Friday, February 17, 2006
The Slash Country — Burma/Myanmar 1986/2006
27th May, 1986. Strand hotel, Rangoon, Burma. Cadaverous receptionist in shabby black suit. Flinches when I ask for a room. Rickety lift with steel lattice door and clanking pulleys. Clammy room decorated with geckos. Creaking propeller fan. Sagging mosquito net, heat-yellowed scotch tape at the joins. Toilet bowl comes with blood-red stains and broken flush. The lining of the curtains hangs down like bunting. I swig the last of my bottled water. I am inexpressibly happy.
The dining room has the faded grandeur of a setting in a Merchant and Ivory film: vaulted ceiling painted a pale salmon pink, supported by white tapering columns and flaking green walls. There are three other guests, seated in different parts of the room like Ruritanian spies. We avoid one another’s eyes, poring elaborately over menus. The major-domo, a stooped ancient in dusty coat and tails, looks on from the shadows. Eventually he comes over to tell us, with the faintest suggestion of a smirk, that they’re not serving dinner anymore. The four of us exchange looks. What kind of a welcome is this? We’re the only guests. We’ve travelled in on the same plane. The Bangkok flight, man. It’s the tourist flight, it only arrives once a day, so we must have been expected. But we say nothing. We’ve all read the Dos and Don’ts in our guidebooks.We shuffle out tight-lipped. While the others head for their rooms, making tragic gestures, I go out into the street, which is unlit and ruinous, in search of a bar or a shop selling beer. Nothing. Only the scuttle of animal life in the gutters and a beggar from Bangladesh with stick-thin arms and luminous Belsen eyes. She manages to tell me her whole life-story in an unhurried murmur, without breaking breath or step, before I make it back.
January 22nd, 2006. Strand hotel, Yangon, Myanmar. As the cheapest room cost 400 US dollars, I could only look around. The whole place hummed and glowed with centralised air-conditioned discretion and polished fittings. The overhead Buckingham fans made ornamental spins. There were lots of smartly uniformed bell-hops and doormen with bleached teeth. The lobby was lined with elephant tapestries and chic tribal weaponry. There were armchairs, couches, and lush Chinese carpets on the marble floors. Rather than the tall Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari counter with its sinister key-rattling beadle and slouching Macbethian porter of memory, there was a tasteful low-slung teak desk and a fragrant blonde Australian, whom one chatted to about one’s itinerary and dietary considerations. Outside the dead things and shrieking crows of the past had made way for the bustle and energy of a city reeling under the impact of ASEAN new money. This Strand was owned by a consortium of Hong Kong and Malaysian venture capitalists. Farther down the road, opposite the railway station, where once there’d been rat-infested chop-houses, there were now Japanese tower-blocks and Singaporean hotels with conference centres. Beyond the dressy golden glister of Shwedagon pagoda, there were Thai lake resorts and Chinese golf courses. Where once melancholy cloaca-dark colonial mansions could be glimpsed crumbling agreeably between tamarind trees and sugar palms, there were swank Spanish-style haciendas and private clinics. The road signs advertising exotic British personalities had made way for uninteresting functionalist statements like ‘Yangon Airport Road’ or ‘University Avenue Road.’ Post-colonial breezeblock had cured the city of imperial nostalgia. Even the jets of betel juice on 32nd Street were being directed into the drains.
The embassy in Bangkok hadn't changed. Only the travellers seemed older, more potbellied and woeful (‘Thailand? Wouldn’t touch it, mate. That little spot you used to love, got a mini-mart on it now’) than I remembered. I got onto the plane anticipating the same suspicion and darkness, the same musty paranoia and drastically reduced existence, the same perplexing encounters and corner-of-the-mouth appeals. An even worse leadership, after all, one made up of illiterate generals who called themselves things like Secretary 1 and Secretary 2, had installed itself, having ousted and then exiled or confined to remote prisons a democratically elected government in 1990. These people consulted astrologers before making important decisions—e.g. vehicles must drive on the right (even though they still all had right-hand steering), the names of cities and rivers must reflect national unity not colonial aspiration (Rangoon had become Yangon, Moulmein Mawlamyine, Pegu Bagu and Irrawaddy Ayeyarwady), the entire apparatus of government must be moved in a convoy of trucks from Yangon to the nondescript township of Pyinmana, a few hundred miles north (this happened one night the previous year). But the gloss of commodity-culture had replaced the romantic shoddiness of making-do, the ministry of fear had gone underground. Even the slums seemed packaged. I had underestimated the seductions of satellite TV and the effect on impressionable minds of the achievements of neighbouring India in the new technologies and Thailand in tourism. This was Myanmar, not Burma. This was General Than Shwe’s visionary new world. Ne Win’s Stalinist experiment, ‘the Burmese Road to Socialism,’ with its network of secret police and tropical gulags, had dematerialised in 2002, but not because of the disastrous economy it had produced or the fabulous poverty of its architects. Probably it had been astrologically correct to dump socialism.
