A few years ago, I travelled to Ordos in China. Back then the city was far from finished, and though it had been built to house a million people the place was still largely empty. As a result, the Western media had taken to calling it ‘China’s Ghost City’ (they still do, although the population of Ordos is now on the rise).
But Ordos, with its unfinished towers, empty plazas, and row after row of nearly unused streets, did nothing to prepare me for Naypyidaw.
If you haven’t heard of Naypyidaw, you’re not alone. It has been the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma) since 2006, though it’s not nearly as well visited as the old capital, Yangon. Myanmar is currently poised at an exciting stage in its history, where the totalitarian rule of a military junta has recently been brought to an end, and tourism is just beginning to blossom. Some of the more famously beautiful places in Myanmar now feel like bonafide tourist hotspots; but no one is visiting Naypyidaw yet.
The reason, of course, is that the city isn’t finished. The parliament may meet in Naypyidaw now, but many of its members still have to commute from their homes and offices in Yangon. The new capital has been sketched out across the plains, drawn from a grid of 20-lane highways… but most of the spaces in between are still empty.
What follows is a photographic tour through the empty roads, the undeveloped plains and the wonderfully over-the-top monuments of Naypyidaw – but there is life here, too, and perhaps the greatest thing for me was finding surprisingly vibrant pockets of contemporary culture scattered throughout this imaginary cityscape.
The Empty Resort
The first I saw of Naypyidaw was my accommodation in ‘Hotel District 1.’ I was at a five-star luxury resort, one of 60 similar complexes on this block alone. There didn’t appear to be any other guests around but hotel staff were everywhere. With rooms priced at roughly 30 euros a night, I can’t imagine the place is making a huge profit just yet.
Exploring the Capital
Naypyidaw is absolutely massive. The city (or planned city) covers an area in excess of 2,700 square miles, so trying to explore it on foot is out of the question. The Myanmar government had hopes to dig a metro system, and even commissioned a Russian firm to take on the job – but prices proved prohibitive for the fledgling capital. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of public transport around Naypyidaw, and so cars remain the only sensible way to get about.
The hotel were quick to offer a driver for the day, and prices were very reasonable… so that’s what I did. I spent one full day, and another evening, cruising about the limited-yet-actually-quite-fascinating attractions of Naypyidaw with a private driver.
Now, I know it looks like a lot of these photos were taken out in the countryside. But they are, in fact, showing you the heart of the capital. Naypyidaw is chopped up into blocks by its massive intersecting highways, then these blocks are being developed one at a time. So we began in the hotel district (well, one of the three hotel districts) and we drove for perhaps 10 minutes through seemingly empty fields to reach the next developed square: the Fountain Park. Then we’d drive for another 10 minutes through nothingness to reach a temple, a museum, or whatever.
When we got in the car, the driver asked me for a destination. I said “Just drive,” and invited him to choose. This approach seemed to confuse him at first… but by the end of the afternoon he completely understood my interest, to the point where he was stopping, un-asked, beside interesting roundabouts to allow me to take a photo.
Naypyidaw by Night
Naypyidaw had looked barren in the daylight. There were museums to visit, markets and so on, but not really much to see, all things considered. But Myanmar is hot – and with the temperature pushing 40 degrees Celsius, it’s hardly surprising that those rare, developed districts had felt as desolate as the plains that lay between them.
At night, however, it was a different story… and the little pockets of civilisation around the capital came to life with far more colour and energy than I could have expected.
There were night markets, with their chaotic stalls and food carts, a refreshingly normal SE Asian staple amidst all the bizarre modern architecture. The Uppatasanti Pagoda was lively too, the main place of worship for the largely-Buddhist population and quite a remarkable temple in its own right. But the Fountain Park was where I found the real soul of Naypyidaw.
The park is magnificent, a finely manicured tropical garden filled with little cafés and dramatic water features. But at night, it’s something else – the lights come on, elaborately coloured displays that illuminate every fountain, and music plays from speakers hidden in the canopies. Naypyidaw by day had conjured images of a ghost town… but this place, after dark, was more like an otherworldly music festival.
Naypyidaw is not a fully functional city. Not yet. But from everything I saw, it would be equally wrong to call it a ghost town or as some journalists have claimed, a “failed vanity project.” Already this place has more character, more potential, than a lot of other cities I have visited. It will be interesting over the coming decades to find out if Naypyidaw manages to deliver on that.