Saturday, April 4, 2020

Insider’s Guide to Nay Pyi Taw

If you’re about to embark on moving to Myanmar’s bizarre new capital, you’d be forgiven for feeling a sense of dread. When googling Naypyitaw, you’re going to see some less than favourable reviews: it’s gained a reputation as a ghost town, with nothing to do, nothing to see and no one to meet. That may have been the case for a while but I’m here to tell you that this isn’t necessarily true. Whether you’re here for a short stay or for the long haul, Naypyitaw has  more to offer than most reviewers are willing to admit or explore. The main thing when it comes to Naypyitaw is to embrace it for what it is and to have a sense of humour – if you can’t laugh at the strange quirks and eccentricities then you’re going to struggle here. Expect nothing and giggle at everything is the motto.

The addition of The International School Yangon and The Naypyitaw International Science Academy means there’s more families taking the plunge and moving to Naypyitaw. The expat community here is obviously much smaller than it’s Yangon contingency but it’s here and tight knit nonetheless. On arrival you will be added to the expat Whatsapp group and there you’ll find a wealth of people who can tell you anything you need to know.

The first thing to note is that everywhere is split up into zones in Naypyitaw, the international hotel zone, the diplomatic zone, the restaurant zone and the shopping zone are all too far away from each other to walk, so don’t assume you can get from your hotel to karaoke without a car or bike. Taxis are relatively plentiful and you’ll quickly amass a few numbers you can call when you need picking up. The ride-hailing ‘Grab’ app, useful in Yangon, hasn’t made its way here so expect to pay more for your cab rides.

So, first things first, you need somewhere to stay. The international hotel zone is where you’ll find a lot of empty hotels. The lights are on but there is literally no one home. Places like The Hilton and Park Royal are by far the most popular places to stay long term, both have great rooms and suites, the Hilton takes first place for it’s pool and Park Royal is known for the best food. M Gallery and the Kempinski are also popular choices, with the Kempinski offering a Sunday champagne breakfast which draws in the crowds.

For those who are passing through, there are lots of options for a short stay, places like the Vegas Hotel and Aureum Palace Hotel are well priced ($30 a night) and comfortable for a weekend. However another popular but slightly off the wall option is the Nga Laik Kan Tha Eco Resort, a lovely hotel on the lake with beautiful sunset views, good food and a spa. Everything has been designed with the environment in mind and you can get a room from around $25 which is incredibly reasonable for such a lovely setting. Mount Pleasant Hotel also offers a lovely view during sunset and a nice balcony to enjoy a drink on, it may be slightly out of the city centre but it’s worth the 20 minute or so drive.

When it comes to booking your hotel, Agoda.com is your best bet for a good deal; not only is it very easy to find a room for your budget, Agoda will also let you know if a better deal is to be hadand also send regular vouchers to shave some money off the bill.

Travelling to and from Naypyitaw is actually incredibly easy and there are many options to suit your budget and time constraints. To get to Yangon by car takes roughly 5 hours, Mandalay is 3 and a half hours and Inle Lake around 5 and a half hours, so you’re well situated for exploring central Myanmar. If you don’t have an international driving license, your best bet is to get the bus, which take a little longer to arrive but are still relatively swift. Companies like JJ Express or Elite have a fleet of very comfortable and air conditioned buses that actually don’t take too much longer than driving. They provide you will water and sometimes a snack and will stop halfway through the journey for a toilet break. One way costs between $4-$6, so at that price you can splurge and buy yourself two seats for extra comfort. Car hire is a possibility, with Yoma Car Hire coming highly recommended: a 2 week hire including petrol comes to around $450 and they give you a card to pay for the petrol. If you don’t fancy driving but want a private car hire, the very reliable Mr Lwin can provide a comfortable car and a driver who is at your beck and call for roughly $100 a day, I would recommend doing this if you’re going to Inle Lake as the drive up the mountains is very stressful for foreigners and the bus takes roughly 10 hours.

Domestic flights in Myanmar are not as cheap as other South-East Asian countries and flying from Naypyitaw is particularly expensive, a return flight to Bangkok will cost between $300 – $400 so if you need to save money you can get the bus to Mandalay or Yangon where the prices are much more reasonable, more like $100 for a return and many more options for destinations to fly out to. To fly from Yangon to Naypyitaw is roughly $120 one way and mainly used by business people who live in Yangon but commute to Naypyitaw for the week, so they’re very efficient and streamlined.

