Naypyidaw, Myanmar: The world's weirdest capital city

Indonesia's president recently announced plans to move the country's capital away from the crowded island of Java within the next decade.  

The current capital, Jakarta, is home to more than 10 million people, but around three times that many live in the surrounding towns, adding to the area's severe congestion. Traffic jams aren't the only problem. The low-lying capital is also prone to flooding – and is sinking due to over-extraction of groundwater.

Such a move has been mooted for some time and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, is the favoured location for a new centrepiece. An existing city, such as Palangka Raya, may be chosen, otherwise Indonesia's government could follow the lead of many before it by building a brand new home from scratch.

There are several fine examples to offer inspiration. Brasilia, built between 1956 and 1960, with Oscar Niemeyer providing the flourishes, was a resounding success. More than three million live there today and among major Latin American cities it has the highest GDP per capita. Canberra, meanwhile, laid out in 1913, mixes bush with brutalism, avenues with museums – and hosts a thriving hipster coffee and bar scene. It isn't quite Melbourne or Sydney, but it's not without its charms.

Myanmar's capital, Burmese for "abode of the king", emerged from virgin forest just 200 miles north of the old one, Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in 2005, and quickly staked its claim for the title of "world's weirdest city", notable for its colossal scale and relative lack of residents.  

Construction, involving at least 25 separate firms, actually started in 2002, but the world knew nothing of it until Myanmar's military rulers announced the overnight transfer of government offices on November 6, 2005. The exact timing of the declaration was reportedly chosen by the personal astrologers of then-dictator Senior General Than Shwe.

The city remained nameless for a year, but after a massive military parade on the first anniversary of the move, held in the shadow of three enormous statues of Kings Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, considered the three greatest monarchs in the nation's history, the "Naypyidaw" moniker was unveiled.

So just how big is it? Estimates have put the figure at 2,723 square miles (4,382 kilometres), which - if accurate - make it four times bigger than London, and six times the size of New York City. It has even been said the vastness of Naypyidaw can only be comprehended from space. Back in 2011, when The Telegraph was granted a visit, one Western diplomat told our reporter, Damien McElroy: "The only real way to get a sense of this place is from Google Earth. Then you see the distance between the building, set far apart to survive air raids."

Its population, questionable official figures claim, is 924,608, which - even if true - adds up to a population density of just 339.5 per square mile. That's miniscule for a major city. The corresponding figure for London, for example, is 14,500. For Paris it's 53,000. For Manila, among the most densely populated cities on the planet, it's 108,000. Clearly there's room to breathe.

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Indeed, McElroy described it as "an empty city, with barely a car on the road, and not a crowd to be seen", adding: "All Naypyidaw's roads lead eventually to Myanmar's most powerful seat, but there is only desolation along the way. The only signs of life along mile after mile of empty highways are the straw-hatted street sweepers. The battle against the dust amounts to an unceasing demonstration that remoteness provides no insulation against reality."

Spare a thought for those street sweepers – some of the highways are huge, with as many as 20 lanes (but no traffic). Rumour has it that the scale was devised so aircraft could use them as emergency runways in the event of protests or revolution. Top Gear's 2014 Burma Special poked fun at the barren motorways, with the presenters playing football on them and joking about the non-existent rush hour.

Landmarks include the 99-metre Uppatasanti Pagoda, which houses a Buddha tooth relic from China. For those fed up with the sorts of crowds you can expect at temples in neighbouring Thailand - or even Myanmar's tourist honeypot of Bagan - it's perfect. There are also several golf courses, a few parks and a zoo, as well as beautifully manicured roundabouts topped with sculptures of flowers. Restaurants include Cafe Flight, which occupies a salvaged aeroplane.

<i>Perfect for tourists tired of crowds in neighbouring Thailand.</i>

Perfect for tourists tired of crowds in neighbouring Thailand. Photo: Alamy

Beyond that, however, there's really just grandiose civic architecture to admire. TripAdvisor's list of the "Top Things to Do" in Naypyidaw includes the aforementioned pagoda (#1) and "20 Lane Highway" (#2), the riveting Defence Services Museum (#3), the slightly broader National Museum (#4), and the Gem Museum (#5). That "Myanmar International Convention Centre 2" squeaks into the top 10 speaks volumes.

Despite the distinct lack of attractions there's no shortage of tourist accommodation, mostly found in the romantic sounding Hotel Zone overlooking a man-made lake on the outskirts of the city. Hotels include one from international chain Hilton, which has rooms from around $130 a night and the largest outdoor pool in the city.

This is a city that's fond of zones. The Diplomatic Housing Estate features more than 130 identical five-acre plots, ready for various countries to open their embassies. Most remain resolutely in Yangon, however, and the zone is desolate. The Military Zone (restricted) is several miles away and said to feature various bunkers and tunnels. The Ministry Zone consists of 31 identical buildings and a 100-room Presidential Palace, surrounded by a moat. Don't try to cross the moat – soldiers will be sure to send you packing.

What few residents there are live in the meticulously organised apartment buildings whose roofs are colour-coded according to the roles of their occupiers. Ministry of Health employees live in buildings with blue roofs, for example, and Ministry of Agriculture workers live in those with green roofs. Which sort of makes sense in a very creepy Nineteen Eighty-Four way.

The few foreigners who do visit seem to be suited businessmen, diplomats and curious journalists. A Guardian report in 2015 likened it to "an eerie picture of post-apocalypse suburban America; like a David Lynch film on location in North Korea". The writers add: "It very hard to work out where the centre of the city actually lies. This [was] perhaps intentional: there is no natural Tahrir Square-style public place in which to congregate." Another journalist has described the city as "dictatorship by cartography".

A tourist attraction

A tourist attraction Photo: Alamy

The vastness is confusing for residents as well as visitors. One blogger tells how his taxi driver spent the best part of three hours trying to locate his hotel, Aureum Palace, during a visit in 2017. He goes on to describe a distinct lack of other guests (but no shortage of staff), is confused by the staggering distances between each of the city's zones and attractions (with little but dusty fields and cattle in between), and laments the daytime heat (40C "with no shade"). He concludes: "Naypyidaw is clearly a city built for the future. Give it 60 years, as the global population continues to balloon, and these people might yet have the last laugh!"

For what reason were countless billions ($US4bn ($A5.76), some estimate) spent building it? Critics have called it a vanity project, the sole idea of Than Shwe who apparently - with the help of his astrologers - foresaw bloodshed and natural disaster in Yangon. More sympathetic observers point to its logical geographical position closer to the centre of the country, as well as Yangon's creaking infrastructure.

Fancy a trip? Those hoping to visit will need to board at least two flights (no airline flies direct from Australia to Myanmar, while Naypyidaw's airport only has services to Yangon, Bagan, Beijing, Mandalay, Kunming and Heho). Or else there's Yangon, bustling and brimming with temples (and people). Go there instead.

The Telegraph, London

See also: Ten of the world's greatest abandoned, unfinished and unused behemoths

See also: The world's most boring countries (by some measures)

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