My husband and I have visited Myanmar six times. We have been to Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Lake Inle, Kalaw and Maurk U; each year we ended with at Amazing Resort in Ngapali Beach. I had read and heard about the new Myanmar capital of Nay Pyi Taw where construction started in 2002, but had been told that it was in a restricted zone so tourists were not permitted to visit. That has changed.
Information on travel to Nay Pyi Taw, referred to as NPT, is often outdated, sketchy and misleading. Many travel agents still claim that visiting NPT is not allowed. Before I left the United States I called the Myanmar embassy in Washington and asked if it was possible to visit Nay Pyi Taw. The response was, “But of course,” as if it had never been restricted. The next hurdle was getting there. We were told that there were no regularly scheduled flights, so my husband and I hired a car and driver for three days from Yangon for $500.
We were picked up at the Yangon airport on our return from three weeks at Amazing Resort (yes, it truly is amazing) in Ngapali and headed out. Once we were out of the city we took the toll road (about $30) for five hours. NPT is about 200 miles north of Yangon. The excellent four-lane, arrow-straight, divided highway was virtually empty of vehicles. There are very few villages along the way, but a lot of reforestation is taking place with what looked like teak trees. The biggest surprise was a restaurant/service center which appeared like an oasis in the desert. The parking lot was filled and the restaurants were packed, which made us wonder where everyone came from, considering how little traffic we witnessed.
There wasn’t much to see along the way so I kept track of the mile markers. The markers indicated the miles with sub numbers that went from 0 to 7, but no 8 or 9. With a little research I found out the sub numbers are measured furlongs. There are eight furlongs to a mile. I am always amused by some of the quirky things I run across in Myanmar. For instance, most of the cars have the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car in British fashion but they drive on the right as we do in America. Why? Well, it is said that one of the leaders went to a fortune teller who told him if he stayed “right,” all would be well, so the order was given to switch the driving to the “right” side of the road.
The glow on the horizon was the first indication we were getting close to our destination. The city of Nay Pyi Taw is ablaze with lights in the evening with beautiful roundabouts centered with huge flowers sculptures and colorful twinkle lights. We stayed at the Aureum Hotel, which is right next to the Thingaha Hotel where Hillary Clinton stayed. All the hotels are in the Hotel Zone where, like the rest of the city, there is a building frenzy.
Most streets are multi-lanes with the dividers nicely planted with flowers and trees – and virtually empty. No traffic jams here – yet. However, it is said to be one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The city is huge and hot. There are some cooler places in Myanmar such as Kalay and Lake Inle. I wondered why they didn’t pick a place for their new capital where the weather was more agreeable.
The Gem Museum and Gems Mart was very close to the hotel so it was our first stop; gems from Myanmar are on display on the second floor but the first floor “mart” seemed to be the main purpose of the museum. The “jewel” of the city is the Uppatasanti Pagoda, which is nearly as tall as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Luckily for me, there are four elevators to reach the top, so there was no need to climb the steps in the blistering sun. The inside of the pagoda is stunning, with four Buddha statures facing the cardinal directions; circling the dome are the plaques stating the Noble Truths, while on the floor level, large stone reliefs tell the story of Buddha. The city may not be restricted any more, but getting near the government buildings is. The road leading to the complex is extremely wide without a divider, leading me to believe that it was designed to accommodate massive parades. Viewed from afar the complex looks huge and architecturally pleasing.
Although it is within the city, it was a 40-minute ride (no traffic) to the National Landmark Garden. The $10 admission included a one-hour golf cart ride with a guide. While it still is not yet complete, it highlights all eight main ethnic groups in Myanmar, with reproductions of their most notable tourist attraction, plus there is a hotel and several areas with amusement rides. Two towers near the entrance house a restaurant and gift shop respectively. Tip: the lacquer ware and other items in the gift shop were significantly less expensive than those we saw elsewhere; however, we did not visit the night market in Nay Pyi Taw. If we had planned better, we would have visited the National Landmark Garden in the morning because there was not time to visit the nearby Military Museum and Zoo before they closed at 4 p.m.
In the “cool” of the evening we went to the Water Fountain Garden, with many ponds, fountains, and gardens all colorfully displayed. One large water fountain had music videos projected onto it, to the enjoyment of the people who sat and listened. The undulating suspension bridge elicited “oohs” and laughter. To point up the fact that Western tourists are few and far between, I think we provided the most memorable moments for many of the visiting locals, because several wanted to have their picture taken with us.
The car we hired broke down, causing some concern about how we were going to return to Yangon. The receptionist at the Aureum Hotel checked, and contrary to everything we read previous to our visit, there are scheduled flights to NPT. And, for $59, we booked a flight back to Yangon. If we had known, we would have flown both ways. The airport is state-of-the-art and empty. With things changing in Myanmar I wondered if Nay Pyi Taw is a window into Myanmar’s future. The building of the city has been the subject of much controversy, due mainly to the cost. If progress continues along present lines I think future generations will be proud of their new capital. It was certainly built with the future in mind. The city will host the Southeast Asian Games in December 2013. The Resident Manager of Aureum told me that a few years ago, the people who were living in NPT would leave whenever they had the opportunity. Now he said that is not the case. They are learning to like it and feel it is their home. I would like to visit again but will fly.