CURRENT LOCATION: Nyaungshwe, Myanmar
We were entering the weirdest place in the world. The bus took us down massive highways of up to 16 lanes, which were completely empty. Welcome to Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar!
But isn't the capital of Myanmar Yangon (or Rangoon), I hear you cry?! Au contraire! On 6th November 2005, the administrative capital of Myanmar was officially moved from Yangon to Naypyitaw. Construction started on the city in secret in 2002 (when the country was still a military dictatorship), and the city is estimated to be 4,800 square kilometres - that's six times the size of New York City. Everything is super sized. There are 20 lane highways stretching as far as the eyes can see. Enormous hotels, many of which are still under construction, line the highways. But there are no cars, and no people. While the official population of the city is 1 million, many suggest that this report is grossly exaggerated by a government desperate to attract residents and tourists, and to justify spending $4 billion on its construction. This kind of opulence can only be described as criminal, when set in one of the poorest countries in the world. Locals residents have reported (anonymously of course) that the city largely exists for government and military officials. Others who live and work there are unhappy, and only live there because they can earn money. They describe the city as uninteresting.
The capital was moved largely without reason - or at least without a good one. Some describe it as a vanity project from the then-leader Than Shwe, or perhaps a sign of his developing dementia. Some theories suggest that the paranoid leaders wanted to move the capital away from the sea, to protect against attacks from the U.S. Government. Others still think that the move was made away from crowded Yangon to make it more difficult for people to stage political protests. The parliament buildings in Naypyitaw are huge, but are surrounded by huge fences, armed guards, and a moat. Yet another rumour says that the government received consultation from North Korea about building a huge tunnel network under the city, to allow safe passage for officials in the event of an uprising. One last rumour: the highways are so huge to allow planes and helicopters to land on them as crowd control during anti-government protests or other such disturbances. Another trick to prevent public gatherings is having the city split into zones: the accommodation zone, military zone, political zone, residential zone... There is no central square or town in which to congregate. An Indian journalist referred to it as a 'dictatorship by cartography'.
The government began moving ministries and departments from Yangon to Naypyitaw in November 2005, meaning that anyone working in any of those departments had to move to Naypyitaw. Most were unhappy though, as the city wasn't finished - there were no schools, and many other amenities were missing. Some amenities were hastily completed, but the city remains a work in progress.
We found out about Naypyitaw from our good friends Gareth and Natalie, who sent us an article about it a couple of months ago. We decided to take a small detour and check it out for a day. Natalie and Gareth also just got engaged - YAY!!! Natalie and Gareth, please know that we hold you both completely responsible for everything that follows, and that the quality of your wedding gift will reflect that.
We got off at the bus station, and managed to negotiate a reasonable taxi fare to get us to our hotel. We set off again, back down the massive, deserted highways with huge roundabouts, and still no cars or people. Eventually we pulled up to an enormous hotel. Things were looking good! We checked in, finding that the staff spoke minimal English, and that we seemed the be the only people in the hotel. Despite that, there were about 20 staff members at various places throughout the hotel. The staff were friendly though, and we were shown to our room - which of course was as far away as humanly possible, and up three flights of stairs. Waiting at our door were two giggling girls, but we headed in and relished the air conditioning. Our room was huge, and nice enough, but really odd. Given that the whole city was built 10 years ago, and no one comes here, you'd expect it to be pristine. Instead, the room looked dated and cheaply made, and bathroom was pretty gross (and smelled a bit of wee). The shower however was glorious - a massive shower head with enough water pressure to shoot you in to another room. Over the course of the next half hour, I'm pretty sure every staff member made a visit to our room. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering a toothbrush. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering some extra instant coffee sachets. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering our room key. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering a bottle of water. 'Knock knock knock' - someone delivering another bottle of water. A different person every time, and clearly they were all there just to have a nosey at the strange white people. Eventually, once all the staff had had a good look, we got a little peace.
After settling in, we wandered over to reception to ask a few questions. This proved difficult, until the reception staff managed to track down the one staff member who spoke any English. Her English wasn't great, but it was better than anyone else's, and better than our Burmese. Our first question was about bus tickets. We wanted to leave the day after tomorrow, and go to Kalaw. I had tried googling it, but no information was forthcoming. The staff didn't know whether a bus ran there, but the English speaking girl seemed to think that the bus didn't run here, but it did run close, and we'd be able to organise our own transport from there. That didn't sound that great to us, without knowing exactly where it would drop us, so we said we'd have a think about it and let them know what we wanted to do. Our next question was laundry: where and how much? Great news: here, and free! We had read about free motorbikes we could borrow. No problem! And our next major issue: food. They had a restaurant open 24 hours, the. They mentioned something about BBQ and karaoke, but we couldn't quite make it out. This place is amazing!!!!!!! We went back to our room and grabbed our laundry, which was promptly taken off us by the three girls loitering outside our room, then headed out to the restaurant.
