The Naypittaw highway

Nay Pyi Taw – welcome to the empty utopian city of tomorrow (?)

Every single person who heard, that we would be spending our New Year’s eve in Nay Pyi Taw, raised their eyebrows and asked “really!?”, not believing that we knew what to expect or rather – not to expect from the capital of Myanmar.

The road and why we chose to go fancy for the last day of 2015.

To get to the capital we took a night bus from Hsipaw. It was a random bus booked by the guest house. Nothing spectacular, nothing luxurious, but we got blankets to survive the AC. Good enough.
We knew that Nay Pyi Taw is huge and that most of the guest houses and hotels are located in one of the three special Hotel areas far away from the “centre” (by then we did not know that there is actually no ‘centre’ of Nay Pyi Taw). The cheap places were very, very far from anything and mostly had check-in from 2 pm. We were supposed to arrive around 5 or 6 am. For once we wanted an early check-in option, as we knew that hanging around the lobby wearing night-bus-clothes on and being bus-ride-hangover is not much fun. As I’ve learned from my previous work, the better (pricier) the hotel is, the more open they are for such things as early check-in. After consulting Trip Advisor, Booking.com and other sites, we decided to go fancy for once. We picked Lake Garden Hotel (Accor Hotel group). Great reviews, great interior and facilities, and the price was something like we would pay for staying in a good place in one of Western Europe capitals. Without any extra charges the Hotel was happy to receive us early in the morning.
We arrived in Nay Pyi Taw in complete darkness. Before the bus driver had informed us that there are 3 bus stations in the capital and we must know where we want to get out. After doing some zooming in and out of Google maps, we showed the bus station that seemed to be the closest to the hotel. The bus driver seemed to understand and mentioned something like dropping us off at the hotel (?). Could not be better for us. When we stopped at the first bus station part of the passengers got off, but we stayed in the bus, hoping that we would be taken to another station. The bus was not moving for 20 minutes or so. Everyone who wanted had already left the bus. We just assumed that it is one of those long breaks, that they enjoy so much in Myanmar. Suddenly the driver came with another guy, who turned out to be a taxi driver. Without asking us a thing, they had arranged us a taxi driver (for quite reasonable price, I must say) who would take us to the hotel. It was 5:30 in the morning, we did not argue.
Dark, big roads, empty fields and forests, that is all we saw. 15 minutes and we had reached the hotel.

The Lake Garden

We were greeted by several staff members – opening us door, taking our luggage etc. Entering the lobby made me feel small. It was a hall, filled with huge design objects – a big black sphere or bowl was the central element. Pale and grey dominating the interior, liven up with wooden elements here and there and a piano too. We were offered a welcome juice (we have experienced that in many places in Myanmar, I find the custom a little strange). A big golden cart was used to transport our dirty, sad backpacks to our design room.
I have a bad habit to explore all shelfs, closets, cupboards and drawers as the first thing when entering a new hotel room. In most of the places we stayed, it was not much of adventure. There were simply no closets, shelves of drawers – only a bed, a little table (if you are lucky) and a bathroom. The Lake Garden room was different – there was everything and more that we might need. Even an ironing board and a suit brush. We had a closed terrace with wooden window blinds in place of windows, cushioned sofa and a rocking chair. There was a huge TV screen, a fridge, water boiler and wine glasses(!). The room was not big, but filled with tasteful design objects and art works made by local craftsmen. A silver drapery, that covering one of the walls, was hiding a glass wall to bathroom – yes, you can see your partner taking a shower, if you wish. And a working rainy shower. Does this description sound too extensive, well, I guess I am starting to miss comfort and well decorated lodging.

Once I actually got lost in the Hotel. The hotel consisted of several houses. All looking the same. We were returning from a short ride with a bike. We drove thought the gate, stopped by the house were we thought we were staying. I was about to open the doors, but they were closed. I could see through the glass doors that the building was empty an under construction. That was a surprise. Oh, well, seems that we had pulled off by the wrong building. We drove to the next one. I got in the lobby, but it somehow looks emptier that before. It looks like they have removed the souvenir cart as well. I continue to the direction where our room should be. Hmm… wasn’t there a restaurant and a SPA centre? The numbers seem odd too. Maybe the wrong corridor? I go back to lobby to look for another corridor to try, but the I finally meet someone working in the hotel.
– Madam, are you looking for something?”
– Yes, my room! I am completely lost…
– You are in the wrong building.
– Again…!???!?!?!
So I did not find the right building TWICE! Great. The guy was kind enough to find an electric car to escort me to the right house. It turned out that there are two gates to enter the hotel area. We had taken the wrong one. We did not make the same mistake again.

Getting the bike

We enquired for a possibility to rent a motorbike. The hotel does not have such service (most of their guests either take a taxi or have their own driver), but within 20 minutes they had found someone willing to rent his bike to us (maybe one of the employees).
After breakfast and a shower we were ready to conquer the capital of Myanmar. We got a bike decorated with sculls and with manual gears – a new challenge for Stijn. We also got 2 helmets – in some places you get the helmets, in some you don’t. We also got a huge map from the Hotel manager, who was very surprised about our desire to see Nay Pyi Taw in the first place, and to do it on a bike on top of it. We were definitely a new kind of costumer for her. But she tried her very best to give us some advices, offering us a driver and suggesting to try local food (but we did not really understand where was the right place). The first stop was a “near by” shopping centre (only 5 km), where we got some money from ATM, had a second breakfast with pastries and coffee. We decided to treat our selves with some Myanmar wine (we could not resist using the wine glasses from our hotel room) and snacks for the evening.
The road to the shopping centre was deserted. It was almost like we were in an American road movie. It was a perfect practice ground for Stijn, as he had to figure out, how to manipulate the geared motorbike. The bike wasn’t in a perfect condition, it made some strange sounds, but we hoped to survive the day without breaking it down.

