An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
2 July 2017
The newspapers call it a ‘Ghost City.’ Journalists write home to describe a vast, empty capital – four times the size of London – riddled with 20-lane highways and manned only by a skeleton crew of bureaucrats and cleaners. One reporter likened it to “an enormous film set or an abandoned Disneyland without attractions.” But Naypyidaw is not what it seems.
Right now, Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is poised at an exciting stage in its history. The totalitarian rule of the former military regime came to an end in 2011, with the appointment of the nation’s first democratically elected president. The borders are open, and tourism is finally blooming in this once-reclusive state. Some of the more famously beautiful spots in Myanmar now feel like trendy backpacker towns… but nobody seems to be visiting Naypyidaw yet.
The reason, of course, is that the city isn’t finished. In 2006 this purpose-built metropolis replaced Yangon as the nation’s capital. Its official name, Nay Pyi Taw, translates as ‘Abode of the King’ and its design shows all the hallmarks of a dictator’s fortified citadel. Since construction began in 2002, already a rumoured $3-4 billion has been pumped into the project; but outside the Ministry Zones, block after block of the downtown districts are still little more than grass.
Back in February I had the chance to visit Naypyidaw for myself… but it was nothing like the city I was expecting. For a start, it’s small. Naypyidaw isn’t the metropolis they claim, but rather it’s roughly one-sixth the size of London. More than that though:
Naypyidaw is not a ghost town.
The city is far from empty, and there are only certain parts of it that look even remotely like a ghost town. I’m certainly not going to claim that Naypyidaw isn’t weird… but this wonderful capital was weird in ways that I never could have predicted.
Hotel Zone №1
The bus was a real boneshaker. It felt like we were driving without suspension on a road made out of pebbles. For six hours through the night we bounced and shuddered down dark highways, often so violently that it threw me right out of my seat.
Sometime after midnight the darkness parted, giving way to purple skies and a distant constellation of lights that glittered across the sleeping plains below. What I saw of Naypyidaw through the bus windows that night made little sense.
Brightly lit boulevards folded one into the next, with glowing flower sculptures at every junction. Pagodas like giant golden bells rose above the implied, but unseen horizon. The market where we finally stopped however, was refreshingly mundane – and within seconds of alighting there were taxi touts in longyis (the traditional dress of Myanmar men) closing in on all sides.
I had booked a hotel online: the Aureum Palace Hotel, a 4.5-star luxury resort at roughly €30 a night. Already, one eager young driver was dragging our bags towards his taxi; I showed him the hotel address, and he nodded in vigorous approval.
One hour later we were still in the car. Neither the driver – nor his friend in the passenger seat – knew where we were going. The Hotel Zone was huge, and the two in the front seemed to have no sense of direction. I kept suggesting we take it slow and search one street at a time, methodically, until we found the place; but our driver would get bored halfway along a boulevard, then revert to looping around the zone in drunken circles.
Another hopeless hour rolled by, and I might have been annoyed if this place weren’t quite so astonishing (or, indeed, if the taxi was charging on a meter). An endless parade of neon signs flashed past: Golden Myanmar Hotel; Golden Guest House; Sky Palace Hotel; Junction Hotel; Royal Naypyitaw Hotel; The Oasis; The Hotel Amara. There were 60 hotels in this zone alone, and a further two hotel districts after that. We hadn’t passed more than a handful of cars all the way, but here we were facing a maze of luxury hotels, each the size of a mansion, each brand new, with their doors open and lights shining bright from inside.
Eventually we pulled into one at random. An inquisitive security guard emerged from his hut, spitting out a mouthful of the red betel nuts that Myanmar people are so fond of chewing (it’s a mild stimulant, and the nuts have the effect of dyeing the user’s teeth and gums bright red). The driver asked him for directions, and it helped – though not immediately.
Thirty minutes and two security guards later, we pulled up outside the grand entrance hall of the Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort. Bugs hummed in the darkness outside, while the lobby was silent but for the swish of spinning fans. A single sleepy-eyed concierge took our passports and I was led to a huge ensuite room, with oak desk and silken bedsheets. On the dresser beside the bed lay a room service menu the size of a bible, and a flashlight in case of powercuts. I slept like a baby.