28th May, 1986. I meet a man called U Hla Win. I meet him in the Post Office, where he mistakes me for a lost Russian and offers to direct me to the Soviet Embassy. ‘Come for a tea. I like to chat.’ We go for a cup of tea in a hole in the wall nearby. U Hla Win tells me that his father had been a purser in the Merchant Navy and when he retired had taught English to Burmese schoolchildren. This seems to be the explanation for U Hla Win’s insights into English taste. ‘Have a tea. Black tea? Milk or lemon?’ We talk about the world outside. We talk about Libya and the bombing of Tripoli. ‘Have a tea?’ U Hla Win repeats at intervals as we flip through such topics as Ronald Reagan, Fernando Marcos and Gautama Buddha. It is the verbal equivalent of a nervous tic. ‘What about Burma?’ I say, ‘What about the government? What about the student disturbances?’ 'Have a tea.' U Hla Win is very evasive when it comes to the government and the student disturbances. Instead, he indicates with his little finger the local newspaper The Guardian, which he keeps beside us on the table, and canvasses my opinions about the world events it covers with such efficient distraction. ‘I like to have conversations on world events,’ he states, with trembling lips. We move on to Northern Ireland and Margaret Thatcher. Doggedly I return to what the Burma state media calls ‘terrorism.’ ‘Have a tea,’ says U Hla Win, wincing. At some point I become aware of a gangling man in a beret leaning against a wall. ‘Oh sorry,’ says U Hla Win. ‘You already have one.’ He keeps grinning, though his facial contortions seem unrelated to anything he says. I ask him about nats, Burma’s tutelary spirits, lively relics of pre-Buddhist days. ‘Do you believe in nats?’ I say. ‘Nats?’ U Hla Win looks hurt. Then he points at my tea. ‘Some people, some Canadians,’ he says, ‘didn’t drink that tea. I don’t blame them. It gives you dysentery, you see.’ I put down my glass. I begin to think that U Hla Win is mad, an eastern version of those erratic dirigibles that float through western cities, trailing mooring ropes which everyone pretends not to see. I decide to leave. ‘Thanks for the tea.’ We exchange addresses. U Hla Win says nothing to me, he just writes in large wobbly capital letters ‘PLEASE WRITE’ on the flyleaf of my copy of ‘Burmese Culture.’ I look back as I leave. The gangling man is standing directly behind U Hla Win, with his hands on the old man’s shoulders, smiling. U Hla Win is grinning up at the ceiling as though at the antics of a nat.
I never wrote. I didn’t understand, then, what was really going on. I'm not sure I do now.
January 23rd, 2006. The city under its umbrella of humidity looked to be prospering. The cars weren’t as beat up as I remembered; there were even a few fancy new Lexus saloons and Mercs cruising the main drags. I saw a plump figure in a Polo shirt barking into a mobile. There were satellite dishes on the roofs; BBC World was available in even the Guest Houses; Coca-cola and Sprite were on every menu, and at normal prices. There were no U Hla Wins. On the corner of Anawrahta Road and Pansodan Street, a group of girls clustered around my camera, waiting for their images to appear. They couldn’t speak English. I only knew the Burmese for ‘hello.’ Then one girl said, ‘You go?’ She was small and skinny, and very animated, slipping in and out of unworldly sulks, as she pointed somewhere behind. ‘Go?’ ‘You me go hotel?’ I suddenly understood. ‘How much?’ She held up ten fingers (10,000 kyats, about 10 dollars). I would have liked to have talked to her, but her English had been exhausted. ‘Come with me to Sule pagoda?’ She frowned and shook her head, as if I’d invited her to do something vile. The girls were all dressed in traditional clothes with smears of thanakha solution on their cheeks. They would shy away suddenly, for no reason that I could see. But they kept coming back. I represented something more princely than the stained and verminous loafers who provided them with their usual custom. (They ran away, it turned out, when cops, invisible to me, passed, only to emerge moments later from the thickets of passers-by, reeled in by the glitter of the camera, the hook of my idiot smile.)
