Naypyidaw: Abode of Kings in a Derelict Kingdom

To understand Naypyidaw (interchangeably spelled Naypyitaw or Nay Pyi Taw, and translated from Burmese into “Abode of Kings”), it helps to know a little of the situation in Burma, the country to which it now serves as capital city. The poorest nation in southeast Asia, and home to the world’s longest-running civil war (infighting has been ripping state lines to shreds since independence from Britain was granted in 1948), the universally-abhorred military government is fighting a difficult war with the very people it should be protecting. A progressive democratic party was elected in 1990 but prevented from taking power, its Nobel Prize-winning leader put under a house arrest that lasts to this day. The GDP has become stagnant. Cities are in shambles while in the countryside thousands die every year from starvation. And in a greenfield site miles from anywhere sits a surreal suburban fantasyland where tap water is drinkable and electricity runs freely.

On November 6, 2005 the Tatmadaw military government surprised the world when it announced it had moved the capital to an empty tract of farmland 230km north of colonial capital Rangoon. No one knows exactly why: the consensus among news agencies and political pundits attributed it to geography, shifting the command centre north to avoid any potential seaborne invasion by US-led forces, while the military government maintained it was because Rangoon was simply “too crowded”. Even Burma’s main ally, China, criticised the move, wondering why a nation too poor to even feed its own people would spend so much money moving its capital city.

The city took shape as 2006 ran its course, boulevards and buildings popping up across the plain, and by our visit in June 2007 Naypyidaw was beginning to look like the squeaky-clean showcase city its creators had in mind, albeit without perhaps answering first the all-important “why”. We went in without knowing what we’d find or where we’d find it: there was nary a mention of the city in the travellers’ bible Lonely Planet and we were told by the manager at the hotel that we were the first uninvited non-delegate foreigners to stay overnight (in effect, the first two tourists).

The official line remains that Naypyidaw is off-limits to foreigners, although if that’s true it seems no one told the local officials. Apart from suspected tailings (a possible paranoid hallucination) and one unpleasant chitchat with a cop who had designs on our none-too-subtle Nikons, our overnight stay was remarkably hassle-free.

To our knowledge this is the first thorough online photo journal of life in the new capital; a companion set can be found on Will’s blog.

Constructing a Capital

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Much of the infrastructure in Burma — a nation perennially on the UN’s list of the worst human rights abusers — was constructed with forced labour. While it’s difficult to tell for certain whether much or any of Naypyidaw was built by slaves and drones — locals have their suspicions but can’t substantiate them — we observed that most worker gangs had a uniformed officer supervising them very closely.

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Framed by a watchtower on one side and an unfurled flag on the other, this dozer on a dune could very well be the poster image for a propaganda campaign.

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Walking through the entrance to even the most finished-looking mall reveals another layer of construction.

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Although the “official” population figure of one million looks to be some ways off yet, the number of new housing developments in Naypyidaw is staggering. Note the absence of cranes.

Architecture and Civic Planning

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A flapping Myanmar flag points out the valley to bric-a-brac housing blocks.

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A shantytown, home to displaced construction workers and poorer families, “clogs” the view of a palatial government building.

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Perhaps the tallest building in Naypyidaw, and viewable from almost anywhere in the city centre, is a hilltop firehall.

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The design and build quality of the housing looks about on par with American suburbia, which is to say it’s a little shoddy but they’ve done a convincing mimicry.

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A bustling traditional Burmese hawker market on one side and a near-empty shopping mall on the other.

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The Naypyidaw “city centre”, an inauspicious-looking traffic circle with five spoked boulevards leading to far-flung apartment blocks.

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The first to move to the new capital back in 2005, the military still has a strong presence in Naypyidaw.

Life in Naypyidaw

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Floor staff and kitchen boys look over the city from out the back doors of the restaurant strip. Naypyidaw enjoys a constant supply of electricity while the larger population hubs Rangoon and Mandalay sit in the dark for as many as twelve of every twenty-four hours.

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The mall after dark.