The city

When you look at Nay Pyi Taw in Google Maps, you see roads, some times blocks, parks, areas. You might assume that the roads are marking housing areas, but the reality is very different. There are roads, there are big roads and there are huge roads, but the rest is a desert. Few designated areas for strategically important buildings and a big nothing in between.
Our first destination was the governmental district. Unfortunately, we could not get closer than the gates. We tried several, but the area remained closed to us. It might be due to the fact that it was 31st December (even though nothing else gave evidence of that). Maybe tourists are not allowed to enter governmental zone as a rule. The guards could not tell us, as they did not speak English. That’s a shame, as the area looks epic on the photos.
We drove through the botanical garden, but that definitely was nothing spectacular. It just looked like a messy forest with small roads running through. Maybe we missed the pretty part, who knows. We hoped to find a nice spot to cool down in the shade of trees, but it was too hot to stand still. Driving with the bike gave more breeze.
Even though we had seen enough Pagodas, we decided to peek at the Uppatasanti Pagoda. Finally we had found THE highway – 10 lanes going each direction. And us like little ants on the side of it. After few hundred meters we actually took a parallel road (or was it a pavement?) that we had to share with cow eating the grass. Crazy, gigantic road, only few cars on it and cows on the sides. It was not like there would be no cars, but the road was wide enough that every car could take a different lane. Spooky.
To be honest, we might have expected even less people. It is very hard to imagine the scale of a place just by looking at the map, but it is very big. The city is a project. A huge work in progress. As Stijn descried it very precisely “seems that some has been playing Simcity here” – there are immense territories designated for certain area – the hotel district, the embassy district, governmental district etc, etc. But it is all empty. Where maps show blocks where houses should be, there is nothing. Gigantic roads build with a vision of metropole. But if you drive off the main roads you discover rural villages within the urban are. Small bamboo houses, sand roads, cows, fields… It almost felt like going back to Shan villages in Hsipaw, except for the highways and monstrous buildings just few kilometres further. It is a construction of an utopia. It is still a ghost town, but who knows what the future will bring.

Note by Stijn:
Like an utopia, striving to be perfection for the outside world, Nay Pyi Taw also is a very clean and well maintained city. Along all main roads: the grass is green and cut short. The gardens and fountains are in pristine condition. The bushes in the park are cut in shape, almost no weeds to be found. Next to the playing children of the rich, young girls and boys are sitting in the heat of the sun to maintain the city, cutting weeds, watering the plants. The girls smile and gniffle when I ask to make a few portrait photos. It’s ok, until in the distance someone shouts something. Delicate smiles fade and the girls get back to work.

The only two places where we actually saw a bit more than few locals were the shopping centre and The Water Fountain Garden. We stopped by the second location just to have some walk. It was also a little bit of a strange place, but the locals seem to like it. The main attraction is the water and light show taking place every evening after the sun set. It is sort of amusement park for children and some grownups, as it is allowed to swim in some of the pools. There is a play ground for kids and few artificial waterfalls for those seeking some romantic moments. The strangest thing were the artificial animal sounds in one of the parts of the park. We doubted, if we should stay for the show, but we realised, that getting back to hotel in the dark, might not be the most fun thing to do. So we left the show for locals to enjoy and headed back to our place to have some of the comfort food we had bought earlier that day. Are you wondering, what that would be?

Our New Year’s eve

Well, of course, the wine I mentioned earlier and some cheese. The variety of milk products in the grocery store was very small, but we found packaged brie. Together with white wine and grapes – sounds like a perfect cliché. And that is all you need for New Years eve. We sat back in our big bed and started watching some Hollywood space drama that was on TV (Stijn says “Insterstellar”) . In the end we got our selves out of the bed to go to the hotel restaurant. In the big salon we were the only ones + 2 people working in the hall. And few more in the kitchen. With lounge Christmas music in the background, we felt a little bit alienated, but it might be as well the general feeling in the city.
After our Italian dinner (that was the speciality of the restaurant) we went back to our room and soon realised that we were too tired to wait until midnight. Around 11 pm we switched the lights off and went to sleep.

Stijn:
Early morning, or for my reputation, still in the middle of the night I opened my eyes to check the time. New year was soon about to hit Europe. I did notice on Skype that my mom was still online. As my dad had a night shift at work and my sister was with the kids at sea, she also was spending the changing of the year alone, at home. It was good to talk for a moment and share our wishes before turning around once more in the large bed with fluffy pillows.

The first day of 2016 we embraced the day with a gigantic breakfast and work. We had booked our bus tickets for the evening, but as we felt that we had spent enough money the last few days, we stayed in the hotel to do some work and profit from the beautiful surroundings. I even went for a swim in the open air pool. It was somehow pleasant to have a big pool all for me. The only thing that made it feel a bit strange, were the workers, who were hanging around close by. The day passed by and after a dinner in the hotel restaurant, it was time to go to the bus station. We did not know what was to come…