After a full day on the highway from Yangon, I enter Naypyitaw under cover of dusk. And enter it. And enter it… Ten minutes in, I clear my throat and ask my guide: “Er, Tun… where is the city?”
“We are in Naypyitaw,” Tun reassures me, matter-of-factly. A card-carrying NLD party member, he’d easily added an hour to the day’s journey by slowing our long-suffering ’98 Toyota every so often to hand out small-denomination currency notes and passport-sized photos of Myanmar’s new hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, to road workers, coconut sellers and assorted bystanders. “This is the Hotel Zone. Tomorrow, we go to the Ministry Zone. But we cannot visit the Military Zone.”
Glittering hotel buildings every kilometre or so remain the only signs of life until we finally arrive at our own glittering hotel, where I ponder the city’s unique layout. Naypyitaw (‘Abode of the Kings’) was built from scratch on virgin shrubland to take over from Yangon as the country’s administrative centre in 2005, whereupon the military regime shifted the entire government machinery to the city virtually overnight.
A midday drive around Naypyitaw confirms that it was created with the rulers, not the people, in mind. The impossibly wide, never-ending roads linking the various ministries are largely deserted, save for a few labourers in conical straw hats desultorily repainting the black-and-yellow road-dividers. The 20-lane road in front of the sprawling Parliament building is clearly an airstrip at heart. Cookie-cutter apartment blocks dot swathes of forested land – government employees get free housing. Aside from a cinema, a market and a shopping mall, there’s not a whole lot to do but work.
A careful replica of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda — one deferential foot shorter — does have a smattering of visitors. A nearby enclosure houses six royal white elephants, revered as holy; the placid creatures are peacefully oblivious to the irony of living in a city that seems their concrete embodiment. “I could never live here,” shudders my Yangonite companion.
Over a pricey curry dinner at an empty restaurant, I query the feasibility of this military-built city in a historic new age of democracy. Tun opines that there’s little point wasting public energy trying to move power back to Yangon: “Let’s make use of Naypyitaw now that it exists. We have to move forward, not back!” — a mantra that I heard from numerous other local people too. Perhaps it’s their deeply entrenched Buddhist philosophy that allows the Burmese to genuinely forgive the sins of 50 years of military rule, and instead look to forge a new, inclusive nation.
As the next day breaks, I begin to warm to Naypyitaw just a bit. Maybe it is just ahead of its time, a visionary city built for two generations hence. Maybe one day, bustling with people and pleasures, it will seem not vacant and sterile, but spacious and well-organised. Far-fetched? Maybe not. After all, Myanmar’s 51 million people now have the democratic licence to enter the Dream Zone, and bear straight ahead.
The winner of the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition 2016 will be announced on natgeotraveller.co.uk on Monday 1 August