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A shop stall in the main shopping mall. This one sells bags of rice; another was empty save for one shelf with a boxed keyboard, a copy of Windows ME and sundry other computer parts. I felt bad for the shopkeeper and bought a blank DVD.

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Reminders of Big Brother are never far away.

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Mostly-empty trishaws ply the deserted boulevards of Naypyidaw.

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From dinky toys to bathroom fixtures, most consumer goods in Burma are hand-me-downs from nations developing at a faster clip than they are. Even the slick new capital wasn’t spared: one paint job ago this city bus served the Narita (Tokyo) Airport.

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A mother and daughter walk hand-in-hand through a fairytale land.

Author

Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net

71 comments

  • Just got online for the first time in a little while and checked to see if this was up. great photos, hope you dont mind if I steal some to show friends and fam :)

    glad you got in, out and kept your cameras…tis a wierd wonderland :)

    Reply
  • Thanks Justin! We wouldn’t have even made the trip if weren’t for your tips and inspiration, and it turned into one of the real highlights of a very loong trip. Looking forward to reading what the next edition of Lonely Planet says about it, if anything!

    Reply
  • These are absolutely amazing photos of Burma. It’s amazing how you got such close-up views of Naypyidaw, even while Burmese journalists have been arrested and jailed for going there.

    Reply
  • Posing as tourists (which we were) we hardly ruffled any feathers, even with cameras the size of handbags around our necks, which wasn’t expected. If we’d alluded to being journalists we probably wouldn’t have even made it into the country.

    Reply
  • I’m impressed that you chose to visit Naypyidaw, and even more surprised that the Burmese government allowed you to do so. Thanks for doing so, and thanks for sharing.

    I travelled through Burma in late 2004, and it is hard for me to imagine any corner of that country looking as pristine and developed as your photos show. 24 hour electricity is unheard of!! You might consider comparing and contrasting these photos with some from Yangon. It’d be an eyeopener, and a sad commentary on how little concern the government has for it’s people.

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  • Justin you have done the world a great service by posting these photos Naypyidaw, confirming both our worst suspicions of forced labour and the insane government’s plan to build a jungle redoubt far inland. How sickening that world leaders have not pressured this regime to free democratically-elected Aung San Suu Kyi and to free the Burmese from such suffering!

    Reply
  • I spent six months working in Yangoon about four years ago, and am not surprised that you could go anywhere in the country. I would doubt that people are starving, even though the country is certainly poor, and repressive. Everyone works. Many plane loads of European tourists and Oriental tourists go there every year with no problems. For some reason not too many American travlers have not heard about the place.I will return sometime with my wife for a vacation. I always heard that the golden triangle on the border was controlled by drug lords that have their own militia, and are probably beyond control of the government.

    Reply
  • Hi, greetings from Thailand.
    Austin, above, mentions something about hi-res pics…
    we would love to have hi-res pics if possible!

    Our Mekong studies center here (MSSRC, at Ubon Ratchathani University) would also like to write a small blurb about your story in our newsletter, with one or two photos and a pointer to your blog, if you would allow us to do so. Our newsletter is called Mekong Today, and publishes small reports covering ongoing research in mainland southeast asia, plus assorted items of interest.

    thank you very much,
    dr. peter vail, ubon ratchathani university

    Reply
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  • brave to head innocently to Naypidaw… would love photos of the military parade ground, the generals mansions one can see on google earth… love the photos you do have, but they do not speak so much of the place but more of the general state of the nation…

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  • I’m very impressed by the photos and details u explained.
    This is one of the most unknown countries in the world! really really an odd country, bloody history.
    Hope the Military Regime is defeated, it’s amazing that they are still on power after so many years….

    Reply
  • hey, i just wanted to say i really enjoyed reading this article. your images are stunning as well. im featuring you on my blog if that is ok. I will also feature some images. I will name you as the source and creator of the images. If you have any problems with this, please contact me.
    regards,
    Kevin

    Reply
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  • I used to think I was a decent photograper- these are awe inspiring. I never comment on blogs; however, I’ve never been this captivated by images before. Thanks for posting these.

