Welcome to the capital of Burma, Naypyidaw. This newly created artificial tribute to the glory of the military Junta (who have ruled Burma since WWII) has all the hallmarks of a 21st century capital city: rows of towering hotels, grandiose museums and eight-by-eight lanes of pristine highways. There is just one thing with this capital city that sets it apart from all other capital cities: no one seems to live in it.
"Why would you want to go there? There's nothing there," asked the owner of our hostel when we discussed the possibility of visiting Naypyidaw. Strolling around the miles and miles of deserted motorway circling the outstretching ghost town a few hours later, the blank and confused expression on his face seemed completely justified.
On November the 6th, 2005 at exactly 6:37AM, Burma's capital was moved from the cultural, historical and economic heartland of the country, Yangon, to a barren site 320 miles further north. Than Shwe, then despotic ruler of Burma, had been advised by his team of highly prominent astrologers that this was the most auspicious time for the transfer.
The initial rationale behind the move was equally confusing: Yangon, you see, is situated close to the southern coast, so of course Than Shwe feared an amphibious invasion. Naypyidaw, on the other hand, sits right in the centre of the country and has come to resemble one giant bunker built to defend against amphibious invasions, all envisioned in the paranoid mind of a totalitarian ruler. Which is probably because that's exactly what it is.
Than Shwe believed himself to be a reincarnation of an old Burmese king (King Kyansittha of the 11th century, to be exact), which explains a lot about his rule over the country. It also explains why the capital is named Naypyidaw, which can be translated into "Abode of Kings".
Sitting in the lobby of one of the soulless luxury hotels that dominate the landscape, we were treated more like foreign diplomats than backpackers. There were at least two hotel workers tending to every guest with the kind of exhausting enthusiasm that makes you think they probably don't experience too much human interaction on a day-to-day basis.
Than Shwe’s plan was to turn Naypyidaw into a global tourist hotspot, but unfortunately for the Robespierre of international globetrotting, it hasn't quite come to fruition yet. No one (apart from the civil servants who were forced to migrate) has settled in this town, so there are no houses, restaurants or shops – only poorly designed tourist sites.
The handful of museums here lie either half built or just empty, and the only redeeming feature is the grand parliament building, only it's closed off and you can barely get close enough to take a picture. Most of the buildings have a kind of neo-classical design, which slightly reminds me of Hitler’s ambitions for a futuristic Berlin – not really a model you want to jump off for a multimillion pound building project.
As we lumber around the city, everything we see starts to feel more and more like an abject failure. Surrounded by such luxurious hotels, perfect motorway and a complete lack of humanity, you almost forget that you're in Burma. And then a badly-paid worker slaving over a flower bed asks you for a drink of your water, and you realise you're not really in Burma at all – you're walking around the fantasy of an irrational megalomaniac.
The real tragedy of this situation is the cost to the Burmese people. A rough estimate by Burmese publication The Irrawaddy puts the construction costs at €30 billion, but of course the longer development continues, the more this figure will increase.
The country is plagued by poverty and remains one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. Yet, instead of tackling this problem, the government continues to pour money into their new capital. And what's perhaps even more tragic is the fact that, to finance the project, the government has borrowed billions of dollars, mainly from the Central Bank, meaning future generations of Burmese people are going to be burdened with the debt.
But it's no real surprise, considering the way the military government's affinity for ignoring the Burmese people. In 2008, for instance, when Cyclone Nagris killed 130,000 people and left two to three million homeless, the government prevented most international humanitarian aid by declining to issue visas.
Still, things are changing in the country. Than Shwe surprisingly stepped down in 2011, but the military still dominate as power has now been passed to another general, Thein Sein. Whether Thein Sein will deliver on his promise of democratic change remains to be seen. But one thing remains clear, building work will continue in earnest in Naypyidaw.
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