I spent the past three weeks in Myanmar (Burma)… that country in South East Asia that no one seems to have heard of. That’s okay, some of them haven’t heard of Australia either.
It was a confronting country to visit, both for the cultural differences and the ongoing political problems that underlie everyday life for the Burmese, however much the government tries to (physically) shield visitors from seeing them. There’s a million places and stories I could write about Myanmar but the one that’s left the biggest impression reflects this shield, although it is the least representative of the culture of the country. Nay Pyi Daw (Nay Pyi Taw), the brand new capital of Myanmar.
In the same way that Canberra was purpose-built to be the capital of Australia, Nay Pyi Daw was built from scratch over the past decade and announced in 2005 as the new capital. The difference is that Nay Pyi Daw is drastically, out-of-this-world different to the rest of Myanmar.
Myanmar in general is typical of South East Asian countries in its roads, buildings and other infrastructure, plus some colonial buildings and minus some internet access, ATMs and hot water. Until you arrive at your humungous, brand new hotel in the ‘hotel city’ (the only place where foreigners are permitted to sleep) area of Nay Pyi Daw and suffer a brain dysfunction, forgetting whether you are in Los Angeles or Burma.
Among the many oddities of the capital are:
– An exact copy of Yangon’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda that manages to turn one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen into a tacky Buddist tourist attraction
– An Olympics-quality stadium and sports complex still under construction for the South East Asia Games, coming up at the end of 2013. And next to it, a village of bamboo-thatch houses
– Two shopping centres with imported foods and international brands (we bought some Australian Brie and Cadbury choccy, still cheaper than Aussie prices)
– A brand new library full of decades-old books that had been moved straight from the former national library in Yangon
– A 20-lane highway, 10 lanes each direction, no exaggeration, with about one car driving on it
To complete the experience, at the end of the day thinking the whole city was deserted, we arrived at the bus station and found it teeming with people. The same local markets that we’d seen everywhere in Myanmar, and we understood where all of the supposed one million inhabitants hang out. Nay Pyi Daw wasn’t a ‘fun’ holiday experience but it was one of the highlights of our trip just for the awe factor.