Myanmar’s decayed and decaying trains run very slowly, slowly enough to have a good long look at the station name boards. The Myanmar alphabet is fiendishly difficult and funny looking to the untrained western eye.
I try to read the station name boards to work on my very limited understanding of the funny looking letters and how the sound of each changes with the extra-funny looking shapes that can be attached to them.
Then I try to work out what they mean. Yesterday I got one right. Myo Hla means beautiful city.
The train did not stop there, it looks not more than a village, but an hour or so later we pulled into Nay Pyi Daw, the capital city of Myanmar since 2007.
It’s a new city built at enormous cost and largely in secret – for a while, when Nay Pyi Daw was being built, foreigners were not even allowed in Pyinmana the nearest old town (and no time was wasted in ushering me out of there when I entered through a ‘back door’ in 2006).
Maybe Senior General Than Shwe ordered its building because astrologers told him to. Maybe he and his military government felt safer – at a time when axis of evil status might well have given them reason to fear US intervention – tucked away in what remains of the ‘jungles’ of middle Myanmar rather than in almost coastal Yangon. Maybe they were simply carrying on a Myanmar tradition of shifting the capital – by choice or under external influence – every few hundred years.
Or maybe it was a very smart move.
Yangon the former capital and still the biggest city by far (popn. 5 million or more) was created from a small port town by the British who controlled only the coastal and southern parts of the country for a good long time before eventually raiding up river to unseat the last Burmese king in 1875.
Mandalay was the capital before and remains the second largest city, very different to Yangon not least due to the influence of china and it’s rampaging economy, with a population of perhaps 2 million. Oh, and motorcycles.
After Yangon and Mandalay no city is home to many more than 300,000 and in a country the size of France with an official population expected to number 60 million after next years census, the first in 30 years, there is clearly room, and perhaps the need, for another metropolis.
In shifting almost all functions of government almost overnight to newly created ministries and government staff and their families to new homes and townships in Nay Pyi Daw, Than Shwe shifted the balance of power too. No more debate as to whether Yangon or Mandalay was number one, Number One had decided the future would be built in Nay Pyi Daw.
Nay Pyi Daw is home to the new parliament which is home to the new fledgling part-democracy (General Election in 2015) and from as close as I could get (nowhere I could get a decent picture from) it’s a mighty and impressive cream and magenta edifice entered and left by two could-be-draw bridges that I imagined being raised should retrenchment ever become the name of the game again.
All around to it’s north, tucked away amongst stands of young teak and remaining jungle scrub, are the new ministry buildings barely visible from the road but each marked by significant signage reminding me of (pictures I have seen of) Silicon Valley’s Infinity Loop; as if one day Apple’s SE Asia HQ could sit amongst them.
The foreign diplomatic community remains mostly – and some say most disrespectfully – in Yangon wedded to their colonial embassy mansion houses and taxpayer-paid-for international schools and western-lifestyle treats. The NGOs pretty much follow suit. The US recently moved from its old downtown Yangon embassy to one of the fortress-style places they have built so many of since 9/11. The story has it that they spent more than $500m. I think they spent it in the wrong city and will need to build another in Nay Pyi Daw before too long.
Like LA or New Jersey or some other US city, there is no real downtown, more a suburban sprawl that springs south, east and westwards and that seems already to have swallowed Pyinmana at it’s extreme.
Simple four storey housing blocks that cannot be more than seven or eight years old are starting to look weather weary and have newspaper stuck to windows to beat the heat. From a distance, amongst tall trees they look not bad but up close it’s the same shoddy building standards story that raises a big question against much of the new high- rise development in Yangon (of which elsewhere).
More houses seem to be being built than have already been built and many of the newer ones are of a grander scale, bulky townhouses, the odd-mansion-in-the-making and many walled bungalows with four car garages.
Nothing sky-rise as yet. I don’t know if that’s policy or if it’s just a matter of time. Certainly with so much empty space -and Nay Pyi Daw is way more empty space than it is used already space – who needs to build upwards yet? But I predict even that time will come.
Nothing impresses me more about Nay Pyi Daw than the ambition with which it is being built. There may now only be two shopping centres and three markets, the airport is a long way south of the city, the train station is 30 minutes from the hotel zone by motorbike, there may well be nothing more than the – great – illuminated water fountain park and the ubiquitous Chinese BBQ beer-shop by way of nightlife (plenty of golf courses though) but this is very obviously a city still in the making.
The extent of its making is most evidenced by the vast expanses of concrete (now being high-quality tarmacced) that form the very, very extensive, but for now near-empty in sharp contrast to Yangridlock, network of four, six, eight, eighteen-even lane highways – some adorned with lit-at-night fountains like a nascent gulf state – that are amazingly motorbike friendly and that connect everything already here.
Roads have been built already to connect everything that is not yet here but that will be here soon enough. Many of them pass by under-way construction, many more surround deep vegetation awaiting construction.
As all that is yet to come arrives so the city will assume the footprint the road network sets out for it. Riding around reminded me of housing estates at home where some houses are finished and lived in whilst other roads exist but have nothing built yet. In time the whole estate is built, all the houses are lived in and trees and gardens quickly cover whatever mess the builders left behind. Same here I think.
It’s a bit hot and dry, there is not yet much of architectural value (but this hotel is great), there are acres of what look look like way less attractive living conditions for the less well off along the railway line heading north and it may take a while to shake of the strange sense that it is perpetually Sunday afternoon but Nay Pyi Daw will succeed.
It’s succeeding already
The new Yangon – Nay Pyi Daw – Mandalay motorway has been built to run right by.
Work is (inadequately as yet) underway to do something – there is so much to be done – about the state of rail connections.
Ten percent of the world’s resource-and-consumer-goods hungry population live within 1000miles.
There is not a spot of litter.
And later this year the 2013 South East Asian games (a local version of the Olympics where smaller people get to win things) will be held here and in Yangon (and in Ngwe Saung).
A couple of summers ago I could not get anywhere near the under-construction Olympic stadium. This morning I got right inside the main 30,000 seat SEA games stadium.
I was not allowed to take photos but it’s looking good and will be finished well ahead of schedule (not sure about budget, the guys were not allowed to say). I also saw the indoor stadium and aquatics centre.
The SEA games will cement in poor quality cement Nay Pyi Daw’s status as the nations capital and put it on the map well beyond Myanmar.
It is a something very much out of nothing place and its creation seems to me, now that I’ve seen it, far less an old man’s folly than an act of far-thinking foresight.
Maybe not a beautiful city just yet (or ever). But a beautiful idea of a city for sure.
I like Nay Pyi Daw.
But then I like Milton Keynes.
Nay Pyi Daw also has a really cool pagoda. It’s not popular because Than Shwe was it’s patron and primary donor. It’s supposed to be a copy of Shwedagaon in Yangon, though just a little smaller – even Than Shwe’s ego is not that big – but unlike Shwedagon it’s got an inside. A really cool inside.