At Bogyoke Market, still referred to as ‘Scott market’ by the habituated or nostalgic, a young man fell into step with me, asking me if I wished to change money. ‘No.’ ‘Change money?’ ‘No, I said!’ ‘You want antique?’ ‘No.’ ‘Good antique.’ ‘No.’ Very old.’ ‘No!’ ‘Shan trousers? Traditional longyi?’ ‘No, thanks.’ ‘Basein parasol?’ ‘No.’ Then, a change of tone, intimate and insinuating: ‘You married?’ ‘No.’ ‘You want man’ ‘Man? No.’ ‘Sure you want man. I know you want man.’ He smiled, knowing, triumphant.
On a wall, in Botataung township, a notice urged the people to be vigilant and unyielding in their battle against AIDs. On the pavements of Mahabandoola Road, amidst the mats spread with dummy watches and ornamental mobile phones, there were stalls selling strange bulky-looking Chinese condoms (they looked like devices for straining tea). These—and some more stalls in Zeigyo Market in Mandalay—were the only indicators of an epidemic said to be the most rampant of any country in Asia. A UN report (2001) said that 4% of the adult population was infected with the HIV virus, of which 3.5% had full-blown AIDs. Another estimate (also for 2001) claimed that that last figure should be doubled. The epidemic is most visible in the northern Kachin and Shan states, where it is fuelled by heroin and opium use (Myanmar competes with Afghanistan for the title of world's top opium producer); in Myanmar and Asia more generally, HIV is chiefly passed on through the sharing of needles. Some reports (2005) suggest that Myanmar is the source of the most virulent strains of the virus in Asia. Neither treatment for AIDs nor policing of opium production is a priority of the generals. This is understandable. Opium has always been a reliable cash-crop and traffic in women is Asia's growth industry. Peasant girls are very cheap, and poor parents are easily convinced of the advantages of city life for their offspring. Children from Shan state fetch up in the brothels of Mandalay, where they live in slave conditions, while their owners, conspicuous in expensive Japanese vehicles, frequent the upmarket Swan and Sedona hotels on 20th Street. The sex trade, mainly to Thailand and China, is now one of the top money-earners, almost rivalling tourism in prestige. In Yangon and Mandalay, the on-site market is maintained by the foreign business clientele the generals court with their lavish banquets and generous trade concessions. Many of these people come from Germany, Italy, Britain and the USA.
There was a sort of buoyant good humour amongst the Yangon lowlife that kept bobbling to the surface, like a corpse thrust under water, no matter how long or forceful the thrust. The girls had fun with me. When they ran away from the cops, they made me think of kids playing truant. The skinny girl’s play-acting under the camera’s eye was not so much defiant as couldn't-care-less. When I laughed at the hawker’s offer in Scott market, he laughed back, the hard sell dissolving into parody. These people seemed to be playing a game. Later, I would be told in Mandalay that a kind of willed passivity, born of Buddhist acceptingness, underwrote even the most unadorned of exchanges. The people accepted their condition because to resist or complain was to generate bad karma. Liberty would come, equality would follow, it was just a matter of waiting. The only certainty was change, Lord Buddha had said. Well, I thought, perhaps they were just marking time, perhaps they knew freedom was on its way, that it was just round the corner, and that it had ‘Secretary 1’ and ‘Secretary 2’ written on its garlanded barrel. But then again, perhaps what I was seeing was desperate graveyard humour, the way ridiculousness relieves anxiety in the slaughter-house. Others, used to the place and its history of violent promotions, spoke of obstinacy, wilful refusal rather than willed passivity. In Mandalay, a retired law lecturer would tell me that accommodation was, and always had been, the answer. If only the imprisoned or exiled National League of Democracy (NLD) leaders would compromise with the government a little. Aung San Suu Kyi was too unbending, her heroism had cost too much.
