BEHIND THE SCENES: LIFE IN MYANMAR'S ISOLATED CAPITAL | WWF

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BEHIND THE SCENES:
LIFE IN MYANMAR'S ISOLATED CAPITAL CITY

Hanna Helsingen is WWF-Myanmar’s Green Economy programme manager. Her work requires her to work closely with the country’s Government – supporting policy and helping to forge a sustainable development path. It’s a complicated job, and to get things done you need to be at the heart of the action. So in 2018 Hanna moved to Naypyidaw – Myanmar’s isolated and intriguing capital city.

The road looks endless. I can barely see an end to it.

This is one of the most common views in Naypyidaw: endless roads, with no traffic. Some would even say this is what it’s famous for: the 20-lane highway outside the Parliament building where you are more likely to see water buffalo crossing than cars, the empty roundabouts with exotic flowers and impressive, immaculate roadside landscaping. This view is now part of my everyday life. As of four months, I’m WWF-Myanmar’s first permanently based staff in Naypyidaw. When I made the decision earlier this year to move here, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been visiting for the last four years but actually living in this sprawling megacity is a different experience altogether. Spending evenings and weekends in this intriguing and solitary place – a good example of how to build a city if you want to limit interaction between people – was always going to come with challenges.

Naypyidaw is 4.5 times the size of London but has only a fraction of its population. In fact no one really knows exactly how many people live here. The city was built from scratch in 2004 around five hours north of Yangon, the then capital. In 2005 it was announced that Naypyidaw would become the country’s new capital, and relocation of all government offices and was almost instant.
Fewer people than expected moved to the shiny new city. In part that’s due to its unlikely location and inaccessibility. Surrounding the sparse and sprawling metropolis is dense forest and mountains as far as the eye can see.

"People say that before there were roads and hotels, there were trees and tigers"

I live in a house in the northern part of the city. I have a short commute to work, less than 10 minutes. If I want to go across to the other side “where there are people”, it takes me 25-30 minutes – without traffic. There never is traffic.

I hoped to live somewhere that could feel like home. I wanted a proper house, neighbors and enough space for my old teak furniture and two street cats that came with me from Yangon. In my garden I have a lime tree and a mango tree and roses that will bloom no matter what. Power cuts are frequent, until now even more so than Yangon. You need to be quick to pump water; doing laundry, taking hot showers and cooking when the power is on. On evenings and weekends, I see the few friends I have here. It turns out there is a small community of expats trying to make a life in this strange place. We even have a Whatsapp group. It’s called: “Need some life in NPT!”. In this group we share tips and trick for how to make the most of life in Myanmar’s quiet capital.

It is quiet but it’s not all bad.

Naypyidaw is a very green city, especially during the rainy and cool seasons. It feels as though nature is taking back its place – with some areas already being reclaimed by the forest that was razed for construction some 14 years ago.

In the east you see the Shan mountains, a spectacular view that turns 50 shades of blue at dusk. Bird watching is great too, and you can spot many of Myanmar’s endemic bird species in Naypyidaw.

"On the roads, there are usually more water buffaloes, cows and dogs than cars and motorbikes. The evening commute is an unlikely mix."

I moved here because my work is here. This is where the government is based and most of my work is with government. Tired of the long commute from Yangon, and wanting to take on more opportunities to support, provide input and help shape Myanmar’s policy future, I decided this is where I have to be. A regular (there is no such thing really) week in Naypyidaw includes a number of pre-scheduled workshops and meetings and some impromptu gatherings and sit-downs. My office is just down the hall from the Director-General of one of the key departments we work with. Very often, I’m sitting in my office waiting for him. By the time urgent matters have been taken care of, it is well past 5pm. I regularly sit down on his couch so we can start going through the list of things WWF are currently supporting the department with. There is always more to be discussed too; a story from his youth when he worked in the field in the west of the country, or an insight gained in his six years leading Myanmar’s first environmental policy and regulatory agency. As I walk out, I always feel privileged and honored to be part of this work.

I come home after a long day of meetings, emails, skype calls and in the midst of all of that some actual work – producing papers, reports, key messages or presentations. I open the gate to my house and am greeted by the three street dogs that have decided to move in with me. I stop for a second and look up. The sky is full of stars, and the moon is full and bright. In how many capitals in Asia is it still so dark that you can actually see stars?

My phone is filled with photos of skies at different sunset times – every hue of every sunset colour. At the end of the day the fact remains; if we want to be where decisions, plans and polices are being made – this is where we have to be.