We sat down at the restaurant, alone, of course, and were given a menu by a boy who looked about 12. Then he did the typical South East Asian thing where he stood there, waiting for us to order. We hadn't even had a chance to look at the single menu we'd been given. To buy ourselves some time, we ordered drinks to get rid of him. "Two cokes?", we asked. "Juice?", he replied. "No, Coca Cola?". "Coffee?". Ugh. "Sprite?" Success!! He ran off to get our drinks. When he returned, we were still deciding. "2000", he said. "Sorry?", we asked. "Drinks 2000 kyat. You pay now." So here, at the table in the restaurant, waiting to order our dinner, we had to pay for our drinks. Weird. So we ordered dinner. He boy walked over to the phone, and called someone. More weird. Again, as we're getting used to, a few minutes after we'd ordered, he came back over, pointed to the menu and shook his head. Apparently they didn't have any pork. We tried again. We were starving, and at this point here wasn't much we wouldn't have eaten. 20 minutes later our food turned up. We chewed on our beef with garlic. And chewed. And chewed. And chewed. It was like eating a sandal. But it was food, so we were happy. Ish.
We headed back to our room, and enjoyed the quick internet, catching up on emails and face times. We turned on the TV and saw that Back to the Future II was on, so we settled in to watch it. Except the TV kept crapping out, so we abandoned it. Zev decided to take advantage of the amazing shower. As he stood up, he noticed the floor of half the room was flooded. A quick inspection and we realised the air conditioning unit was leaking really badly. We called reception and tried to ask them to come over and see, but they thought we were ordering room service. Zev took some photos on his iPad, and went down to reception to attempt to explain. He managed to get across that we needed to change rooms, and they obliged, although they insisted that in the entire empty hotel, there were no more double rooms left, only twins. Riiiiiight....
I had stayed in the room while Zev sorted this, and 10 minutes after he left, a man walks in and stands in the doorway, with Zev following shortly behind. Zev explains we're moving rooms, and the man stands in the doorway as we pack. Weird and awkward. He shows us to our new room, three doors down. By this stage, I'm not a very happy camper, so I'm glad when he's gone and we can settle in. 2 minutes later: knock knock knock - our new room key. Eventually we were left in peace, and settled in for some sleep in preparation for our day of exploring.
Until midnight. When the karaoke started. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, 15kms from anything else, and we appeared to be the only two guests in the entire hotel. Presumably it was the staff then, serenading us until 1.30am. What a delight.
The delight continued at 9am, when, after a pretty crappy sleep we were woken by pounding at the door. "Just a second", while we sleepily tried to make ourselves decent enough to open the door. BANG BANG BANG. "Hang on a minute." BANG BANG BANG. "JUST WAIT!!!" We threw open the door. Our waiter from the night before stood there "Breakfast". "Yes, what about it? In here? At the restaurant?" "Breakfast." Riiiight. We shut the door, and grumpily got dressed and headed over for breakfast. Oh, and noticed that the AC in this room leaked too, just not as bad.
It was buffet style, so I opened the first container to see what was on offer - 6 flies flew out. Onto the next container. Eggs. Then rice. Then noodles. Then unidentifiable 'food' substance. I secured myself 6 pieces of watermelon for breakfast. Zev braved some rice.
We went downstairs to sort out our bus ticket, I'd found information online that we could get from Naypyitaw to Nyaungshwe, which was where we wanted to head after Kalaw. It was 20ish kms from Kalaw, so we figured if we could bus there, we could make our way back to Kalaw from there. We went to reception to ask about the tickets, but sadly the English speaking girl wasn't there. Luckily the receptionist managed to ring a ticket agent who spoke English. "You want to go to Kalaw, and then in to Nyaungshwe?", he asked. I explained that ideally, we wanted to go to Kalaw, but if we couldn't, then Nyaungshwe would be fine. He informed us that the bus for Kalaw left most days, at 11.30pm, and arrived at 2am. That didn't sound ideal, so we asked about Nyaungshwe. He said he thought the bus ran every day, one in the morning and one in the evening, but he'd need to check the times and prices. I asked that he book us two tickets on the morning bus to Nyaungshwe the following day. He seemed confused about whether we wanted to go to Kalaw or Nyaungshwe, but I did my best to get it across to him. He said he'd get back to us once he'd booked them. He spoke to the receptionist again, and she hung up. We asked if she would let us know whether he managed to book the tickets. She stared at us blankly. We wandered off to our room to prepare for the day, unsure of whether we had a ticket for the bus the next day, and where it would be going if we did.