28th May, 1986. The Mandalay Express. Sets off at 5 in the morning. Sharp jolting motion. Sleep interrupted by spectacular swerves, screeches and unscheduled halts. Food served every two hours by screaming women, some leaning in at the windows, their mouths gory with betel, ‘Lail! Lail!’—a De Quinceyan nightmare. Orange chicken legs, boiled eggs, rice wrapped in banana leaves, samosas, the People’s Drink and Ice Industry soda pops (lime green, cherry red, sulphurous yellow), water in fat-bellied earthen jars, plump hard-skinned bananas shaped like cobs of bread, sticky pink rice-cakes stacked in pyramids. The outside world passes like the unfolding of a medieval Christian tapestry depicting allegories of daily toil and eternal grace: clay-coloured bullocks hauling ploughshares, children plunging froglike into cocoa-coloured pools, brilliant white zedis (or stupas) poking through stands of coconut palms, an overturned truck, hard-working bare legs protruding from its bowels, the flashy passage of kingfishers over a mirror-flat river, woven bamboo huts and comely dark green mango trees arranged around trim squares of beaten earth, old men wrapping and unwrapping purple longyis around blue tattooed thighs, level crossings behind which horses and carts wait, women bearing urns on their heads, their thrilling Flaubertian haunches—each scene separated by stretches of featureless dusty plain and dried out padi (it is the hot season). Always in the distance, a range of low-lying shadowy hills. In the carriage, women begin to comb out their hair (thick black tresses drawn hissing through bamboo combs, the nimble motion of fingers building a knot at the back). This electrical event—I had been reading Paul Theroux’s lustful reminiscences—anticipates my own tantalisingly slow invagination of sprawling Mandalay. Mandalay Hill, with its bone-white shrines, buddhas, zedis and glittering htis (finials), marks the northern limit of my journey into Upper Burma. Unlike Theroux (or the much less rapacious Norman Lewis), I cannot penetrate any farther into the mysterious dark of this continent.
23rd January, 2006. Mandalay Express. 5 p.m. start this time. I was shepherded into a waiting-room which had been set aside for ‘foreign visitors.’ A man sat behind a desk on which a squat black telephone—the sort that used to warble away on the desks of provincial English policemen in the 1940s—posed importantly. There were three other Westerners, a man from Crewe and two Americans (Orson and Marigold). Over the next hour or so, the man from Crewe and I chatted about the merits or otherwise of coming to Myanmar. Then, in a necessary kind of slippage, we pondered Orwell and the British in Burma. I described how Orwell had once thrashed a Burman at this very station for some unspecified insult, and claimed that residual gentility motivated the ambivalence of his politics (‘Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British’) in ‘Shooting an Elephant.’ The man from Crewe was unimpressed. He suggested that Burma had attracted only those who couldn’t get one of the plum India postings, dregs of Empire, louts of the imperial laager. One of the Americans, listening in, wondered whether it might be in order to beat a Burmese now. All of this was tongue-in-cheek, the sort of musings that occur in a world that seemed to perpetuate colonial divisions. Outside, the platforms were crammed with squatting or prone locals, their lives tied up in bundles under their heads. I wondered if the man from Crewe’s suggestion might not also apply to present-day tourists.
We were delayed for over four hours, the last two of which were spent sweating in the train. I got out a couple of times to loiter on the platform, where it seemed cooler, and where I could observe Orson race every so often to the toilet at the end of our carriage. We had all been put together in a carriage of reclining seats which while giving us something else to talk about only reinforced the impression that we were being channelled through Myanmar much as the Spanish, German and Italian tour groups were. The latter at least could travel in air-conditioned coaches. The hawkers of rare foods and People’s Drink and Ice Industry soda pop had long gone. The Express now had its own Restaurant car, and purified bottled water, called (the marketeers hadn't quite got it right yet) Alpine, was readily available. The man from Crewe and I swigged from bottles of Myanmar beer and ate some chicken and rice after we set off, while the locals got stuck into Mandalay rum and beer chasers. The man from Crewe had been on a walking tour of Morocco. He'd also been to India, where he'd worked as a volunteer in a Christian mission. He referred once to 'the wife,' uttering a short high-pitched laugh. The rest of the night passed in a haze of other people’s highly vocal dreams, dyspepsia and farts. Marigold and Orson, the latter tottering like a new-born foal, got off at Thazi, where they planned to take the ‘slow train’ to Inle lake. The man from Crewe and I reached Mandalay around midday. We parted with the same chilling lack of sentiment Alexander Kinglake reports he and his fellow countryman showed when they went their separate ways in Sinai, nearly two hundred years earlier. I am not sure that Englishness isn’t a condition brought on by too much reckless travel, like amoebic dysentery or blisters.
