The Defence Services Museum in Myanmar’s freshly constructed, sprawling capital definitely counts as one of the more bizarre attractions I’ve encountered whilst traversing Asia – possibly less so than that of the Siriraj Medical Museum in Bangkok, but it’s certainly towards the top of my mentally curated list of exhibited oddness. What makes it strange though isn’t precisely what it contains, but that which it doesn’t – namely any kind of visitors at all. This wouldn’t normally be noteworthy – there are thousands of tiny museums dotted around the world that I imagine it would be quite easy to find yourself alone in, but I would put decent money on none of them being on the sheer level of vastness that constitutes this showcase of the country’s military might.
The first hurdle to overcome is actually getting to the place – the city of Naypyidaw is spread out over an unnecessarily large area – supposedly to prepare for an eventual influx in population and the subsequent construction projects that should follow to fill in the gaps. For the present moment though, this results in great swathes of vacant land subdividing the municipality’s neatly categorised ‘zones’, just waiting for civilisation to snake in and claim them.1 I was situated (unsurprisingly) in the ‘Hotel Zone’, which despite the broad, desolate highways that utterly dwarf the sparse amount of traffic present on them, is still a good 40km drive from the museum, which sits at the foot of the hills to the North-East of the city.
I had a bit of a wait on my hands to get there though, as I’d arranged to commandeer the hotel’s minivan driver, who was apparently away on vague ‘errands’ when it came time to leave. I’d only spotted another 2 guests at the hotel, so I figured it would be more than a little unlucky for my outing to coincide with one of theirs. It was 11:45 before he finally showed up, and we departed, but not before stopping off briefly at nearby Myoma Market so he could pick up some supplies for his wait while I was away studying the exhibits.
After almost an hour cruising gently along the expansive boulevards2 the rounded shape of the Zeyar Thiri Sports Stadium which lies adjacent the museum gradually phased into view, and on passing that I got my first glimpse of just how massive an area the Defence Museum commands – the outer perimeter walls stretch almost beyond the limits of vision and once you penetrate them, you find yourself on the museum’s very own multi-lane highway – totally unnecessary of course, but I did derive some novelty value from it.
Like Naypyidaw itself though, the first-glance scale and grandeur is cunningly deceptive – peer down from on-high via Google satellite view, and you’ll notice the voids – the empty spaces that increase the total landmass but add nothing else of value – merely long-term investments in bare dirt. Also evident is the precise symmetry of the layout, echoing that of the nearby Parliament complex, and other civic works throughout the city, presumably to project a grand, unified visage of strength and coherence, although possibly there’s also a religious influence to it – I’m not too familiar with the Burmese flavour of Buddhism so can’t really say for sure.
The guards at the gatehouse we approached seemed rather bemused to see a visitor arrive into their midst – and a foreigner no less! I exited the vehicle and after a rather ridiculously long wait, was eventually presented with some untranslated paperwork that I tried my best to fill in, before being handed a lanyard with what I assume translated as ‘visitor’ roughly printed on it – just in case I was mistaken for a member of staff I supposed.
Back in the van, we set off for the main entrance, skirting around what is obviously trying to be an enormous garden, centred around an inactive fountain that must have been at least 50m in diameter. As is now a familiar story, from a distance it all looks majestic and awe-inspiring, but get closer and you see the aching great stretches of nothing between the trees, filled only with shrivelled grass. It’s like looking at a Super Nintendo version of Mario, who appears fine from the vantage point of the sofa, but put your face to the screen and you realise he only really consists of a few dozen square, coloured pixels, smashed together in some rough simulacrum of a moustachioed plumber. The place must be an absolute nightmare to upkeep, even in its current, sparse state.
I disembarked at the grand, central entrance, leaving my driver to relax and chat with the staff hanging around nearby, before heading in to the strangeness that awaited. It’s probably worth noting that at this point it’s around 1:30pm and the entire operation closes at 3:30 – leaving me with 2 hours to cover, if not one of the largest museums in the world by number of exhibits, certainly one that’s up there by sheer surface area. There was to be no taking my time here, the situation calling for excruciatingly rapid cultural ingestion – afraid that if I made the decision to abandon all hopes of seeing the entire thing and instead focus on just a few areas, I might miss something really special.