    Reply
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  • These are amazing photos! I heard the capitol is costing US$25 billion to construct. I hope it’s ok – I forwarded your website on to some media sources and the US Campaign for Burma. They’ll all be really interested in this! Great work!

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  • Wow…what an amazing…boondoggle is all that comes to mind. All that money on brand new, useless infrastructure, and the rest of the nation in such crushing poverty.

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  • Big deal! So you spent several hours in Naypyidaw with your camera and can now claim insight “to understand” Burma. Hardly! Just the same old cliched disinformation about “propaganda” and “big brother”. BLAH BLAH BLAH… WE’VE HEARD IT ALL BEFORE! This is less a “photo journal of life in the new capital” than simply another occasion for disinformation and self-righteousness from tourists who have basically no connection with the country, besides, of course, having gone there on holiday or worked there for several months for an NGO or oil company.

    Reply
  • In response to Sauk U’s blog entry above,I would like to objectively cite, verbatim, from a Japan Times Blog, November 2005 in response to an article “Myanmar gov’t begins shifting key ministries from capital”

    It reads:
    Sauk Yuu Aung San brought two war to Myanmar.
    Sauk Yuu Than Shwe want to bring war with US to Myanmar.
    Communist Sauk Yuu U Nu started war with ethnic groups.
    Communist Sauk Yuu Ne Win brought war to Myanmar by declaring war with his friend sauk yuu Aung San’s BCP.
    Therefore,
    Sauk Yuu Aung San= Sauk Yuu Ne Win = Sauk Yuu U Nu = Sauk Yuu Than Shwe

    You decide about the above criticism.

    Reply
  • Thanks for the wealth of feedback and it’s wonderful getting such a polarised response on this. I’ll just say to Sauk U that I don’t purport to understanding the political or economic situation in Burma as intimately as someone who has lived there all their life would. I *am* a Western tourist, I look different and hold different values to the Burmese, and altogether I’ve only spent a month of my life there, but (dis)information is a powerful agent for change and I believe this is an occasion where any awareness is especially warranted.

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  • The new capital looks identical to the Chinese-built towns springing up in the countries bordering the PRC (Laos etc). Any info on how much Burma’s main sponsor is involved in all this?

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  • In response to hexakali’s remarks, I claim no relationship to (or prior knowledge of) the Japan Times blog posting referred to. The author of that post, antiC, is clearly an idiot. Note that my name is “Sauk U”, not “Sauk Yuu,” nor, for that matter “Sauk You”. ;)

    Reply
  • Is Sauk U based in Burma? Al the people I spoke to in Burma confirmed most of what is said here about the regime, whose propaganda is plain to see: they even go as far as to display their paranoia with gigantic posters decrying “foreign influences”.

    Reply
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  • With regards to the Sauk Y/Yuu entries above, this message made it directly into my email box from a Burmese ex-pat. (So much for blog entry anonymity, darned Google.) Anyway here what it said.
    —-
    Suak in Burmese means ‘vulva’ dirty, foul-smelling, with a foul nether meaning Yuu – means lunatic Actually the words Sauk Yuu put together connote a sex-maniac who had lost his senses
    but carries a meaning which conveys a person of the dirty, much despised caste. This particular Burmese seems very bitter with the Burmese people of the ruling class in general.

    I am only the messenger.

    Reply
  • I don’t know the slogan posted by hexakali and who he/ she is. but I think he doesn’t know about the history of Burma. Our hero “Aung San” led the country to be free from British colonialism and to achieve independence. Then the people thanks and loves him. For a country which was under the colonialism for 200 years, revolution was difficult and bitter. But the people understood and recognized the sacrifice of that young guy.
    So I ‘d like to ask you ” Pls. remove his name from that slogan” and I’d like to say that we feel sad to see that usage” S– Yuu” with his name.
    I posted my comment not to be confused about him, by foreigners.
    Actuall Than Shwe is a follower of Ne Win and they are from that very group who has been trying to establish Military Nazism.

