Where is everyone?

The Uppatasanti Pagoda.

Myanmar’s gaudily peculiar capital Nay Pyi Taw, literally translated as “Abode of Kings”, is one of the world’s most bizarre cities — a place for Myanmar bureaucrats and perhaps curious travellers. It is grandiose in scale, about 7,000km², or four times the size of Bangkok, but its official population is only one million. And it seems much less in reality.

Driving through its soulless multi-lane boulevards, one would be passing through different zones from residential, recreational and commercial to hotels, military residences and government offices. It’s a surreal scene to be in the capital of a country that has more than quadrupled its influx of tourists over the past 10 years in one of the most visited regions in the world and be met with sterile streets and meticulously trimmed shrubs all over town.

Rumour has it that an astrologer played a key role in the quiet relocation of Myanmar’s capital in 2005 from Yangon. Though the real cause remains unknown, others claim that it is Nay Pyi Taw’s strategic geographical location that protects it from amphibious attacks or the way in which political demonstrations can be prevented in the newly designed town.

Getting around this purpose-built capital can be expensive as there is no public transportation and things are far away from each other. Travelling from one “zone” to another could take up to an hour despite a striking absence of cars or other life on the streets.

A market vendor wearing the traditional thanaka paste on her cheeks.

Food, however, is remarkably cheap, which isn’t very surprising given the country’s minimum wage of less than US$3 a day. At Shwe Si Taw, an all-you-can-eat diner, for instance, costs only 4,000 kyat (95 baht) to enjoy a wide array of nourishing authentic Myanmar cuisine with waitresses attentively refilling dishes throughout the meal. The ability to easily sample the local food culture is then one of the few perks Nay Pyi Taw has got to offer.

But brace yourself for a general lack of atmosphere. At Shwe Si Taw, despite the fact that it was dinner time, we were the only customers in an otherwise gapingly empty restaurant.

In a more crowded and lively restaurant where the locals eat, the food was remarkably cheap at about 700 kyat (16 baht) for a plate of rice, three side dishes and hot chicken soup served in a military mess tray.

If you want to rub shoulders with true locals, Myoma Market will not let you down, as it is perhaps one of the most populous places in town.

In what is known as the city’s commercial centre with several hundred shops, greengrocers and local food stalls, be sure to grab the distinctive yellow paste thanaka as seen commonly applied on locals’ faces. For a truly authentic experience, make it yourself by picking the eponymous tree’s bark, grind it on a flat stone slab and mix it with water. The ready-made powder is also available at 1,200 kyat for a small jar.

At a local restaurant, one of the scarce pockets of life.

As in any regular market, products such as garments, domestic goods, fashion clothing and accessories can also be found here. What’s worth buying is perhaps the wide variety of traditional Myanmar longyis, a sarong-like tube of fabric worn by both genders. Small tip before visiting the market: avoid anything that might cause you to feel compelled to use the market’s restroom. It’s not pretty.

Other places to shop include the two medium-size modern shopping centres, Junction and Capital, where one can find both locals and expats alike.

In the evening when daylight fades, pay a visit to the gilded 100m Uppatasanti Pagoda. It is the landmark of this city, built completely by manual labour and an almost perfect replica of the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda in the old capital Yangon. Get a beautiful snapshot of the golden aura in the twilight sky and a glimpse of locals praying around the monument.

Upon your visit, be sure to take off your shoes and socks and dress appropriately. Men need to wear trousers and women must wear long skirts. Otherwise, you will be told to rent a longyi, available in front of the entrance.

While we were at the pagoda, there was this recurring monstrous roaring sound and we found out later that it was from the white elephants nearby. It didn’t sound so friendly that day, so we refrained from visiting. Throughout history, white elephants have been revered as symbols of power and good fortune, serving many Southeast Asian countries as a lucky charm of national well-being and stability.

Hotels here are largely deserted and cheap. In size and scale they are reminiscent of those in luxury casino cities like Las Vegas; just without people or fun. The spacious suite at Horizon Lake View Resort with a separate living room and an enormous bathroom with a tub was a very reasonable 1,800 baht a night.

While Myanmar authorities are trying to establish many tourist attractions in Nay Pyi Taw, including a National Herbal Park, a Safari Park, museums and a Zoological Garden (the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia), it will be a long time before this capital features the urban amenities that make up a real city.

Instead, the abrupt and hasty move in the mid-2000s led to a lack of schools and other basic facilities necessary for a decent life and raising a family.

One industry, however, that surely benefits tremendously from this unattractive and unlivable city is air travel, as business people and politicians commute in and out of here on a daily and weekly basis.

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