Once you’ve arrived by bus, plane or car and have found yourself a hotel to stay in, you’ll probably want to start exploring the areas food options. If you’re staying in one of the hotels you’ll likely grow weary of the food there very quickly and want to venture outside the international hotel zone. While the hotels are the best places to get European food, Naypyitaw has a fair few eateries if you fancy Asian cuisine. At this point, I feel obliged to tell you that most restaurants you go to in Naypyitaw will be mostly, if not entirely, empty. It can be totally disheartening but be assured it’s very normal and not usually an indictment on the food, at any one time there is only a handful of people in any restaurant, so dinner tends to be a quick pit stop rather than a drawn out affair, unless you go with a group in which case you can spend hours chatting and drinking while the servers treat you like royalty.

When it comes to lunch,  I would say that cafe culture hasn’t really become a fixture in Naypyitaw, but there are definitely places you can go for a lighter meal. The chain YKKO has a restaurant in Thapyaygone market and  Junction mall where they do proper drip coffee, amazing wontons and nice light bites with a few locals milling around and providing welcome atmosphere.

For dinner, places like Mr Bar BQ and VIP Unplugged Bar & Restaurant generally have good food and will actually have a crowd of people eating there, the atmosphere is much better and you don’t feel like you’re being suffocated by the wait staff, which unfortunately can happen a lot when you’re eating somewhere that has about 5 customers a day. Katsu has excellent Japanese food, delicious sushi and one of the best katsu curries I’ve ever had, they also have booths which makes you feel less exposed in a mostly empty restaurant. Cafe Flight has also been featured quite a lot in articles about Naypyitaw for its curious use of an old airplane –  true it’s completely bizarre but it’s hilarious and serves good Chinese food, with the sweet and sour chicken a particularly delicious option.

Cafe Flight at Sky Palace Hotel

Sein Mei Mei is a great little food court with a couple of stalls featuring Indian, Chinese and Myanmar food as well as an offshoot of Katsu, they have live music and more food stalls to open soon, definitely a nice place to go with a group and spend an evening sampling from the different stalls. When you are finished, the servers will tally everything up for you; it’s a great option for when not everyone in the group can decide what they want to eat.

For a taste of authentic Myanmar food, Bamboo Land has great Kachin food, the menu is in Myanmar but be sure to ask for Ame Atha Taun (pounded spicy beef) and Kachin tamin taun (pounded rice) or use it as an excuse to see a local friend for dinner and try the special Kachin toasted rice wine (‘kaun-ye’).  Maw Khan Noe is a canteen style restaurant which serves Shan food and is another viable option for lunch surrounded by locals. Tai Kitchen has a lovely teak interior, good Thai food and speedy service, and can be pleasantly busy when you want a little atmosphere.

For those coming from Yangon, you’ll recognise L’Opera, a lovely Italian restaurant with imported cheese and meats. The Head Chef Alessandro has made it his mission to bring authentic Italian cuisine to Naypyitaw and we are all supremely grateful. When the noodles get too much, it’s so worth the extra money to splurge on delicious pasta and pizza, not to mention great wine, a true treat. There’s also been talk of another European restaurant coming over from Yangon, Cafe Dibar’s menu consists of pizza, pasta, bruschetta and salads and will be a welcome addition to Naypyitaw’s eateries.

After dinner, karaoke is the preferred evening out and is as popular in Myanmar as many other Asian countries. There is apparently a club in Naypyitaw but the music choices are oftentimes jarring at best, if you go to karaoke you can at least recognise the songs you’re friends are butchering! The Voice KTV is definitely the better choice in terms of the song library and drinks menu, but there are other options like Boss KTV if they are full (which surprisingly has happened before!) Be aware that karaoke bars often offer sex workers’ services, unfortunately it’s a sad development with the city becoming more popular. Obviously you’re in no way obliged to hire one of the girls for your room but it’s definitely an element of the night that doesn’t sit well.