Breakfast in Naypyidaw
In the morning I switched on the television. Al Jazeera was playing archive footage of the 2007 Yangon riots: “…incredibly, some monks fought back. Others escaped in the confusion. Security forces responded with tear gas…”
I opened the curtains and looked out at the resort, its ornamental ponds and golf courses, green and purple leaves beneath the tropical sun. The scene was as peaceful as it was alien.
Someone rang the door buzzer, and I opened it to find a young hotel employee grinning in the corridor. “Mingalaba!” he said, Burmese for Hello, before offering to spray the room with mosquito repellant.
The rest of the staff were just as cheery, a veritable legion of cleaners and bellboys who swarmed through the halls of the hotel. Each one stopped their work as I passed, and looked up with an ear-to-ear grin, calling out, “Mingalaba!”
The doors to the breakfast room were decorated with stained-glass gods and demons. Inside, Mamma Mia was playing on a big screen TV with Burmese subtitles.
Between the door and the breakfast bar, I was approached by no fewer than four staff. The room was arranged with a vast buffet spread, divided neatly into sections according to cuisine. I was looking for coffee and curry but my hosts kept trying to direct me back to the European selection, kindly, as though rescuing a lost child.
Once I had chosen my food, I wasn’t permitted to carry it. Instead a waiter gestured me to sit, and followed behind with my plate. Coffee was delivered, and refilled automatically whenever I got down past the halfway mark. I’m pretty sure I said No to the vegetable omelette, but it arrived all the same… followed by a plate of passionfruit, bananas, and a strawberry tart.
Sat at my corner table, I counted the staff I had seen so far this morning. Sixteen, I made it, and now I had my first glimpse of other guests at the Aureum Palace Hotel: on another table, three men in business suits sat talking over toast crumbs. I overheard a few words – “exponential growth,” “key demographic” – and then they stood up, shook hands, and left me alone with this army of Burmese waiters.
Abode of the King
Construction began on the ‘Abode of the King’ in 2002. It grew in secrecy, at first, surrounded by sugarcane fields and rice paddies in the centre of Myanmar; but any temptation to brand this the ‘middle of nowhere’ should be avoided.
Naypyidaw is, effectively, a new suburb tacked onto the western outskirts of Pyinmana: a historic town with a pre-existing population of 100,000, and which served as the base of the Burma Independence Army during WWII. Subsequently, this region plays an important role in Myanmar’s sense of nationhood.
Naypyidaw is formed from eight townships – three older settlements, five purpose-built new suburbs – with highways drawing a ring from one to the next, and the spaces inside filled with new construction zones. This patchwork capital is located halfway between Mandalay (19th century capital of Burma) and Yangon (the capital until 2006), and it slots in as a mid-way stop on the nation’s main road and rail routes.
Naypyidaw sits adjacent to the more turbulent Shan, Kayah, and Kayin states to the east, close enough to keep watch; and it’s only a few kilometres from Yezin, a campus town established in the 1970s, which hosts the University of Veterinary Science, the Yezin Agricultural University and the University of Forestry.
In short, this was a very good place to put a capital. It’s certainly a lot better suited to the 21st century needs of Myanmar than Yangon was: the former Burmese capital established by the British Empire, and located on the coast chiefly for the benefit of the British Navy.
There are other theories too, explaining why former military dictator Than Shwe decided to build a new capital (a vanity project, some say, or out of fear of possible Western attacks from the sea), but the official reason alone is sufficient: Yangon just wasn’t up to the job anymore.
As a recent article on The Economist puts it, “After several decades of economic isolation, Myanmar has commenced a profound re-engagement with the global economy that we expect to usher in a rapid phase of industrialisation and deep economic transformations.”
Myanmar would struggle to do that out of Yangon, a 19th century city set to double its population by 2040 and which is, according to Next City, “already struggling to address its decrepit infrastructure and limited services.”
Naypyidaw has infrastructure to spare. It is a capital built for the future, in a country preparing to grow at incredible speed.
In November 2005 the nation’s administrative core was transported – almost without a word of explanation – to the new site. It became the official capital in 2006, when the city’s name was finally announced on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day. To celebrate the occasion, more than 12,000 soldiers marched in Naypyidaw’s first military parade.
There were problems early on: families were divided, as government workers were called away to a city that didn’t yet have sufficient schools or hospitals. But over the years Naypyidaw grew to include all the makings of a real city.
