"We are inviting you to the capital of Myanmar. Nay Pyi Taw welcomes visitors. Everything is beautiful and sophisticated. You'll be pleased and relaxed."
This is part of a song specially written to promote Myanmar's new capital city, about 300 kilometres north of Yangon. Sung by famous vocalist Ni Ni Khin Zaw, the video is played over and over on a small TV screen at the international airport's departure lounge, just opened for outsiders for the first time last week.
Some of the 900-odd participants at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia 2013 were transported to the capital on chartered flights, mostly from Bangkok. Certainly, first-time visitors will be surprised at the large, modern airport.
They will also be surprised at the new city's many facilities: two shopping malls, a planetarium, zoo, gardens, the Hluttaw (parliamentary) Building, and a sports village (for the SEA Games, which will take place later this year in the city).
Generally, the city is quiet. Aside from the buses and vans shuttling between the Myanmar International Convention Centre (MICC) and hotels, there are few vehicles on the eight-lane road that runs through the city straight to Yangon. Once in a while, a public bus appears. Don't expect to see many taxis. They are found at shopping malls and at hotels, but you need to make a reservation - which costs a staggering 15,000 kyats (about Bt450) per one-hour service. Most at the shopping malls go by foot, some with flashlights in their hands as not all roads are sufficiently lit at night.
Junction Centre is the biggest shopping mall, with a department store that features some brand products. Its supermarket is big, offering thousands of items, including many from Thailand. Thai cuisine is popular here. In the basement, where there are only three restaurants, two offer Thai food. Bangkok Sky is the most popular. It's a real Thai restaurant with a long list of authentic food including Sukhothai noodles. The staff members communicate in broken English and are enthusiastic.
Most WEF participants spent three or four days at the MICC, where the meetings took place. Only a few could make a half-hour trip to the Uppatasanti Pagoda, an identical twin of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. While the original is believed to have been built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries, this one was built by the government and is about seven metres shorter than the original. However, like the original, it is also covered in gold leaf. Unlike the original, which is surrounded by big trees and other, lower, buildings, this one stands on a hill, clear of other construction, overlooking the beautiful mountains that border the Shan State.
Much of the construction work in the city started only in 2006, but there are now over 15 hotels and more are being built. Some can match five-star hotels in other cities in terms of design, decoration and service. The MICC itself is large, with meeting rooms named after different states in the country - Shan, Rakhine, Kachin and Ayeyarwady.
Near the main roads here, you could wonder where on earth you are. The modern architectural designs give the impression of a big city. Yet, where are the nearly one million inhabitants said to live here? They could possibly be at the fresh produce market, where local food products are sold in a very genuine environment. I imagine a lot of flies too.
Generally, Nay Pyi Taw will remind you of the big cities that are mushrooming across China. Infrastructure exists here, except a rail network, which is too costly for the country at this stage, and the general impression is of Myanmar embracing modernisation in a big way.
To both the WEF host and participants, the forum served as a test on whether Myanmar will be ready to assume the role of Asean chair next year. Over 100 meetings are scheduled throughout the year, mostly to take place in the capital, as Asean gears up towards the advent of Asean Economic Community in 2015.
One local businessman here, Serge Pun, is pushing for the development of new hotels ahead of 2014. Personally, I would push for better transport services. Many WEF participants went straight back to their hotels after the meetings at the MICC, as there was no way to get to shopping malls or other venues unless you arranged your own transport. It was also annoying that, sometimes, buses left before scheduled times. If Thais are famous for their "krengjai" (consideration), Myanmar people seem more impatient. If only a few passengers were on a bus, they were soon ready to tell the driver to leave the venue, oblivious to other passengers who might want to catch the same bus. With better shuttle services to other places, Myanmar could have encouraged more spending.
Myanmar people are proud of their achievements. As seen on the MICC Facebook page, many photos were uploaded and attracted numerous "likes". That's impressive given the low Internet penetration in the country.
A challenging future lies ahead, though. How the hotels in this quiet city will be kept busy after all the big events are over remmains to be seen? How the current pace of development will benefit locals also remains to be seen? With direct flights to other destinations in Myanmar, how many future visitors will come to the capital city? As we left, the airport looked so empty, without any food shop where you could find water or snack to kill the waiting. Hopefully, this will change when athletes descend here for the SEA Games.
History suggests that all cities get bigger. But how will Nay Pyi Taw grow in the coming decades? Well, visit the city and share your thoughts.
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