to this city.
And that seems to be the theme here.
It seems the government put a boatload of money into moving the capital and thought people would follow. Well, they didn’t, and by the time the government realised it was too late, the beginnings of huge hotels had been constructed and exotic animals were moved from the Yangon zoo to fill up the one in Naypyidaw.
A Burmese comedian actually had a skit about how the animals were all moving to the new capital, a cheeky comment about the politicians rather than the creatures themselves. A joke that actually landed the comedian a permanent gig in jail!
Maybe in the next decade people will make the transition, but until then Naypyidaw is just a big city with big hotels and nobody to fill either up. While the city might have 24/7 electricity, reliable internet, the biggest zoo in the country and, most of all, plenty of space (things you might have a hard time finding in other parts of Myanmar) it also sorely lacks any feeling, culture or discernible style.
I will admit that it was a unique experience – but it’s one I’m glad we only spent a day having.
How to get to Naypyidaw (Nay Pyi Taw)?
If you’re interested in visiting the Ghost City that is Naypyidaw, you can do so from the more popular nearby destinations of Yangon and Mandalay. To Naypyidaw from the old capital of Yangon, the journey is 5-6 hours by bus. You will travel along an 8-lane highway until you reach the unusual capital. From Mandalay, Naypyidaw is 3-4 hours south. Apart from government officials, the city is only ever really visited by foreigners who are intrigued at the thought of a city with no inhabitants.
|Flight Yangon - Naypyitaw $ 139.86–230.05 35m – 1h|
|Bus Yangon - Naypyitaw $ 9.26–9.70 6h|
|Train Yangon - Naypyitaw $ 11.91 8h 30m – 9h 20m|
About the writer: Like most bored college graduates, Austin Flynn decided to put the job search on hold and explore a bit of the world. Luckily, this graduate made friends with the right Malaysian photographer in university and turned him into a travel sidekick. Since then he’s travelled South East Asia, lived/worked in Australia, traveled New Zealand for two weeks and lived in Japan for two months. He normally prefers writing about video games but started a travel blog specifically to try his hand at the unfamiliar writing genre. Check out his blog: vagrantflynn.com.
About the photographer: Darren Lee took his first trip at 18 and has been travelling steadily since eventually attending college in America where he studied cinema & photography. Now, he’s back in his hometown, Kuala Lumpur, trying to figure out where his next trip is going to take him. His favourite aspect of photography is how much it teaches him about individuals and the way they live their lives. He finds that truly portraying the raw day-to-day through photos alone is the most difficult part of his job, but one that he’s always striving to improve through passion and hectic editing sessions. You can check out his work at darrenleejw.com or on Instagram @darrenleejw91.