The Naypyidaw General Hospital opened later in 2006. The №1 Basic Education High School was the first school to open in Naypyidaw and since then another half-dozen-or-so have appeared, including the ‘Wisdom Hill School’ and the ‘Conqueror Academy of Education.’ Mobile phone coverage was extended to the capital in 2009, and now almost every establishment seems to have reasonable wifi.
There were even talks about building a metro. A Russian firm announced its plan, in August 2011, to construct a 50km line beneath Naypyidaw; but the project was eventually cancelled for lack of funds and low demand. (This is the riddle of Naypyidaw in a nutshell: it desperately needs a metro system but couldn’t possibly justify it.)
Various government-run bus services connect the residential zones to the offices of state. There are public buses too, between different neighbourhoods. For a tourist however, hoping to explore the city’s attractions independently, the only real option is a car. Fortunately, the Aureum Palace Hotel seemed to have dealt with this scenario before. “Mingalaba,” said the girl at the desk, when I came down shortly after breakfast. “Should I call a driver for you?”
Exploring the Burmese Capital
“Where you want to go?” Our driver asked. He was young, barely 18 I guessed, and his name was Htat.
“You can choose,” I said, and that confused him. He shrugged, so I said it again. “Where would you recommend?” I asked. Htat listed various points of interest around Naypyidaw, and I gave him the thumbs up.
Naypyidaw is not a big city – we drove from one end to the other in just 20 minutes – but for all its empty spaces, it also offers a lot to see and do. The city has a zoo, a safari park and four golf courses; a gem museum and a fountain garden. The National Museum includes a room full of gifts the former dictator received from foreign leaders, while the military museum is said to take some five hours to fully explore: featuring a huge open-air space filled with military jets and vehicles. There’s a ‘miniature Myanmar’ too, the National Landmark Garden, where visitors can spend a day exploring a scale replica of the country complete with miniaturised versions of all its most important cultural sites.
These are the pre-packed tourist destinations, but there are plenty other places worth exploring. The city has dozens of temples and pagodas: from the Thatta Thattaha Maha Bawdi Pagoda, a replica of the one built in India on the spot where Buddha achieved enlightenment; to the huge Uppatasanti Pagoda, Naypyidaw’s main religious site.
Then there are the townships – some of them much, much older than the new capital – with their noisy markets, leafy green streets, parks and war memorials, cemeteries, monasteries and herb gardens.
For all its offerings though, the unusual geography of Naypyidaw makes it a very strange place to explore. We drove from Hotel Zone №1 in a beeline through the city, towards the museum district. Out the window however, I was looking at nothing but fields. The territory of Naypyidaw has been cut into a messy grid of square blocks, and it looks as though developers pick just one at a time, at random, to build on. Some squares are finished, but most remain empty. Some still grow crops while others are grazed by cattle.
If not for the distant rise of apartment buildings – and a golden pagoda which sat above the horizon – at times I could have guessed we were many miles from the nearest human settlement.
I can see why people have likened it to a ghost town. We drove down 14-lane highways (broadening to 20 lanes, on the roads in the Ministry Zone) yet we might only pass a handful of other vehicles; service trucks, commuters on mopeds. There is an overwhelming sense of emptiness in these wide-open concrete spaces.
I have been to ‘Ghost Cities’ before though… and this is not one.
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’). In Ordos, sprawling residential zones sat dusty and deserted. Unlocked doors led to unfurnished, box-like apartments whose residents had simply never arrived. Homes were decaying before they had ever been used.
The residential zones of Naypyidaw, however, are actually quite homely and pleasant. Many people live in brick and wooden houses in the older townships, traditional styles that predate the arrival of the capital. Thousands of new residents, government employees, live in modern residential districts: in buildings whose roofs are colour-coded by department (green for the Ministry of Agriculture, blue roofs for the Ministry of Health, and so on).
The problem Naypyidaw seems to have, is simply that the plan was too ambitious.* It is a small city stretched across the territory of a larger one, a series of perfectly pleasant and functional neighbourhoods that happen to have gaping, unfilled holes in between them.
[*I say ‘seems to have’ because Naypyidaw is clearly a city built for the future. Give it 60 years, as the global population continues to balloon, and these people might yet have the last laugh.]
