(Feature) – Naypyitaw – I never dreamt I would meet him in Naypyitaw. But, there he was – Mickey Mouse – welcoming every visitor to the national park. Here, the visitor can, in miniature, tour every region and state in Burma and their associated landmarks – from Mon’s State’s Golden Rock to Shan State’s Inle Lake.
The park is one of few leisure options for the cloistered Naypyitaw community, as there are still few accessible food and social outlets. Yet, change is in the air.
During its initial years, Burma’s “jungle” capital was largely out of bounds for inquiring eyes. Journalistic accounts portrayed a quixotic wasteland, a national capital with no cell phone service and air connections. And, sure enough, this correspondent was repeatedly – despite connections and financial incentives – denied access to Naypyitaw.
Not so anymore. To reach Naypyitaw is as simple as walking to Rangoon’s Aung San Stadium and purchasing a bus ticket. Security at the entrance to the capital, 320 kilometers north of Rangoon, is cursory at best. And arranging to meet friends upon arrival at the modest bus station requires little more than a cell phone call.
But, Naypyitaw is still an odd city. Though long-term residents claim the city’s thoroughfares today see a high volume of traffic, most visitors find the city a maze of wide, sweeping, empty boulevards – complete with the occasional laborer sleeping in the street – connecting an incongruous mix of monolithic government buildings and service centres. Meanwhile, the presence of a foreigner with an unofficial agenda was met with occasional queries from security personnel and requests for taking pictures from the passing monks.
From a distance, in fading, orange light, the tiered panorama of the 31-building parliamentary complex conjures up images of mysticism and grandeur, a tropical Shangri-la on the Burmese plains. Alas, the morning puts rest to such romanticism. Instead, vast spaces provide a sense of disconnect.
Between mammoth structures lie seas of tangled, green scrub, the infancy of the institutions reflected in the infancy of the city itself, with the security sector having clearly reserved for itself the most appealing real estate, nestled just beneath the beckoning respite of the Shan Hills.
Partitioned as it is, Naypyitaw is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern souk, with banking, ministry and hotel zones substituting for the shoe, jewelry and cooking utensil quarters. The difference, however, is that while one feels and breathes the dynamic and pressing energy of the souk, one is left hot and stranded amidst Naypyitaw’s lethargic zones.
And then there is the focal point of wealth derived from precious stones. Atop the entrance to the Jade Emporium sits a massive, glass replica of a cut jade stone, while adjacent to the Jade Garden lie slabs of raw jade that at first might be mistaken for rubbish on a Rangoon street. The attraction of the odd, however, is balanced with the monotony of the city’s construction, from the lines of identical shop fronts – many still unoccupied – to the enormous Myanmar International Convention Center, a gift from China.
But, there are positives. Infrastructure and air quality eclipse that of Rangoon, while government residences typically come equipped with nearly 20 free TV channels, including international news stations such as Al-Jazeera and CNN. There is also (usually) 24-hour electricity and reliable water. And there is always the widely popular Water Fountain Park, offering a cooling, neon-lit experience complete with music videos projected onto a misty wall of water.
So, what is the verdict on Naypyitaw six and a half years after it was christened Burma’s capital?
While still lacking the trappings of a large city, as the vast expanses of green scrubbery are slowly filled in, citizens are slowly showing a greater sense of ownership. Naypyitaw could rapidly gain a sense of an identity beyond the awkward and disconnected. You can sense the coming transformation.
According to property agents, more and more small businesses are trickling into the Naypyitaw market as the population grows. And more attractive flora is appearing on the city’s wide, hot and sweeping streets.
Nonetheless, like the country itself, the verdict on Naypyitaw is still pending. People are hopeful of Burma’s nascent parliamentary process, wishing to see positives in the tenuous political scene, and so it is with Naypyitaw.
Check back in another five or ten years, it is often said, to see how the Burmese experiment is proceeding. More than anything, Naypyitaw is incomplete. Still, as one frequent visitor and Rangoon resident said, “It would be interesting to live there, just to see it grow.”