There aren't any," says the hotelier with an embarrassed laugh when I ask about the best tourist attractions in Burma's new capital. That's no surprise, really. Naypyidaw--the name translates as "Abode of Kings"--was built from scratch just three years ago on orders from the ruling junta. The vast swath of former scrubland didn't even exist when the latest Lonely Planet Burma travel guide was written, and there's not much tourist charm in a dusty bunker town whose sole purpose is the wish fulfillment of paranoid generals.
Naypyidaw is very big and very empty. Even after Cyclone Nargis devastated Rangoon, Burma's former capital, that metropolis of 5 million still teems with life. The authorities claim that Naypyidaw, untouched by the storm, is home to nearly 1 million residents. But on a recent visit, I saw only a few dozen people apart from the gangs of manual laborers painting crosswalks and sweeping spotless boulevards. On the 20-minute drive from the airport to the hotel zone--where all six of Naypyidaw's hotels are located--I passed just three other vehicles. One was a horse-drawn buggy.
Tens of thousands of civil servants have been forced to abandon Rangoon for Naypyidaw, but the new capital has only two markets catering to their needs. There's no sign of movie theaters or karaoke dens, and no cell-phone coverage--for "security reasons," the locals claim. (That still doesn't explain why junta leader Than Shwe has refused to take calls from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was phoning to urge more government aid for cyclone victims.)
Three years after the first wave of government employees moved here, Naypyidaw remains under construction. Workers toil in the searing heat, mostly without modern equipment like cranes and bulldozers. So far, their efforts have produced, among other things, a massive zoo, five police stations and three golf courses. (Burma's generals are notoriously fond of the sport.) Government housing is provided in bright-hued blocks reminiscent of a down-market Florida retirement community, color-coded by residents' occupation: blue buildings are for the Ministry of Health, green for the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.
One attraction of life in Naypyidaw is its 24-hour electricity supply in a country plagued by power shortages. But that's not enough to entice civil servants to bring their relatives here. Asked why her family stayed in the old capital, a 12-year-old girl visiting her father answers in impressive English, "Rangoon is better; here is bad," earning her a slap on the head from her anxious mother.
Despite the considerable landscaping effort at Naypyidaw's Natural Herbal Park and Water Fountain Garden, no people loll in these public green spaces. I see none of the country's omnipresent Buddhist monks in the new capital, even at the local pagoda. The instigators of last year's democracy protests, which soldiers broke up with gunfire, presumably aren't welcome in a city dedicated to a surreal sense of order.
The city's only potential tourist attraction is a replica of Rangoon's famous Shwedagon pagoda. It's still under construction. At the building site, child laborers--some appearing no older than 6--lug piles of rocks on woven stretchers. Burma's junta has long been considered one of the world's worst human-rights abusers. But the generals don't have to see these tiny laborers build a golden temple for their Abode of Kings. That's because the top brass is bunkered in another, faraway part of the city, an isolation that could help explain the junta's underwhelming reaction to Cyclone Nargis, which left an estimated 134,000 people dead or missing. A Naypyidaw map vividly sums up the willful seclusion of Burma's leaders: the space where the generals' lavish homes should be is completely blank.
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