I didn’t recognise Mandalay at all. This was now a city, as new, estranging and marvellous as Birmingham or Beijing; this was not the pastoral scene of loopily morganatic encounters and stolen kisses I remembered. I had a new role, I was a rich Westerner requiring steamed broccoli and a foot massage, I was no longer a skinny gawker in shorts and sweaty tee shirt. A man with poisonous garlic breath thrust me into a taxi and drove me to an expensive hotel.
The following entries are taken from my journal for 30th/31st May,1986: ‘I was feeling disorientated after spending 14 sleepless hours on the train. A boy called Chit Chit (pronounced “Cheet Cheet,” not “Shit Shit” as an earlier visitor had stated when writing down her recommendation in his water-marked exercise book) picks me up in his trishaw. He takes me to a hotel (a place with turgid fans and no water). He can’t speak English, but he knows the word “yes.” Yes is a word he can deploy with a command of stress and intonation that would astonish Frankie Howerd. “Can you show me where I can get some drinkable water?” “YES!” “You’ll take me there?” “YeeES!!” “And how much will it cost to tour the town with you?” “YEeeS!!” Fortunately, the exercise book is open at a page dealing with relevant tariffs.” “You’ll take me round Mandalay for the whole afternoon for 50 kyats?” “YES!” “For 50 kyats?” [50 kyats was about 30 US cents.] “YEEES!!’ “50? You sure?” “YEEeeEES!!” I can’t refuse. I may need a shower and a few hours sleep, but this is too good an offer to turn down. Perhaps my addled brain also recognises, in some reflex of human decency, another’s greater need. “Ok, then. Let’s go!” “YEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEES!!!”
‘Chit Chit takes me to a shed where ten women are huddled over pieces of gold foil, pasting them on to squares of wax paper. [Twenty years later, I would discover that these were votives which merit-seekers purchase in order stick to their favourite Buddha images.] Chit Chit insists I take a photograph. Then, thin knotty shins driving down, standing up on the pedals for purchase, he takes me to another shed, where semi-naked men are hefting sledge-hammers at what looks like lumps of waxed steak. This, I tell Chit Chit excitedly, is labour in the raw. I am greatly moved. The noise of pounding is so great I can't hear my cicerone’s ecstatic agreement. The recumbent form of another worker twitches in dreamy sleep on a mat just in front of the hammerers. I haven’t noticed him in the gloom. Wow. This is where it's at. The juxtaposition ehances the industrial purity, nay, the material glamour, of what I'm seeing. I turn back to the hammerer in a state of exaltation. These men have been doing this since dawn, for all I know. Burmese Stakhanovites. Their sinews and swollen veins make them look like Soviet art forms. They work bent double, legs apart, never straightening, even when they hoist their hammers. Chit Chit insists I take a photograph. [I took another one at the same place this year. They’d wised up in the interim and brought the gold foil pasters and steak hammerers together in one place. The building also housed a souvenir shop. One of the hammerers, the one in red shorts, broke off from his work to unpeel a section of foil and stuck it to my thumb. “Now you have an expensive finger,” he quipped with a lethargic smile.]
Then, shins driving down, standing up on the pedals, spatulate brown toes gripping the rubberless steel pedals (I have by now become conscious of the softness and pinkness of my own feet in their coddling sandals), Chit Chit takes me to a sweatshop, where girls are sewing elephant tapestries. The girls can’t stop giggling, but not out of shyness, I feel. “Mingalaba,” Chit Chit whispers, indicating that I should say this to the girls. “Mingalaba!” I bellow. There is a moment of shocked silence. But Chit Chit hasn't fed me a Burmese obscenity, I've only said ‘Hello.’ The girls burst out laughing, the thanakha circles on their cheeks soaring like kites. I laugh too. I have crossed cultures. I have communicated with the Other.