Each of the vast exhibition halls centres on a theme – some are branches of the military: army, navy, air force .etc, but there are others such as ‘Industry’ that seem cover the manufacture of vehicles and weaponry, as well as more general, sundry products such as soccer balls which presumably must have some military connection somewhere – or maybe they just needed to fill the extra space. Either way, it was often difficult to derive any kind of context from the pieces on display – precious few of the notices had been translated into English, and those that had, would often feature paragraphs of Burmese script, but only one or two words of English seemingly hastily added beneath, in what I’m fairly certain was not a like-for-like translation.
Actually getting between the different sections of the museum is a chore as well, thanks to the endless, bland corridors that connect the 15 halls, leading to some long walks (or runs as I eventually ended up doing) between them – it’s easy to see why motorbikes are often suggested as the preferred method of transportation throughout the complex3 – an idea I initially scoffed at due to what I assumed was just abject laziness, but which I can now appreciate holds some merit.
During my speed-run of the museum, I only saw another 3 people who appeared to be fellow visitors, everyone else seemed to be there in some kind of occupational capacity: Brightly dressed women polishing the already spotless tiled floors, armies of gardeners cutting and maintaining the acres of featureless lawns, and the exhibit guides who lay waiting in various states of boredom, for someone to educate about their resident collections. I really felt for this last group – whereas most of the staff at least had some task to do, these docents could do nothing without guests to inform, and I’d often enter an exhibition and find them asleep in their lone, rickety chair, or reading a newspaper – bored into a stupor in which my presence seemed to go entirely unnoticed. Sometimes though, they’d snap to attention when I arrived and, pleased to have a chance for human interaction, cheerily regale me with extracurricular information that I had absolutely no hope of understanding.
This actually proved the undoing of my mission to see the entire museum when I entered the Naval hall, and was enthusiastically greeted by a couple of staff members, one of whom spoke passable English. He happily took me along, and gave me the backstory to just about every piece of paraphernalia in the room. It was interesting for sure, but I could feel time ticking steadily away – a feeling that intensified when some of the women who’d been busy cleaning in the background spoke with my guide, who translated their intention that we should all take photos together. At that point I became the exhibit, as is often the case in parts of Asia where a White skin is seldom seen and therefore somewhat a novelty. Ordinarily I don’t mind, but with closing time looming, and with no-hope of seeing any more of the exhibition halls, I at least wanted to check out one of the static displays of military vehicles which lie in the far corners of the compound. Nevertheless, I accepted, with what I hope was interpreted as good grace, and did my duty to play the affable tourist.
It was then a mad dash back to the van, where I found my driver merrily chatting away to some other bored staff, and we made for the display of aircraft – the only one I was going to have time for. The temperature must have been approaching 40 degrees, and the few staff manning the exhibit had it even worse than their indoor colleagues (who at least had the luxury of AC), laid out on the bare tarmac, sheltering from the harsh afternoon sun in the stretching shadows of wings and fuselages. I quickly set to having a look around – the rules are somewhat laxer than your average air museum, and you’re somewhat free to wander inside the planes and even clamber on top of them if you can handle climbing on superheated metal. There were a wide variety of makes on models on display including a Supermarine Seafire – almost certainly a remnant from the days of British Colonialism and the weird, banana-shaped Piasecki H-21 helicopter. I investigated as many as I could before the heat finally defeated me and I began craving the cool, air-conditioned interior of the hotel van.
On my way back I couldn’t help but wonder at the enormity of the enterprise, and how much money had been sunk (and was still being poured) into something that appeared to be little more than a vanity project – situated so far away from the easily reached parts of the city, with only the odd tourist to prevent the staff going insane, and it’s not even as if there’s money in it from tourism either – the museum is free and sustained by the government. Obviously, it’s created jobs which are a good thing, but it does seem like a symptom of a military government, desperate to project power at any cost – which is essentially what the Tatmadaw was at the time Naypyidaw was envisioned.
Overall it was a very bizarre experience, and I definitely enjoyed the oddness of the museum itself more-so than the jingoistic exhibits, but if you ever find yourself in the Burmese capital, I’d definitely recommend a visit, even if it is just to give the staff some much needed stimulation.
- Unlike in most cities which are more broadly zoned, Naypyidaw has opted for a more rigid approach, segmenting areas into strict categories. The hotel zone, for example, contains only hotels, residential zones only housing units, the diplomatic zone only government buildings; with little to no overlap.
- There must be some unnecessarily low speed limit in place, as no-one was driving anywhere near as fast as what I’d expect given roads this size.
- Not that you can drive through the museum’s interior mind, but the museum’s comprehensive road network can take you directly to the front entrances of each of them – no sweaty walks required.