Travelling around Myanmar is a treat especially for anyone who has mostly been to countries full of tourists. It’s easy, even in the more touristy places such as ‘Bagan’ and ‘Lake Inle’ to go several hours without seeing another traveller, something rare now a days especially in a country so safe and welcoming and with so much of worth to see. Myanmar’s untapped feel is taken to extremes in it’s new, ultra-sized capital city called ‘Naypyidaw’.
Up until the 6th November 2005 ‘Yangon’ was the country’s capital city and it seems in every way more appropriate as a capital city than Naypyidaw does. Famous for the stunning ‘Shedagon Pagoda’, a mixing pot of religions, densely packed buildings evoking feelings of how I picture Hong Kong’s ‘Old Kowloon’ if significantly toned down and a population in keeping with other global capital cities (approx 7.5 million). Yet Naypyidaw has very little to offer in terms of economics, tourism or history…this isn’t like Vietnam shifting capitals from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi in 1996; it’s in fact difficult to find a comparison, perhaps imagine that the US made ‘Atlanta Airport’ its capital apart from in the process the flight schedule was reduced to three flights a day. Naypyidaw’s population is considerably under 1 million with the majority of citizens being military or administrative workers and their families.
However I wholeheartedly recommend that you visit Naypyidaw on your trip to Myanmar; in fact the city is reason enough to visit this amazing country. Why? You may ask. Well, for a place of such magnitude, with such a potential for growth and being so contrasting in terms of modernism when compared to other cities in the country it is amazing that it exists and just being there feels like such a privilege. Pyongyang, capital of DPRK has more ‘Things to Do’ on ‘Trip Advisor’ than Naypyidaw has and yet this is the capital city of a country wanting to open itself up to tourists.
How To Get To Naypyidaw:
We were coming down from Inle Lake, finding a ticket was difficult but obviously not impossible. We were often questioned why we wanted to go by ticket shop owners who insisted that we skipped the city and went straight to Yangon instead. I’m writing all this from memory about 2 years late however looking at a map I recall the place we bought the ticket from being on Yone Gyi Street in Nyaungshwe although if you ask around one shouldn’t be so difficult to find. We wanted a late night bus so that we would arrive in time for sunset (5am) and we booked our onward ticket at and from Naypyidaw bus station for 10am (same day). Transport was cheap and via public coach, we were the only westerners but at as ever, people were very friendly. We were in the country in early April, a prime time for hillside fires. If you watch the video below I managed to get a few shots of the hills alight through the bus window although sadly not enough as it was up there with the most striking things I’ve ever seen…at least I still have the memories in my head. Looking to combine different cultures and art forms on this site, I listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘F♯A♯∞’ and I’ve never been able to listen to it in the same way since. I prefer the two-track version of the album in terms of flow but either would work. It creates visions of an empty, post-apocalypse world…the hills were on fire and we had no idea what we were heading to. Download it just in case and either way give it a listen.
(article continues below this short video showing off some of the sights of the city)
Made famous by BBC’s ‘Top Gear’, Naypyidaw’s incredible 20 lane highway is a sight to behold. Of course, a road so big anywhere is remarkable from an engineering perspective but to be able to stand in the middle of a road so big and have nothing more than the occasional moped pass you by. Watching sunrise over the highway is one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done; being surrounded by such vast empty spaces which anywhere else would have been full of life felt almost sublime. Not sublime in a Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ way, I didn’t feel alone, I felt full despite there being no other tourists around and no trace online of other westerners doing what we were doing. It feels truly like a ‘Ghost City’ – a shell of what on the surface should be a thriving metropolis.
Hotels in Naypyidaw are very expensive hence why we only had a morning, around 5 hours, here. Transport is also pricey; we paid $25 for a 3 hour taxi tour which was well worth it as the city is far too large to travel on foot. Along with the highway we got to see the Uppatasanti Pagoda which is a near identical replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda being only 1cm smaller. This pagoda is also free to get into unlike the approx £14 ($18) price tag of Yangon’s most famous attraction.
However the real highlight of our short stay in Naypyidaw was when our taxi driver offered to take us back to his house so that we could have a wash and something to drink before our journey on to Yangon. My girlfriend and I looked at one another in the back of the taxi, alone in an enormous city with no trace of us being there other than a bus ticket at some ticket shop in Inle Lake…then again we had been in the back of this man’s taxi for around 2 hours and he hadn’t taken us anywhere against our will so far so why would he ask our permission before doing so? We too him up on his offer and our choice to do so demonstrated even further how kind the people of Myanmar are. He lived in a ground floor flat of a pleasant looking residential area ‘somewhere’ in the city. We were greeted by his family who weren’t aware of our arrival but seemed to be very excited by it. We had a traditional Myanmar snack centred around small spicy fish, some tea and a chance to attempt conversation with the family. He insisted that we went for a wash but expecting a shower and not wanting to shower a kept declining until after several times asking I accepted his kind offer as not to appear rude. It seems commonplace in Myanmar for families to have large barrels of water and a smaller bucket as a shower replacement. These buckets can be filled up using taps attached to the wall above them or should I say loosely attached to the wall above them. When I turned the tap it came off the wall entirely spraying out torrents of water directly at me and all over this kind family’s bathroom. I spent a couple of minutes wrestling with the tap, eventually plugging it back in place but leaving the bathroom drenched…I’ve no idea what they thought of me but at least no damage was done in the end. After a dry off and some more tea we said goodbye to his family and we went with him to drop his son off at school en route to the bus station.
We spent 23 days in Myanmar although we wish we’d maxed out on or even gone over our visas as we felt that we missed so much. Unless you’re in a rush it’s worth setting a day aside for Naypyidaw. Not only is it atypical for Myanmar but it offers a unique experience you won’t get anywhere else in the world.