We attempted showers, but sadly the redeeming feature of the amazing shower in our first room was not shared by our second. The bracket holding the shower head was broken, so you had to hold it by hand - the water pressure was so low that if you left it attached, the water ran down the wall. Excited to be getting out of this shit hole, we headed down to the free motorbike.
The first thing I noticed was that the brake was hanging off the handlebar. Not such a big deal, since it was the front brake, and the back brake was a pedal, I put the key in the ignition and turned it. It wouldn't turn. I took the key out. It was bent. By now I was furious. I hadn't eaten a proper meal since the night before we left Yangon - we'd missed breakfast to catch the bus, didn't manage to order lunch because they didn't have anything on the menu, and dinner and breakfast were crap. I hadn't slept due to the karaoke-filled fun. And to top it off, this hotel was one off the most expensive places we'd stayed in 5 months. In short, I felt the red mist descending. I went inside. "The motorbike doesn't work." All seven staff behind the counter stared at me. I may have lost my temper a little. "The air conditioning still leaks, we're in twin beds, the television doesn't work, the shower is rubbish, the food is terrible, and the motorbike, which is the ONLY REASON we picked this hotel, doesn't work. We are NOT HAPPY." That they understood. I felt bad, but my god, this was ridiculous. I was put on the phone with an English speaking man. I have no idea if he worked there, or whether he was just a friend of theirs who happened to speak English that they were using as a translator. I re-listed my complaints for him, explaining that, for the price we're playing, we expect better. I told him that this was not a good hotel. He agreed. At that point, I could've climbed down the phone and choked him. He offered to send someone over to fix the motorbike. I explained that we weren't getting on the death trap, and they needed to sort out a driver. I hung up the phone and went to sit on the couch. As I sat, I disturbed about 50 flies, apparently relaxing after breakfast.
One thing I should point out: I don't care if the air conditioning leaks. I don't care if the shower is crap. I don't care if the bathroom smells like pee and isn't that clean. I don't care if the TV doesn't work. I don't care if the staff are invasive. I don't care if the food isn't great. I don't care if the free motorbike doesn't work. I don't care about late night karaoke. I don't care if the staff don't know about getting buses to the next destination. And I definitely don't think that the staff should all speak English. I DO care if the hotel is overpriced AND the air conditioning leaks AND the shower is crap AND the bathroom smells like pee and isn't that clean AND the TV doesn't work AND the staff are invasive etc etc. Top it all off with no one speaking English, and it's a recipe for disaster.
After we'd been sitting there for about five minutes, a frightened looking boy brought over two glasses of juice and two glasses of water. We took them and he backed away quickly. A few minutes later, a man turned up with a key. "I have a new motorbike for you, it's nice." We headed outside and it was nice. He gave us a quick run down, and we were nearly ready to go, when we asked if it had gas. He tried to lift the seat to check. And tried. And tried. Three minutes later he managed to pop the seat. Luckily, the tank was full, so we were off!
Once we were on the road, we started to feel a bit better. Being in the is completely surreal city with just us on a motorbike was pretty cool. Our first stop: Uppatansanti Pagoda.
The pagoda was consecrated in March 2009, and is a direct copy of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Weird. We cruised the empty highways, and eventually found our way to the pagoda - more by sight than by map. Since it's basically the only thing in the city, you can see it from everywhere. We pulled into the carpark, and paid some delighted men $2 to park our motorbike there. We walked along to the entrance, locals giving themselves whiplash turning to stare at us as we passed. Three teenaged boys stopped us for a photo. We dropped off our shoes and socks, and went to get some clothes. When we left the hotel, we'd forgotten that we'd need to be appropriately covered for the pagoda - not that it would've mattered, because all of our clothes were in the wash. I thought I'd be fine, in long shorts with my knees covered, and a tee shirt. Zev had on long shorts, but a singlet, so he put on his rain jacket in the 30° heat. We walked over to check if we passed the clothing check, and apparently we did not. Quickly, we were being dressed in local sarong-like garb called longyi. And I mean being dressed. We were both bear hugged from behind, being tied in, as if we couldn't manage knots ourselves. After we loosened our new outfits so we could breathe, we started up the stairs.
