Abandoned town or capital?: Explore this strange city in Myanmar

myanmar naypyidaw
The 20-lane highway in Naypyidaw.

If you drive about 5 hours directly north of Myanmar’s old capital Yangon, you will find a large city which appears abandoned. You have now arrived at the country’s new capital, Naypyidaw. And it isn’t abandoned, because it was never inhabited in the first place.

Having rented a private car with a driver for a weekend, my travel companions and I are eager to visit the ghost town, we have read so much about.

At first, our driver doesn’t even care to stop and simply drives right past the city, however. This results in a 45-minute detour, because highway exits are scarce in Myanmar. He simply didn’t believe that we actually wanted to see a place that no one wanted to live in.

We insist it’s worth the longer drive to us and are taken to the strangest capital, I have ever visited. And I have been to Canberra in Australia, which is basically just a cluster of embassies.

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The view of Naypyidaw from one side of Uppātasanti Pagoda.

Where is everyone?

At more than four times the size of London, it’s no secret that the capital was meant to attract people. The location of Yangon was reportedly too exposed, and the capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2005. At that time there barely was a city.

But the government really went all in with Naypyidaw and the high expectations are spelled out all over the city.

Massive, luxurious hotels, a daunting building for the Parliament, a 20-lane highway and a replica of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon adorn the city.

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There are innumerable large, guest-free hotels in Naypyidaw, so if you need to be alone, go visit.

But while London has a population of almost nine million inhabitants, Naypyidaw does not even house one million people. With such an empty city, it almost feels as if people aren’t supposed to be outdoors and we have missed the memo.

We are taken to one of the massive, luxurious hotels for lunch. The restaurant inside is just as massive. It probably seats around 200 people. We are requested to pick any table, we like as there are no other guests in sight. We opt for a table outside.

That gives us a view of a lovely garden and a handful of hotel villas with dining tables and large beds. “The hotel has no guests at the moment”, the answer to our question sounds.

It makes us wonder how fresh the ingredients are in the restaurant, but no one got sick after the meal.

Feeling famous

After lunch we head for the Uppātasanti Pagoda.

While the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon will cost you 10,000 MMK (5.8 Euros) this replica is entirely free. You just have to follow the dress code: Strictly conservative.

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Uppātasanti Pagoda. At 99 meters it is almost an exact replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

We discover, that this is where everyone else is. There is a festival in Myanmar at the time, so local tourists have rushed to the pagoda for the holiday.

That’s unfortunate for us as it takes at least twice as long to see anything due to a seemingly endless amount of spontaneous photo sessions with locals persuading us with hopeful smiles.

It seems the capital isn’t overflowing with foreign tourists, and people from the other side of the pagoda can easily spot how the sun reflects on our pale skin from a distance.

School children, parents, grandparents and even monks approach us to take selfies, and I wonder how many refrigerators my face will end up on after the trip.

I’m not going to lie, I do enjoy feeling like a rock star for the first five photos or so. Then I feel happy that my singing voice wouldn’t even make it past the judges on the first audition of X-Factor.

During breaks from the persistent, albeit polite paparazzi, the golden pagoda is quite enjoyable and offers a good view of the surroundings. Mostly jungle, even though we’re in the middle of a very large capital, areawise.

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One of my travel companions posing for photos before we get to enter the Uppātasanti Pagoda.

Low risk of traffic accidents

After visiting the pagoda, there is just one more stop of importance on our must-see-as-a-tourist-in-Naypyidaw list: The famous 20 lane highway which passes the parliament and leads to … Well, it turns out it doesn’t really lead anywhere. After driving for about five minutes, the road comes to an immediate stop at a T intersection.

It feels as though we’re on a road which has been cleared for a street race or the film shoot for a zombie apocalypse movie. Overall, a strange experience and we aren’t the only ones to think so, as the road even has its own TripAdvisor page for visitor reviews.

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The Parliament along the 20-lane highway.

On the five-minute drive each way, we pass a total of three other cars and four motorbikes, making it seem fairly safe to get out and take a picture. The driver isn’t happy to let us out however. We are after all in the middle of a highway. Only, one without traffic.

At the end of the road, we are allowed to leave the car shortly and take a picture as long as we are careful. We take great care of the one car that passes us during the time it takes to snap a few photographs. Luckily, it’s a long, wide road with a clear view, so we see the car well in advance, safely avoid any collision and return to the car unharmed.

Leaving Naypyidaw city centre, we reach civilisation again. It appears that while the ghost-like downtown is full of empty hotels for all the tourists that have yet to show up, life exists outside the city centre in tin-roofed houses.

For the different experience, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the peculiar capital of Naypyidaw, even just for a few hours. Unless you need a break from other people. Then you have found paradise.

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