NAYPYITAW, (Myanmar) - Getting to see one of the world's most reclusive military strongmen requires a VIP flight, armed escorts and soldiers pointing the way - not to mention a disaster of epic proportions.
Even a calamity the size of Cyclone Nargis hasn't stopped construction in the newly built capital of Naypyitaw (nay-pee-DAW), Senior Gen Than Shwe's extravagant vanity project. The junta leader and his team of generals have overseen its making since 2005.
Gen Than Shwe's rising Shangri-La of official-dom contrasts starkly with the misery in the rest of the country, one of the poorest and most repressed in the world.
A sign outside one government office read, 'Can I Help You?' But a few hundred miles south, that was an offer in short supply where thousands of homeless survivors begged for food on the roadsides.
The cyclone's floodwaters have left more than 2 million people hungry, homeless and at risk of disease. The xenophobic government has admitted it needs foreign expertise and US$11 billion (S$15 billion) to rebuild.
But it waited nearly a month to allow some foreign aid workers access to the disaster zone.
During a visit to Naypyitaw, Gen Than Shwe and other top generals received UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last Friday and granted a small group of foreign journalists a rare glimpse inside his palatial compound.
The journey began with a one-hour flight aboard a chartered government plane from Yangon, the former capital known as Rangoon.
The 250-mile drive north to the generals' capital can take a half-day along a potholed two-lane road.
There has never been an official explanation of why the capital was moved so far inland. Some have speculated the junta feared a US invasion. Others say Gen Than Shwe, known to be superstitious, consulted an astrologer. Burmese leaders before him have relocated their seats of power several times.
From the airport, it was a 40-minute drive on a Los Angeles-style eight-lane highway - the widest and smoothest road in the country - to Gen Than Shwe's opulent meeting room.
Virtually no cars or people were seen, aside from workers hand-sweeping the roadside.
Entering the city required passage through a fenced checkpoint along the highway. The capital has 24-hour electricity, a rarity in Myanmar, but forget cell phone service or international flights.
Soldiers greeted the VIP motorcade with salutes as it moved along the main road, passing sprawling new golf courses and resorts with signs like 'The Thingaha - uber cool.' Few people were spotted anywhere.
Inside one resort, well-groomed waiters served cool green melon drinks. At another stop, the group was offered a buffet of seafood, noodles and other local fare on elegant wooden tables. The five-star luxury hotels featured circular driveways, gleaming fountains, shady foyers and sunny pools.
The capital, segregated into military and civilian districts, is surrounded by hills believed to hold a hive of bunkers. Bronze statues of three former Burmese kings pay tribute to a history of military might. Naypyitaw means 'abode of kings' in Burmese.
Inside the military area were a shopping mall, a high school built like a fortress and a stadium described by one local official as 'a training ground for parading.' International reporters are rarely allowed into the country, except to cover the annual military parade.
A sightseeing tour of half-built government buildings led through a massive construction site of unfinished Soviet-style facades.
Workers lined up to wave at the passing UN diplomats and foreign press.
There was also little sign of life near some of the city's 1,200 new four-storey apartment complexes.
Once at Than Shwe's pillared compound, armed guards greeted the group, leading them through a two-story entrance hall that opened onto a 15-foot rock sculpture topped with a serene alpine mural.
General Than Shwe apologises
Gen Than Shwe and the UN chief sat side by side on throne-like chairs with floral upholstery, separated by a bouquet of pink and white flowers and a silver tea set. Chandeliers and ceiling-high depictions of golden pagodas adorned the room.
'He told me that he has never had any such candid meeting with anybody else in the world,' Mr Ban said, hoping that the face-to-face session would hasten the regime's willingness to accept outside help for cyclone victims.
Naypyitaw is far removed from the hard reality in the rest of the impoverished country, where one in three children is malnourished and many people scrape by on $1 a day.
The senior general, who failed to complete high school, had repeatedly ignored Mr Ban's phone calls and letters immediately after the cyclone.
Gen Than Shwe thanked Ban for his letters, and apologised for not replying, UN officials said. The junta leader said he had no time to personally reply in the aftermath of what he called the worst disaster in the country's history.
He and two top officials who greeted Ban wore matching khaki-green military uniforms laden with medals, their neatly pressed shirts open at the neck.
Only rarely has Than Shwe been seen in civilian clothes. At the 2006 wedding of his daughter, he wore an orange sarong and white shirt. A secret video of the lavish ceremony surfaced on YouTube, causing outrage in the impoverished country.
In person, Gen Than Shwe is more diminutive than his larger-than-life public persona. Short and bespectacled, the stocky 76-year-old who is known as 'the bulldog' was silent when asked by a Western reporter if he had any comment for the outside world.
Behind the giant wooden doors, Gen Than Shwe did all the talking for the first 50 minutes of the two-hour-and-10-minute meeting, according to UN officials.
At the end, Mr Ban walked away with a promise of more access for foreign aid workers to the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta region.
'This is just the beginning of my dialogue and communication with the Myanmar authorities,' Mr Ban said. 'Let us see how this will develop.' -- AP