Captain Aung Khant of the Burmese Army sits in the pink plastic chair. He is a handsome man in his 40s with a laid-back military stance. We had just met and I was immediately intrigued by him.
"There are people like Whoopi Goldberg who are close to ghosts," he says as he takes a cigarette from his pocket and smiles, watching my reaction.
"They are ordinary people, but they have a special ability. They can tell the spirits it's time to move on."
I checked twice with my interpreter:
"Yes," he nodded, "Whoopi Goldberg."
It took me a while to realize that the captain was a fan of the movie Ghost, where the American actress plays a medium who communicates with the dead.
I went to Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, to talk to the captain about the logistics of transporting the spirits of the dead, a practice based on the spiritual beliefs of ancient Burma. We were seated outside an almost deserted cafe; I had a papaya juice while the captain drank water. Beside us was a canal that helped cool the scorching air. Along its banks, tamarind trees colored the landscape orange.
Naypyidaw – which literally means "abode of kings" – is unlike any other city in Myanmar. Despite having a large area, it has low population density. The streets have almost no traffic, and there is little to see.
It is called by many a "ghost town," but according to local belief, the reality is most unusual: if Naypyidaw is a ghost town, it is a ghost town without ghosts.
Myanmar's capital was officially moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006. The reasons for the move are an obscure mix of political expediency; paranoia about Yangon's proximity to the sea and the risk of invasion; and the recommendation of seers who warned former Burmese head of state Than Shwe that if he did not change the country's capital, he and his regime would fall. Unlike Yangon, which was still haunted by the colonial past, Naypyidaw represented a new beginning.
That's why I came to talk to the captain: in 2010, he was tasked with relocating the Tatkon cemetery (one of the districts that are part of Naypyidaw) – the land needed to be cleared as part of an urbanization and development project. The government planned to build a monastery and a new district court building. But first, they needed to relocate the cemetery.
Relocations of cemeteries can be controversial, and families of the dead are not always happy with the removal of the remains of their loved ones. But that happened in 2010, a year before the end of nearly half a century of military rule in the country. Therefore, if the people of Tatkon were unhappy with the transfer of the cemetery, no one protested. As one Tatkon resident told me, "We were under military rule at the time. You can't resist."
But there was another reason why removal from the cemetery was considered particularly "dangerous." Along with the cemetery, it was necessary to transport the ghosts, to remove them from what was supposed to be their last home. And the inhabitants of the Tatkon cemetery were especially problematic.
Bénédicte Brac de La Perrière, who studies religion in Myanmar, told me that in World War II Tatkon was a cemetery for Japanese soldiers. And by Burmese belief, those who suffer violent deaths "create spiritual waste that funerals are not able to fully release."
The removal of the cemetery in Tatkon was therefore a risky business.
"We are afraid of ghosts," says the captain. "If they don't want to move, they get angry. They are a danger to the townspeople."
The captain told me how they moved the remains to a new cemetery outside the city. And then he smiled.
"After moving the graves, the government hired trucks to transport the ghosts. They called a natsaya (spiritual guru) to supervise and direct the ghosts to the trucks. There were 12 trucks, which made three trips a day for three days."
The number, I suspected, was no accident. The trucks made a total of 108 trips, an auspicious number in Buddhist numerology. Buddha's footprints, for example, are traditionally marked with 108 sacred symbols.
"There were over a thousand graves to carry," said the captain. "So there were 10 ghosts or more per truck."
I didn't know how many ghosts could theoretically fit in a truck. I figured it would be more than that. But it turns out that the Burmese ghosts are not slender and small entities. For those who can see them, they are tall – over six feet tall – strong and burly, with huge ears and fangs, and terribly long tongues.
And they can be unpleasant passengers. In conducting his research in the 1990s, Brac de la Perrière heard stories about graveyard removals in Yangon, where ghosts caused "engine problems" and "trucks to stop or move alone, leaving drivers scared … the dead were reacting against their removal. "
The captain explained how on Naypyidaw ghosts fought for the privilege of traveling in the front seat. When they got too undisciplined, natsaya intervened, ordering them to climb up the back. As the trucks filled, the captain says, the vehicles had a harder time moving, sinking into the soft sand. "Ghosts are heavy," he says, taking a sip of water.
After three days, the transfer was completed – but the situation was not completely smooth. The night after the move was completed, the captain's assistant dreamed of three ghosts who told him they had been left behind. The next day the captain returned to the cemetery and found three more graves in the bush. A particularly complicated ghost refused to move; instead, he moved into his assistant's car, causing a series of minor calamities.
The excavators working on the construction project broke down. The cat who lived in the Naypyidaw Development Committee housing estate died suddenly. The assistant felt that he was pushed out of bed by ghostly hands at night. Only when the captain called a monk to recite the Buddhist scriptures did the troubled spirit finally calm down.
The captain no longer has contact with the natsaya who participated in the ghost transport, but my interpreter said he knew a natsaya who had witnessed the mass exorcism and would introduce me to him the next day. I thanked the captain for the interview and shook his hand. When he said goodbye, he had the air of a satisfied man who had done a good job.
The next day U Nain La Shwe went to my hotel. Gray-haired and nearly seventy years old, the natsaya was wearing a flawless white shirt and a carefully tied longyi – traditional Burmese sarong. He worked as an astrologer and spiritual medium, promoting himself with the slogan "Believe to see," words that came to him in a dream.
U Nain La Shwe was familiar with Naypyidaw cemeteries. Sitting cross-legged on a sofa in the hotel lobby, he told me that he used to meditate in the city's cemeteries. He said he was a devotee of Ma Phae Wa, the spirit that carries the coffins. She often approached him and asked if she needed anything. They got along very well.
"She is chairman of the board," he says. "He is responsible for all the other cemetery spirits in Myanmar. He is very pure and beautiful," he says with a melancholy air.
U Nain La Shwe witnessed the transport of Tatkon's ghosts – saw the spirits huddling in the trucks and the wheels of the vehicles bogging down in the sand due to their weight, he says.
When the commanding natsaya ordered some ghosts out, U Nain La Shwe says he witnessed how the trucks began to move again.
"In the cemetery there is a specific law," he explains.
A law that requires the services of a natsaya to be understood.
Only a spiritual medium can transit between the world of the living, the world of the dead and the spirit world, and thus, as Brac de la Perrière writes, can provide "some compensation" to souls who have died a violent death.
On my last day in Naypyidaw, I rented a motorcycle and went out to explore the city. I walked the deserted eight-lane roads. Very occasionally a car would appear in my rearview mirror, moving toward me and overtaking me. But most of the time, I was alone. I drove for hours, stopping at pagodas and Buddhist temples. I only came back when it got dark.
About 10 km from the hotel, I noticed from the marker that the gas was running low. There was something ominous about the empty streets of Naypyidaw after sunset, and for a moment, after all this talk about spirits, I shivered at the thought of standing without fuel in the middle of those deserted streets. I imagined pushing the bike down the empty road, accompanied only by the cold night wind – and shuddered.
But then I remembered that there was no problem. Captain Aung Khant had already fixed this. In this ghost town without ghosts, there was nothing to fear.