Whilst most people escape The Golden Cage at the weekend, there is definitely enough in Naypyitaw to keep you busy for a weekend or two. In terms of tourist sites, Uppatasanti Pagoda (modelled directly on Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda) is a very tranquil place to walk around and has a beautiful view of the city and Shan hills at sunset (Myanmar has some of the most stunning sunsets and this is definitely the place to see them!). Other sites like the National Museum or the Gems Museum can allow a couple of hours to pass by and offer lots of insight into Myanmar’s natural resources and history. The bizarre National Landmark Garden allows you to drive through a miniature of Myanmar, visiting all the sites but in tiny proportions, be sure to tell you guide to let you stop and take pictures otherwise they will just drive you past everything and with a $10 price tag you should get your monies worth. Another strange offering is the Water Fountain Park, it costs around 300 kyat to get in and is a very pleasant park, with lots of lovely foliage and plenty of space to get lost in, when it gets a bit trippy is when the sun sets and they have a water and light show, the music doesn’t always fit with the fountain but it’s a funny way to spend an evening, do what the locals do and grab a couple of beers while watching. As a rule in Naypyitaw, as long as you adjust your expectations and have a sense of humour, you can enjoy the touristy options it has. It’s worth noting that it’s useful to bring your passport to museums as they often ask for ID.

When it comes to the things you need to do in order to live here, you can find pretty much anything you need (or something very close to the real thing.) Between Thapyaygone Market, Myo Ma Market and Junction Mall, you’ll be able to find any services or items you need. Junction is a typical mall with clothes shops, jewelry stores and a supermarket inside. The supermarket ‘Ocean’ is fairly large and stocks fresh food, clothes and electricals, it also has a little bakery outside. It also has a food court with Western fast food like Lotteria and Bangkok Sky for quick Thai food for when you want to escape your hotel for lunch. Myo Ma and Thapyaygone are much more exciting for shopping, both are great for fabric shopping and if you need to buy some traditional Myanmar clothing for events, if you’ve found some fabric you like, you can take it to the tailor Mawa in Lewe to have an item of womenswear tailor made.  They also have food markets and clothing, so they’re definitely a good place to go if you’re looking for some simple western style clothes, or for gents, why not have something local tailor made at Cairo Tailors, who will provide an excellent tailoring service at a reasonable price. Thapyaygone also has some tech shops and photography shops, to be honest if you need a service, it’s likely you’ll be heading there first.

Surrounding Naypyitaw a couple of towns and villages where the locals live have sprung up which can be nice to visit and see some actual Myanmar culture. Lewe is a sweet town that you can actually walk around; with restaurants and a few bars to sample, it’s a nice change from the sterile centre and it’s nice to walk amongst the locals and shop locally. If you’re looking even further afield and would consider a weekend away from Naypyitaw, the Pinlong Hot Springs are about a 2 hour drive away and is definitely a move away from the more traditional tourist sites. Recently there’s also been talk of the Nant Mon Gyi waterfalls which are more of a trek but worth the wait, it takes around 4 hours from Naypyitaw but you can stay overnight.

Closer to home, there is the lovely expat community and the activities that have been organised around their various skills and hobbies. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you can try your hand at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at One Fitness Center, Tuesdays and Saturdays there are yoga classes at The Hilton with the fabulous Loren. Socially, on Thursdays there’s a pub quiz at The Hilton and Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for all you can eat Champagne Brunch at the Kempinski, both are great ways of meeting local expats. If you’re a running enthusiast you can join The Hash, an international running club who meets at sundown every other Sunday so you can enjoy a scenic run in the cooler temperatures.

After your yoga session or run, you may want to relax at one of the local spas. Places like The Teak have fantastic prices as well as services, a Thai massage will set you back 35,000 kyat compared so some of the hotel spas which are more expensive, although equally as good. The Kempinksi provides a Balinese oil massage which is fantastic and feels very high end for 44,000 kyat. For things like manicures, pedicures and waxing Queen Beauty in Thapyaygone is great, the ladies there are lovely and the rooms are clean and look great, the prices are also very reasonable.

When it comes to Naypyitaw, it doesn’t do well to try and sugar coat it. If you can look at everything with a sense of humour and a pinch of salt, you can make it work here and even have a good time. The city’s central location makes it perfectly poised for travel into both Northern and Southern Myanmar and you can still get to Yangon to travel to different parts of south-east Asia. You might find that you want to spend most weekends travelling around but equally you could spend the weekend relaxing by the pool or shopping in the markets. Do some research before you arrive and ask to be added to a few WhatsApp groups so you can make some inroads and ask as many questions as you like, everyone is more than happy to help.

Ultimately, there are few places in the world in which you can live in such a strange place in a country transitioning to democracy. To say the least, it will give you many stories and talking points for the next time you are at a party, and embracing this odd capital city with the knowledge that it won’t stay as it is for very long will be an experience that you will not soon forget. So take a deep breath and enjoy while you can!

 

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