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Burma's Rising Capital

Since Burma decided to move its capital to an empty green field more than a decade ago, the custom-built city has been a punch line. But the pace is picking up and Naypyitaw may have the last laugh. By JOE CUMMINGS.

Published on Jan 16, 2017


THE 16-LANE avenues of Naypyitaw, the 10-year-old capital that western writers have described as a ghost town or super-sized slice of the post-apocalypse, are designed to make a grand statement. Though with the paltry drizzle of cars flowing down the largely empty lanes, the statement falls flat.

While the critics have a point—you could play a full game of ultimate Frisbee between the guardrails without interruption—they leave out the most pertinent detail: it is awesome.

A keyhole view of Naypyitaw. Dustin Main.

The tollways are shiny new, completed just four years after the controversial 2005 capital changeover, and it takes only three hours to reach Naypyitaw from traffic-choked Rangoon. And while it will require decades of tourism growth to fill the ridiculously extensive roadways, the city itself is buzzing with a bevvy of new hotels and restaurants. If you’re visiting after an absence of a year or two, you might be surprised by the changes. Naypyitaw is no longer the tumbleweed town critics once painted. So let's get to debunking all the dated myths about Burma's squeaky new capital.

Myth: Middle of nowhere.
The city is, in many ways, a huge suburb of Pyinmana, a historic town of leafy lanes and charming teak and brick architecture. When the former military government moved the capital from Rangoon, there was speculation that they were just following an astrologer's advice, but in fact Pyinmana is geographically and strategically much better located—it's halfway between Rangoon and Mandalay, and just 95 kilometers northwest of where the politically troublesome Kayin, Kayah and Shan states intersect—than Rangoon, which the British empire favored solely for the convenience of naval trade. Today the town's diverse population supports three mosques as well as St. Michael's Catholic Church, a small brick edifice near the coco-fringed Ngalait River.

Prayer beads
Prayer beads at a local shop. Dustin Main.


Myth: Ghost town.
Virtually any time of day or night, people are zipping through the city in cars, buses and trucks, on bicycles and motorcycles, filling the township with a lively hum. Thousands of government servants are here, working in offices and sleeping in new multistory residential complexes that, from the outside at least, appear to be more inhabitable than their crumbling counterparts in Rangoon. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's most legendary member, began renting a house here immediately after winning her historic seat in Parliament last year, during Burma's first free elections in half a century.


Myth: Nowhere to stay.
There are more than 50 hotels operating in Naypyitaw, but what locals call "the big three,"—Kempinski, Lake Garden MGallery Collection and the Hilton—have dominated since they all opened in 2014. The design of the Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw (doubles from K189,131) is accented with wood carved in classic Bamar style, linked by elegant roofed walkways inspired by Bagan's Ananda Phaya to shield guests from the hot plains sun. Stay in the quiet Bagan Wing, which is close to the hotel's large clover-shaped pool.

Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw
A sunny room at the Kempinski, one of the "big three" hotels in Burma's capital. Courtesy of Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw.

+ Check into The Lake Garden Nay Pyi Taw MGallery Collection (doubles from US$70) for well-appointed rooms and suites. Each has a wood-shuttered veranda furnished with a day bed and a rocking chair, an ace spot for relaxing in fresh air while maintaining privacy. Another bonus: the restaurants on site are some of the city's best. At the Italian restaurant Primo, you will be surprised to enjoy tomato carpaccio with poached egg and pesto, or homemade ravioli with truffle and parsley so far from Florence. Adjacent, The Oak Room is the best-stocked hotel bar in the capital. + The Hilton Nay Pyi Taw (doubles from K119,370), whose cavernous lobby competes with MGallery's for pure Bamar bombast, by contrast offers rooms with a contemporary international feel.


Myth: Nowhere to eat.
To feed the influx of new arrivals, there has been a boom in the restaurant scene in the past three years from 2016. Bustling Thabyegone Market is flanked by a cluster of busy restaurants and cafés serving Bamar, Shan, Chinese and Thai cuisines. + At Maw Khan Nong 2 (+95 94 0043 2948; meal for two US$5), take a seat alongside government workers on the outdoor terrace to enjoy bowls of savory Shan noodles washed down with cold draft beer. + A branch of YKKO (meal for two K8,200), Rangoon's famed kyay oh (Burmese hot pot) emporium, is close by if you crave a bowl of noodles. + Or for a broad spectrum menu, Santino Café (10 Thabyegone Market) is a bakery and restaurant serving European, American, Bamar, Chinese, Thai and Japanese dishes. + For ambience, head slightly out of town towards Pyinmana to the large openair pavilion housing Shwe Si Taw Myanmar Buffet (+95 67 432 770; meal for two US$12). No matter how many people are at your table, the waiters will serve more than 20 dishes to sample, from tangy tea-leaf salads and fiery chili pastes to rich bean soups and chicken curry.

Shwe Si Taw Myanmar Buffet
Plates aplenty at Shwe Si Taw Myanmar Buffet. Dustin Main.

T+L Tip: The restaurants are all closely bundled because when planners were building the city from grassland they decided to break the town into different zones for shopping and dining, hotels, residential areas, recreation and military use. So while it can be nice to have all your dining options lined up, you may have to drive 30 minutes every time you want to move between where you stay, where you work and where you shop or dine.


Myth: Nothing to do.
Sightseeing options abound with outings to appease everyone from nature-lovers to history buffs to travelers just looking for a little bling. The 100-hectare Naypyitaw Zoological Gardens (+95 925 608 7123; entry US$10) and its neighboring 120-hectare Naypyitaw Safari Park (entry US$10), are home to 300 animal species including white tigers and penguins. + The Uppatasanti Pagoda (free entry) was commissioned by General Than Shwe, head of state from 1992 to 2011, as a near-replica of Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda, and the 100-meter-tall stupa is worth a gander, filled with carved reliefs depicting scenes from the Gautama Buddha's former lives, along with four jade Buddha images sitting on golden thrones facing the cardinal directions.

Uppatasanti Pagoda
Uppatasanti Pagoda is filled with carvings and four jade Buddhas. Courtesy of Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw.

+ More recent history stands tall on the banks of Pyinmana's Shan Lake, where a bronze statue of General Aung San, the father of Burmese independence (and father of "The Lady") who led resistance forces against the British empire from Pyinmana, looks out over the placid waters. + Check out the Gems Museum (+95 925 252 6830; entry US$5) for sparkly souvenirs; precious stones from Burma are known for their high quality, and the overall selection here is as good as you'll find anywhere in the country.


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Uppatasanti Pagoda is filled with carvings and four jade Buddhas. Courtesy of Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw.
  • Courtesy of Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw.
  • Courtesy of Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw.
  • A keyhole view of Naypyitaw. Dustin Main.
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