My other big discovery, after a few hours exploring the city, was that Naypyidaw is unbearably hot in the daytime. Security guards slept beneath the bushes outside museums, market vendors hid under canvas awnings, and nobody – unless they absolutely had to – ventured out onto the streets. At almost 40°C (100°F) with no shade, it’s no wonder the place looked abandoned.
Htat took us sightseeing around the Ministry Zone, to various pagodas, markets and museums; but it wasn’t many hours before the sun started going to my head. By early afternoon we followed the lead of Naypyidaw’s locals, and headed back to the welcome shade of the hotel.
Dictatorship by Cartography
The hotel looked almost deserted when we returned. Gardening tools lay abandoned in the grass, the forecourt empty. Inside, however, the lobby was busy with uniformed staff.
“On a bright Sunday afternoon,” reads The Guardian’s report on Naypyidaw, “the streets are silent … It looks like an eerie picture of post-apocalypse suburban America.” I wondered if there were any foreign journalists out there now: running around the streets in the blazing heat, creating a portrait of a ‘ghost city’ while its residents napped inside.
“Mingalaba,” the concierge greeted us, from behind a whirring fan. I asked where the restaurant was, and she told me to wait – “You don’t walk outside. Too hot. One moment, please.”
A canvas-covered golf buggy pulled up shortly at the glass doors of the hotel, its driver another smart young man in a dress shirt, bowtie and longyi.
The restaurant, as it turned out, was a short walk away across the resort; in a wood-panelled pagoda beside the outdoor swimming pool. The interior was immaculate, all polished tiles, lace tablecloths and gold detailing. Two staff waited on us, while a third laid the table for a larger party. “We have a big group coming,” he said in passing, though we never saw them.
The Aureum Palace is without a doubt the most lavish hotel I’ve ever stayed in. From what I saw though, it appears to be running at a staggering loss… and it’s one of 60 luxury hotels in this zone alone.
Some parts of Naypyidaw (for example its hotels, highways and ministry district) feel out of place in Myanmar; a country ranked as one of the poorest in the world, and where a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line.
Myanmar, arguably, was ready for a new capital; but Naypyidaw is an extravagant response, and the very layout of this city can feel somewhat totalitarian. Writing for the Himal Southasian in 2007, Siddharth Varadarajan called it “Dictatorship by cartography”: a segregated city with no clear centre, an urban panopticon that would serve to confound any popular uprising.
There is a large army compound on the edge of Naypyidaw, while according to rumours, an underground complex beneath the capital is reserved for high-ranking government officials. Those wide highways, allegedly, were designed to double as aircraft runways: any sign of trouble and the capital can be transformed into a massive military base.
However to end the conversation there, to write off Naypyidaw as no more than a grotesque gesture of totalitarian city planning, would be to overlook the plight of the people who live here… the people who call Naypyidaw home, and the people who called this region home before Naypyidaw ever existed.
There are currently many thousands of people living in Naypyidaw – but if you want to meet them, you’re going to have to stay here overnight.
Naypyidaw by Night
Later that evening we hired another chauffeur, for a drive out to the markets at Myoma.
We arrived at the market late, as the stalls were packing up. Men filled huge canvas sacks with litter; women washed blood and fish guts off the tarmac with bowls of soapy water. Rats shifted in the shadows behind mounds of plastic bags, while the food carts carried on serving beer, noodles, cold coffee and stewed mutton, to a handful of late night customers who perched on plastic garden furniture. Save for the Burmese script that decorated signs and menus, it looked much the same as any market I’d seen in Bangkok.
We drove to the Uppatasanti Pagoda after that.
This golden temple stands on an artificial platform. From street level, lifts carry visitors up to a raised walkway approaching the 99m structure. Beneath the platform busy markets spill out from the backstreets. Vendors sell food, clothes and souvenirs, taxi drivers honk and haggle, while in amongst the chaos, Buddhist monks drift gracefully through the crowds.
We took off our shoes at the barrier, and queued for an elevator – it rose and returned twice, before there was room for us inside.
The Uppatasanti Pagoda is modelled on the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. I have seen photographs of it by day, in the sun’s full heat, with the courtyard completely empty. Tonight though, it was busy with visitors. People drifted about the enormous plaza – talking, praying, posing for photos. Spotlights lit the structure so bright that it seemed to glow from within.
I found the pagoda quite beautiful; and though it was only a few years old, I liked the feel of this place better than any other temple I saw in Myanmar. Later, returning for our shoes, the cloakroom attendant wanted to know what us foreigners thought of their temple. I told her it was incredible, and she blushed.