    Reply
  • Thank you for your photos from my country.Really really thank you.These photos are what we want to see how did the Junta waste the Public fund and how about the life of labour people.I feel so sorry for ordinary people and childern who struggling for living.Where is their future and hope?It makes me a lot of meaning.Anyway thank you.

    Reply
  • We booked a car and driver in Taunggyi ($60 for the day between my friend and I) and got them to take us directly through the city gates and into Naypyidaw. There are a number of brand-new chalet hotels in the designated “hotel zone”, but if you’re watching where your money goes the only one worth considering is the Royal Kumudra, which at $40/night for two people may seem pricey but it’s the cheapest game in town. They were actually very accommodating. All the hotels, predictably, are government owned.

    If you do decide to go make sure you keep your wits about you and don’t do anything that will draw unwanted attention. The clueless-foreigner trick worked well for us, and many of these photos were the result of my friend doing some stupid pose and me zooming in on something else entirely. It’s a really fascinating place and shows a very different side to Burma after a visit to Rangoon or Mandalay.

    Reply
  • Hi, Austin. I’m a US-based journalist. I’d love to interview you about these photos and your trip for the upcoming issue of a North American magazine. The issue goes to print in about 3 weeks. Would you be up for a phone/email conversation? Best wishes.

    Reply
  • It would be great if higher resolution copies of constructionwalkby, suburbiaconstruction, teleconstruction, thatchedjuxta, and palatialjuxtaposition could be sent to my email, thanks.

    Reply
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  • Very intersting pics !
    Really good job, thanks a lot for sharing.
    I will probably use one or two pictures of you for my blog if you allow me to do that. I’ll put a link to your blog.
    (I’m french, sorry for my language faults)
    Thanks

    Reply
  • I agree… you have done the world a great service… two years ago a friend of mine and I managed to get a book published maybe for the same reason. It was not a book of poetry and looking at your pics, it didn’t change the world. But it arose from something which changed our own world…
    What would you do if during your holiday trip, you slowly realised that that the smiles are as momentary as the photos? That the country you are visiting is full of addresses which don’t exist and places where no one will take you? We simply built up a photo diary and narrative of the ‘invisible’ people and places. We combined stories and images to describe the reality of the people of Myanmar and – like your photo reportage – this book has helped raise the consciousness in Italy of the plight of the people who we came across while in concrete terms money has been raised to help refugees.

    Many thanks to Austin for his reportage and all the others in this blog for the lively interest shown.

    Pics and other info at http://cogiac.atspace.com/pages/books.htm

    Reply
  • Wonderful but sad photos. As a Gnostic, with simular ideals to Buddhism, I feel for the
    Burmese at this time of grave danger. My prayers and inner thoughts go out to the brave young Monks and followers. 1948 was my year of birth, the same year that Burma gained independence from my country, UK. The independence that Burma had was just a dream. Now it is that time again, when the ordinary Souls of the Burma Nation go for freedom once more. Love And Blessings to all whom stand for The Freedom Of The Soul (AEON).

    Reply
  • Amazing pictures. If the Americans ever have meant anything serious about freedom and democracy and even go to war for it, they should seriously consider some bombs for Naypyidaw. Since it’s not many sivilians there and mostly generals and soldiers, the target seems quite “naked”. Just let the few civilans get the chance to flee before the drop…

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  • Thanks for the brilliant photos. No wonder my friends don’t want to move there.Empty, unattractive, barren landscape and ( some said) full of snakes.

    By the way, even the generals don’t actually live there- they are almost always on the golf courses in May Myo (Pyin Oo Lwin) a helicopter ride away… where the weather is cool (temperate) and full of lush-green hills, carefully landscaped with man-made lakes and sandy beaches … for the “hard-working” generals.

    Reply
  • I lived and taught English in Burma for 11 years, and never got a chance to see this new “capital” that nobody wanted (or wants). Well done.
    One thing I was told is that the name of the location, Kyat Pyae, means something like “Ghost Run”. Maybe our Burmese friends can confirm that? If it’s true, I think it’s a highly appropriate name!

