Visit Myanmar’s Capital Now! There’s Still a Lot Not to See
New government inherits nearly deserted Naypyitaw; buffalo on a 20-lane highway.
Naypyitaw (pronounced nay-pee-doh) is the city left behind, a testament to Myanmar’s bumpy road toward reintegrating with the world under a new government. It inherited the old military regime’s barren capital and must now figure out what to do with it. Since the nation began opening to the world five years ago, visitors have streamed to places like Yangon and Mandalay, cities steeped in culture with their historic temples and busy markets. Those sites have gained new attention since the democratically elected government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party took over this year. Few come to Naypyitaw, where the old military rulers built their capital from scratch more than a decade ago amid rice fields and tiny villages, a monument to the glories of their regime. Its grand government edifices were located 200 miles inland for security reasons, city officials say, and its wide boulevards were meant to double as emergency landing strips. Many buildings are nondescript boxes with few clues as to their purpose. Often the only traffic on its wide streets is water buffalo herds or the occasional motor scooter. At the pagoda—a close replica of the historic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon—there were no monks on a recent visit. Another top attraction is the zoo, whose animals included a population of Humboldt penguins that died this year when their air-conditioning broke down.
For a while, it wasn’t clear whether the government seat would remain in Naypyitaw after Ms. Suu Kyi took office in April or be returned to Yangon, the country’s largest city. “There was some talk about that, some rumors,” said Min Thu, a former political prisoner who is a member of Naypyitaw’s new development committee. The government has said the capital will stay.
“Instead, we are trying to transform Naypyitaw. It was built with security in mind by the military, yes. But we are reinventing it as a green city, an eco-city for everybody,” Mr. Min Thu said. He says the government aims to attract conventions and lure investors with tax incentives and promises of clean air. He wants more parks and attractions to lure tourists. “There’s such a lot of empty space we can use.”
Still, as in other parts of the country, jobs and investments that were supposed to come with Myanmar’s rebirth haven’t come as quickly as leaders hoped. Mr. Min Thu, the city planner, said Naypyitaw’s remoteness is its biggest challenge. “It’s a long way to the coast where the ports are. It’s a bit of a problem for investors.” The plan to bring vitality to the city, he said, “will be difficult.”
More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):