It was at the Fountain Park, however, that we discovered the real soul of Naypyidaw.
The park’s entrance is marked by steel arches, that face onto a stretch of nondescript road; but beyond lay 165 acres of flower gardens, playing fields, parkland, ponds and coffee shops. Tonight it was filled with lights and people and music. Following the crowds down to a clearing beneath the canopies, it was like walking into a music festival.
Burmese pop songs were playing over a speaker system, and people were dancing amongst the trees and tropical flowers. Children kicked a ball around an outdoor amphitheatre. I saw a young couple pushing a pram, a Buddhist monk sat in prayer on a bench down by the water, and a teenage girl, dancing with friends, in a t-shirt that said ‘Yeezy For President.’
Meanwhile, elaborate twists and spirals of water burst into the air around us, as spotlights pulsed through shades of red, green and purple; painting everything in rich, surreal colours. Fairy lights twinkled from the boughs of trees above. It was mesmerising.
That single moment, at the Fountain Park in Naypyidaw, would stick with me as the truest glimpse I saw of modern Myanmar. These people were the privileged few, for sure; not every citizen of this still-problematic country is fortunate enough to live in Naypyidaw, just like Moscow is not remote Siberia, and Washington D.C. is not Detroit. But in Naypyidaw I saw more than a country of ruined temples and rustic, rural villages: the typical backpacker highlights of Myanmar.
This, I realised, was what Myanmar looked like – what it could look like – in the 21st century.
Debunking the ‘Ghost City’ Narrative
When it comes to making sense of Naypyidaw, not all statistics are helpful. The government of Myanmar claims that Naypyidaw has a population of 925,000 people, which may or may not be accurate… but reports in the Western media have also suffered from grossly misleading data.
According to Al Jazeera, “The entire city covers more than 4,600 square kilometres, 78 times the size of Manhattan.” The Guardian describes Naypyidaw as “an estimated 4,800 square kilometres, six times the size of New York City.” Meanwhile, an article on The Independent uses a figure of 7,054 km² to deduce that, “the capital city of Burma has a population over 9 times smaller than London’s. In a city four and a half times the size.”
In the case of The Independent, it’s easy to see where they went wrong. The figure they use, 7,054 km², is the area of ‘Naypyidaw Union Territory’: the whole province that contains the capital city. Using that figure to calculate Naypyidaw’s population density then, is the equivalent of trying to show the density of New York City by dividing its population by the total area of New York State.
Even at 4,800 km², The Guardian‘s estimate, Naypyidaw would be (by area) the largest city in the world – three times bigger than Beijing. This is an extraordinary claim to make, and it can be disproved with just one quick glance at a map.
The map segment above shows a total area of 2,640 km² (60 km by 44 km). The Guardian claims that the city is almost double the area shown here, and uses this number to calculate their figure for population density. However, highlighted in red are the actual developed urban districts of Naypyidaw… the rest is fields and mountains.
This diagram isn’t perfect. The scattered, inconsistent nature of Naypyidaw’s urban areas makes it hard to draw a precise outline of the city. There are some parts I’ve missed, while conversely, even within the apparent city limits much of what you’re looking at is grassland (zoom in on the map below, and explore for yourself).
Nevertheless, I would suggest that these developed urban zones (including their satellite townships) cover approximately one tenth of the map above, giving an estimated total area of something like 260 km².
By that reckoning Naypyidaw is closer to four (not 78) Manhattans – an area one-sixth (not four-and-a-half times) the size of London.
If the official population figure is correct, this would mean that Naypyidaw is just over half as densely populated as London is. Certainly in the evenings, and at places like the Myoma Market, the Fountain Park and the pagodas, that feels believable.
It is true that some parts of Naypyidaw do have a ‘ghost town’ vibe about them: there are massive, bleak construction zones; more hotels than is sensible; and those 20-lane highways, vastly surplus to (current) requirement, which would easily dwarf any reasonable volume of traffic.
But visitors who explore the places where people actually live – getting to know the townships, the holy sites or fountain gardens after dark – will likely find that Naypyidaw, despite the unusual circumstances of its birth, appears to be maturing into a perfectly reasonable capital. It has all the makings of an excellent capital, in fact… it just isn’t finished yet.