At the top, there were probably about 30 people in the pagoda, many of whom literally laughed and pointed at us. We looked ridiculous. We went round to the far side of the pagoda, and it was amazing. The gold leaf shine brightly against the blue sky and white clouds, and we couldn't see or hear another soul. The bells at the top of the pagoda were ringing. The wind, and the birds were chirping. It was really beautiful.
Once we'd refuelled our solitude and were prepared to deal with more stares and laughter, we headed back down, returning our sarongs and gathering our shoes. While we stopped for a drink across the road, and snacked on unidentifiable delicious deep fried morsels, I stopped to pat a monkey that a young girl was bottle feeding. Apparently I never learn - it bit me, because all monkeys are assholes.
We collected our motorbike (which by the way was another semi-automatic, and I was getting MUCH better at driving it) and set off in search of the Gem Museum, the number two attraction in Naypyidaw. After a couple of wrong turns, a friendly security guard showed us where to park, and we headed in.
As we paid our entry fee ($11.20 for some weird reason. We literally could not stop saying, "This is so weird!" to each other), we had to sign in and out, including the times - perhaps a throwback to the time, not so long ago when, as a tourist, you had to log your every movement (every guest house, every bus, every attraction) with the government. We were presented with lanyards, labelling us as tourists (as if there would be any confusion), despite us being the only two people there. We walked into a huge room, filled with darkened display cases and about 30 more giggling women. Side note: everywhere we've been in Naypyitaw, there have been a billion staff members, and no people. I have no idea how, or even if, these people get paid.
Anyway, the women initially clumped together in the middle of he room, staring, laughing, and watching us. As we moved around though, they scattered and scurried around, switching on the lights of the cases we were looking at, and trailed behind us, switching them off again as we moved away. After about half an hour of checking out the gems, I started having a bit of fun. I'd walk over to a distant display case so they'd have to hurry over and switch the lights on, then as soon as they did that, I'd walk away. I considered it fair play for them laughing at us.
By now, it was lunch time, and Zev was starving. When I said earlier that we ate delicious deep fried snacks? It was actually me really, Zev didn't have many. Since we hadn't had a decent meal since Yangon, we did some quick restaurant searching on the map. There are about 5 restaurants in Naypyidaw, and close to us was one called Tasmania Burgers and Fries. Worth a shot. I know you all think we eat too many burgers, and you're right, but over here our choices are rice, noodles, or burgers. So by that logic, a third of our meals should be burgers. I'm happy with those odds.
Tasmania was awesome. Zev had a most enjoyable chicken burger, and we both stuffed our faces with fries. A good meal and an enjoyable morning of cruising had lifted our mood. We decided to head back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon, then head out to the fountain park at dusk, where they switch on all the fountains and play music - it sounded like fun.
On the way home, we detoured to parliament. This stretch of road was the weirdest. It was 20 lanes across, with no median divider, and we were the only people on it. The parliament building itself was huge, and set miles back from the road, surrounded by a moat with two bridges and a huge fence. We pulled over to take some photos and play fearlessly on the road. Zev even had a turn driving the motorbike! As we headed back to the hotel, with Zev driving, he started wobbling quite badly. Initially I thought it was him, then I thought it was the road. Nope and nope. We pulled over. A flat fucking tyre. Naypyidaw is THE WORST.
We had no way of contacting the hotel - I don't have a SIM card, and they don't speak English anyway. We decided we'd just have to ride it home with the flat tyre. A wobbly and slow km later, we decided this wasn't going to work. God only knows what they'd charge us if we ruined the tyre, or even worse, the wheel.
More map consulting showed us we were 400m from the National Library. I rode the motorbike across, and Zev walked. We headed in and THANK GOD found two people who spoke English. We explained the situation and the two ladies kindly called the hotel for us and explained that we had a flat tyre, and needed to be collected. She told us they were in the way, and we should wait outside.
We sat on the steps, with the nice library lady checking on us periodically. While we waited, all sorts of other completely weird things happened. At one point, a bus pulled up and started unloading rubbish bins, construction equipment and giant tubs. While this was going on, two guys came us the driveway pushing broken scooters, straight up the wheelchair ramp and into the library. Hot on their heels were two guys pushing wooden platforms on wheels with floral archways on top. The bus left. The floral archways went into the library, taking some chunks out of the plasterwork on the way. What the hell is going on??
About an hour after our call, two guys turn up on a motorbike. While we were hoping they'd send a car so that we could leave while they fixed the tyre, we were grateful anyone turned up at all. We watched as one of the guys prised the tyre off the wheel and pulled out the inner tube. He looked at the other guy. They talked quickly for a minute. "Wait here." They hopped back on the bike and sped off. From what we could tell, they had the wrong sized inner tube. Sigh...
