By Simon Roughneen 14 December 2013
NAYPYITAW — With its water slides and swings and cafés half-hidden in the shrubbery, the Fountain Park in Naypyitaw is meant as an evening retreat for the country’s civil servants and their families—somewhere to chill out after a day’s toil inside the city’s imposing and far-flung government buildings.
Elsewhere, urban parks function as relaxing oases—getaways from the hectic city outside. But in Myanmar’s eight-year-old capital, with its multi-lane highways—not streets—linking the city’s remote, isolated districts, and the roadways, some nearly wide enough to have a horizon line of their own, mostly as quiet as rural side roads, the logic appears to be the inverse.
The idea of the Fountain Park, it seems, is to drown out the silence outside. During a recent visit, “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world” screeched out over the park’s speakers, repeating a gratingly memorable line from a song once listed by Rolling Stone magazine as among the world’s most annoying.
Unperturbed by the din, not to mention the strong odds of catching dengue, couples and families swatted mosquitoes and stopped at the fountain to pose for selfies, the colors of the neon-lit water jets lost in the orange and lilac dusk above.
“It’s not as nice as some of the places in Yangon,” said one 34-year-old government worker, who asked that his name be withheld. “But we sometimes like to come here in the evening.”
Almost a decade has passed since Myanmar’s former military rulers secretly created their Ozymandian capital in middle of the country’s arid heartland. Despite the time that has since elapsed, the Fountain Park remains one of only a handful of places to spend an evening in a city that otherwise looks like the set of a Mad Max remake.
With the SEA Games and Myanmar’s 2014 Asean leadership, Naypyitaw will, to be fair, soon pull a lot more visitors than it does now. The government has said it will deploy up to 1,000 extra taxis to Naypyitaw for the SEA Games. They’ll be needed, as for now, getting around means waiting around.
Calling a taxi from a hotel reception can mean a wait of an hour or more. Motorcycle taxis—which can be hailed near some of the bigger hotels or the city’s few shopping malls—typically take twice as long to get anywhere. Given the distances that separate the sparse attractions, one could easily end up spending well over an hour under a hot sun on the back of a motorcycle with a driver who doesn’t necessarily know how to get to where you want to go.
Getting from Junction Nay Pyi Taw, the city’s main shopping mall, to the gargantuan new Defense Services Museum took almost two hours, counting the time it took to haggle over the fare and explain what the Defense Services Museum is.
The museum is still well worth a visit, if only as a reminder of the military’s overweening influence in a country just out of five decades of army rule. Worth it, that is, once you convince the army men at the gate to let you in, a process that ended up taking another half an hour, though I didn’t see any other visitors all afternoon.
“You need a guide, you might get lost,” said one soldier, before adding with a Kafkaesque twist that though visitors need a guide to enter, the museum doesn’t provide any guides, either for English-speaking foreigners or for Myanmar locals.
A shuttle bus might be needed as well, given that it’s a kilometer from the front gate to the main reception area, where huge paintings of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Gen Ne Win, Myanmar’s notorious military dictators, sit either side of a painting—mounted slightly higher on the wall—of independence hero Gen Aung San, father of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
It would take a full day to do even a whistle-stop tour of the whole museum, but in the end, all I managed to get was three hours. After an intensive intra-military debate held at the museum gate, the soldiers who had tried to dissuade me from entering eventually relented, with one of the group escorting me inside the museum and showing the way between the three display rooms we managed to get to, all separated by vast and echoey corridors.
Almost all of the displays are in the Myanmar language only, with bits and pieces translated. Among the more notable of the meticulously curated artifacts and memorabilia were some ancient Myanmar weaponry and many of Gen Aung San’s personal effects, such as his books, hip-flask, uniform, stationery and much more.
Despite her recent professions of affection for the military, however, there was no mention of Gen Aung San’s daughter, the woman who hopes to become Myanmar’s next president. But even less of a surprise than her omission is the fact that the events that brought her to national, and later international, prominence—the 1988 student-led uprising against military rule—are rendered here as “The 1988 Affair.” A major turning point in Myanmar’s modern history, the rise and subsequent crushing of nationwide protests involving millions of ordinary citizens warrants no more than a single glass case, lost amid the multitude of homages to the “achievements” of the armed forces.
One handy aspect of the museum’s location is that it’s just a mile from the Nay Pyi Taw Zoo. The layout is similar to that of the larger Singapore Zoo, a likeness amplified by the presence of four white tigers. Naypyitaw’s cat quartet includes one particularly imposing feline—which stood around 10 inches taller at the shoulder than the other three—and which hailed “from Africa,” as one tiger keeper adamantly told me.
Fittingly, the driver of my motorcycle taxi back into town turned out to have just as shaky a grasp of geography as the tiger keeper. What should be an hour’s chugging along Naypyitaw’s brain-addlingly similar highways ended up taking almost two hours. The driver, after eventually conceding he was lost, then stopped to ask for directions—a process he repeated no less than four times in all, before finally navigating his way to the far-from-obscure destination, one of Naypyitaw’s main shopping malls.
On the way, the gilded Uppatasanti Pagoda—a facsimile of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda commissioned by Myanmar’s former ruler Snr-Gen ThanShwe—glimmered half a mile away from the road.
But unlike around the original, which is packed in the evenings with solemn pilgrims and agog tourists, the Naypyitaw replica was empty, a synthetic Shwedagon in what remains a contrived capital.
This story was first published in the December 2013 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.