    Reply
  • Thanks for posting some quite detailed photos of Naypyidaw. Even I wasn’t able to get such shots while I visited there (cos I was too scared that my camera will be seized!) I am a Burmese living in Burma, and I just wanted to add to the fact that the uniformed men you mentioned (wearing a dark blue suit ) might be the construction engineer responsible for that project (probably from Ministry of Construction).

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  • Sayargyi Nay Aung,
    The pictures are very interesting, Kyat Pyay has another meaning. Kyat; difficult to stay, difficult to stand, survive, alive, difficult to show their face in public, and anyway impossible to stay continuously with people and then run away from people mean Pyay.
    Other meaning of Kyat is too tide . I understanded why they move to Kyat Pyay is
    1. They wanted to make Rangoon Killimg field to Yangon people. They actually wanted all Embassies move to Kyat Pyay and Rangoon would be hidden place from world watchers. It began 2007 revolution.
    2. Never can be happen like Vietnum or Phillipine revolution, at there people took over the government palaces. Although people are mad they can’t do like to Marcos in Phillipine, as madess of people after Cyclone.
    3. No coup deta can occur. No coup can approach to Kyat Pyay except their guards.
    From Kyat Pyay, they neglect any worry about people, but struggle to maintein their power. Look cyclone Nagis, they are struggling for refrendum , they use media for refrundum not for Weather warning to people. They took over all good power generators from ESB Rangoon to Kyat Pyay. No power made people have no information of Cyclone warning from TV, even they do warning from TV. After Tsunami all neighborhood countries prepared weather warning systems but they neglected but struggled for the refrundum.
    Although people have been facing more deadly situation like diseases, fevers, hunger and so on, they prohibited or delay the rescue team from the world. They ………Elex.

    Reply
  • This reminds me of the situation in Cuba back in the late 40’s early 50’s when the Cuban government was in bed with the Mafia. Other than the fat military dictators of Burma, who else is gaining financially…..following the money will lead to those who support and encourage such merdous thugs.

    Reply
  • I just came back from Burma october 2008 Almost 90 per cent of the money I spent went to local people in rangoon and Bagan. Taxis, Horsecart drivers, hotel workers, shop owners. 1 in 3 of the hotels I stayed in was govt owned. If you talk to a normal person on the street or in the tourist business they say visting will help. Punishing the people will not hurt the rich elite who already dont need money. Unless the power in Hotels is self generated I never had one instance of electric failure in 7 days. This could be only in the hotels though. It seems to me Burma is where Thailand was 20 years ago.

    Reply
  • Pretty cool. I despise this government but its funny that you say “Big brother is never far away”.

    Oh what I would give for policemen to walk the streets again instead of artificial cameras recording my every move. Ahh well…Don’t worry, we’ll have our own police state here in Europe and America quite soon.

    Reply
  • Wow – I can’t believe you took all these photos. Very gutsy… were you aware at the time that you were taking a huge risk? I’m an Australian who also visited Naypyidaw in June 2007 (under the pretext of visiting friends in Pyinmana) but wasn’t game enough to take photos because I’d heard about locals being arrested and thrown in gaol for doing so.
    Just out of curiosity, whereabouts did you sleep that night? Were you given a bed in one of the Naypyidaw hotels?