So we waited. And waited. The library closed. The staff waited on the steps for their ride home. The bus came, and the nice library lady wished us luck and said goodbye. We waited. We listened to a podcast. And we waited. An hour later, one of the men returned, and continued changing the tyre. When he was nearly done (he was putting the new inner tube into the tyre), the second man arrived on another motorbike, and told us to drive it back. Thank god. Total time waiting at the library: 2.5 hours.
We drove back to the hotel (carefully!), and returned bike number two. Now for he next battle: did we have a bus ticket out of this hell hole. Yes, we did!! We couldn't get a bus to Kalaw, but we were booked on a bus to Nyaungshwe the following morning, and were to be in reception at 7am. We headed up to the restaurant, grabbed two very large, hard earned beers, and returned to our room - this time making sure to put up the Do Not Disturb sign. Our laundry was even waiting there for us.
Too frightened to return to the restaurant, we survived on what we'd eaten already that day, and some left over biscuits from the bus ride to Naypyidaw. We settled in for an early night, and suffered through another round of karaoke lullabies, counting down the hours until we could leave.
We were up at 6.30am, and as we finished our packing at 6.45am, we got another wake up call in the form of more banging at the door, telling us to hurry up. As if we had any desire to linger. We headed down, checked out (although when I handed over the key and told them we were checking out, the stared at me blankly as if they had no idea what I was doing), and climbed into the taxi which drove us to the bus station. We were ushered into a waiting room and left to our own devices. 20 minutes later, a bus pulled in, and we were told to get on, it was heading to Nyaungshwe.
While we sat and waited for the bus to leave, we accidentally caught sight of two naked men getting changed in the bus next door. What better way to end our time in the weirdest place in the world.
The bus set off early, and as the road began to pass below us, we relaxed a little. We had done it. We had escaped.
We were both feeling a little ill, with sore throats and headaches, but nothing too bad. We chalked it up to not eating or sleeping well, and our bodies telling us to get the hell out of Naypyitaw.
The bus stopped and we managed to get a tasty lunch, then we carried on our merry way. Straight through Kalaw. Where we originally wanted to go, but were told we couldn't get a bus to. Now we had accommodation booked in Nyaungshwe, so we had to carry on, even though we'd have to back track later. One last point for the worst hotel in the world.
Soon enough, we pulled into Shwenyaung, the confusingly named town 15 kms from Nyaungshwe. We knew that because we have a map. The bus worker approached. "Nyaungshwe", he said. "No, Shwenyaung", we replied. "15kms to Nyaungshwe." "Yes", he replied, smiling, as he unloaded our bags onto the side of the road. So not only did the bus run straight through where we ACTUALLY wanted to go, it DIDN'T run to the place that was our second choice. Naypyidaw, you win this round.
We managed to talk a taxi driver into taking us for $7, down from his usual $8 (what a saving) - doubling the price of our journey from Naypyitaw to Nyaungshe. As we were driving, we told him where we were staying, and he said that was out of town a little, so it would cost an extra $2. We talked him down to an extra $1. My already frayed patience was wearing thin.
Next was the entry fee. We knew you had to pay $10 to enter the lake area, which is 10,000 kyat. We pulled up to pay, and were informed that if you pay in local currency, it's 12,000 kyat each (so $12). This place.... We paid, and spent the rest of the taxi ride in stony silence.
The day was completely redeemed by our new hotel. The staff were amazing. Friendly and kind, they definitely go the extra mile, and our room is beautiful. We headed into town on the free bikes for dinner, and stuffed our faces with pizza and pasta, returning to the hotel fat and happy.
On the way in, we met the manager, who apologised for not meeting us when we checked in. He asked if we wanted him to organise any tours etc for us today, and I explained that I wasn't feeling well, so we planned to wait and see how I was doing in the morning. He asked if I wanted him to call a doctor, and when I declined, he told us to call reception at any time if I changed my mind.
While I slept like a log, I woke up this morning feeling like death. I have a fever, chills, a productive cough and a throat that feels like sandpaper. Zev went to the restaurant for breakfast, which is included in our room price, and he and he hotel staff organised breakfast in bed for me. A couple of cups of tea, a nice hot shower, some food, and paracetamol have me feeling more human, but today will still be a quiet one. Fingers crossed for a bright eyed and bushy tailed me tomorrow morning.
At the very least, thank god we won't wake up in Naypyidaw!
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 13th July 2015)