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  • ျမန္မာျပည္မွာ ျပည္သူလူထုေတြ ဒုနဲ.ေဒးဆင္းရဲငတ္ျပတ္ေနႀကပီ န.အ.ဖ စစ္ဗိုလ္ခ်ဳပ္ေတြကလဲ အရမ္းကိုခ်မ္းသာႀကြယ္၀ေနႀကပါပီ တဘ၀စာအတြက္ေတာ.စားထားႀကေပါ.ဗိုလ္ခ်ဳပ္ႀကီးေတြရယ္ မင္းတို.ေတြကို တမလြန္မွာ ေစာင္.ႀကိဳေနႀကတဲ. မင္းတို.ေတြသတ္ျဖတ္ထားတဲ.အပစ္မဲ.ျပည္သူေတြက ေစာင္.ႀကိဳေနက်ပါလိမ္.မယ္။ေကာင္းေသာဘ၀ကူးခ်င္းမ်ိဳးမင္းတို.ဘယ္ေတာ.မွ ကူးႏိုင္မွာမဟုတ္ပါဘူး ငါရင္နာလိုက္တာ ငါ.တို.ေတြမင္းတို.လက္ထက္မွာ ျမန္မာျပည္မွာလူလာျဖစ္တာ ရင္နာလို.မဆံုးဘူး အခုဆိုရင္ အရင္က ငါ.တို.လူမ်ိဳးေတြဟာ ဗမာေဟ.ဆိုပီးရင္ေကာ.ေနႏိုင္ခဲ.က်တဲ. ေရႊႏိုင္ငံက ေရႊျမန္မာေတြေလ မင္းတို.ပေထြး ေန၀င္း လက္ထက္ကေန အမ်ိဳးယုတ္သန္းေရႊလက္ထက္အထိ ငါ.တို.ျမန္မာျပည္ႀကီး ဟာမြဲေတပီး ဖာႏိုင္ငံႀကီးျဖစ္ႀကရေတာ.မွာပါလား။ငါ.ညတိုင္းလိုလို မင္းတို.ေတြအေႀကာင္းကိုေတြးမိတယ္ ဘာေႀကာင္.မ်ားကိုယ္.လူမ်ိဳးကို ႏွိပ္စက္ပီးေတာ. ရလာတဲ.စည္းစိမ္ခ်မ္းသာမႈကို လိုခ်င္တာလဲဆိုတာေလ။ထိုင္းကိုသြားအလုပ္လုပ္က်ရတဲ.ျမန္မာ မေလးေတြလဲ ထိုင္းကေကာင္ေတြကမဒိန္းက်င္တယ္ ထိုင္းမွာေရာက္ေနတဲ.ျမန္မာျပည္ေပါက္ မြတ္စလင္ေတြကလဲ ျမန္မာမေလးေတြကိုမဒိန္းက်င္တယ္ ေရာင္းစားတယ္ ေအးဒီလို.ဘဲမေလးရွားမွာလဲ အႏိုင္က်င္.ေဆာ္ကားဖ်က္စီးခံေနက်ရတဲ. ငါ.တို.ရဲ.မ်ိဳးစက္ျမန္မာမေလးေတြအတြက္လဲငါ၀မ္းနည္းတယ္ ကမၻာမွာ ျမန္မာေဟ.လို.မင္းတို.အုပ္ခ်ဳပ္ေနတဲ.ေခတ္ႀကီးမွာ ေယာင္လို.ေတာင္.ငါတို.မေအာ္ရဲ.ေတာ.ပါဘူးကြာ ငါတို.လူမ်ိဳးေတြ မင္းတို.ရဲ.အမဲစက္ေႀကာင္. ကမၻာမွာမ်က္ႏွာငယ္ေနက်ရပါပီ။ဒါကိုေတာ. ငါရင္ထဲကအေတြးေတြကိုေရးေနတာမဟုတ္ပါဘူး တကယ္ျဖစ္ပ်က္ေနတာေတြကိုမင္းတို.ေတြသိသင္ပီထင္လို. လက္ေတြ.ခံစားေနက်ရတဲ. ငါ.တို.ျမန္မာလူမ်ိဳးေတြကိုယ္စား ငါေရးလိုက္ရတာပါ…..။မိုးစက္ ဒိန္းမက္မွာေနတယ္

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  • Pingback: Exploring the Cities of Myanmar (Burma) | Expatify

  • This is a very interesting write up… People all over the world should take a glimpse on what is going on around countries such as Burma. For “Naypyidaw”, I th think the city is starting to cope with urbanization, which I think is a good and a bad thing at the same time, from the pictures, it seems like the place is surrounded with concrete, where are the greens?? seems like every corner has been dumped with buildings, not so eco-friendly i guess. But best wishes to Naypyidaw, it seems like it’s starting to clean up well, I just hope that Burma is all happy and well with the transformation going on… God Bless Burma…

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