‘Boys on bicycles keep following us, some saluting me and calling out ‘Bee!’ When I ask Chit Chit what they're saying, he says “YEEEEEEEES!!” Girls keep falling out of tongas, overcome by cross-cultural hilarity. A small child rides up to me. “Hello,” he says brightly. “How are you?” ‘Hello,” I say, delighted to find someone who knows so much English. “Very well! And you?” “Excuse me,” the infant states frostily, so that he appears to be rebuking me. “What is your name?” It's exactly the tone some snooty rotarian might adopt on the steps of his club. I don’t know what to say. I feel I can’t be too familiar. “Er… Smith.” “Smith?” the toddler sneers. His tone implies that I could surely think up something more convincing than that. “And what is your country of birth?” I have begun to sweat, it's as if I am disclosing shameful secrets. "England." “And what is your profession?” “Teacher.” “Thank you.” The child rides away whistling. I learn later that this is the way Mandalayans like to practise their English. An identical conversation takes place at the foot of Mandalay Hill, this time with a group of youths in blue uniforms (“Lancers, sir,” one explains obscurely.) Things get out of hand when I try to discuss the People’s Drink and Ice Industry soda pops. I suddenly understand that in moving beyond the rudiments of communication (name, country, profession) I have trespassed onto a region of darkness and ancient terror. I am exquisitely thrilled.
‘At the sugar-cane juice stand (sugar-cane juice strikes me as a promising amoeba-free alternative to the gassy artificially-flavoured pops and sweat-inducing head-muzzying beers), a girl falls in love with me. It is instant and eternal. She and her friend are busy grinding the cane through the teeth of two giant cogs, when I decide to take some photographs. Unaware of the effect my interest has had, I toil up the Hill, the sun scorching my neck, sweat drops cascading, like a swimmer emerged from a lake. There's nothing for me to do up there, but it would have disturbed Chit Chit in profound existential ways if I hadn’t done it. When I get back down, my cicerone says I must sit, motioning me over to a table, where a girl is waiting. Ma Yu Yu gives me her name and address. She wants me to send her copies of the photographs.
My promise is not enough. [As a matter of fact, I've only just kept it.] She wants to know everything about me, not just my age, nationality and profession. Her eyes fasten on mine with ferocious hunger, even as I suppress certain crucial facts. Like Paul Theroux, ten years before, I go through the motions of mentally sweeping her up into my arms and rushing off into the undergrowth singing Burt Bacharach songs, and then, also like Theroux, go just as quickly on my way. Cultural differences, barriers of education and taste, I comfort myself, as I slope off, heading back to Chit Chit’s much more sanguine view of the universe.
‘The following day, restored and groomed, now got up tastefully in turquoise singlet, red shorts and flip-flops, I saunter out to find, not only Chit Chit but his English-speaking friend Ko Nyunt. Word must have got around, or perhaps it's the novelty of my long white legs and strawberry-coloured knees. Girls at sugar-cane juice stands give me radiant smiles, some unwrapping and re-wrapping their sarongs like a mating-signal. Little boys keep yelling “Bee!” and making Churchillian V for Victory signs. The first stop is the ruin of some teak-built monastery. Ko Nyunt, unafraid to breach the secret tourist/tour-guide compact, says I must look it up in Tony Wheeler’s guidebook. I did, I couldn't identify it. [Twenty years on, the updated Lonely Planet guidebook was just as silent. Nor could I find the place. There was nothing resembling the landscape, no water-starved soft drink straw-like elephant grass, no unbeaten track through laterite. I realise this is rather inadequate for a Proustian retrospective.] He tells me not too wander too far because I might be chased by dogs. I haven’t gone 50 yards when two colonial pi-dogs, lips drawn back in horror-film snarls, come bounding out of the scrub as if on cue. “Stand still,” I tell myself. “Look them in the eye.” This has no effect, so I flee. [This scene returns to me often, always viewed from the perspective of some dreamer under a boddhi tree: Olympus camera free-wheeling round the foreigner’s neck, canvas bag flapping at his shoulder, great pink feet sending up spurts of dust, leaping through the thorn bushes.] “NooOOoo!!” I shriek in inverse imitation of one of Chit Chit’s whooped cogitos. My saviour is a small boy wielding a piece of teak. “Bee!” he says kindly, making the V for Victory sign.
‘I ask Ko Nyunt about it. What they're saying is “Peace” and the V is an allusion to Ronald Reagan’s gesture after the bombing of Tripoli. I am mystified. Is the Burmese V sign ironic or admiring? Is this what Reagan is to be remembered for in Upper Burma? What does this tell me about the way America is perceived in the East? Ko Nyunt can’t be drawn, and I am distracted by a passing peasant. We head for U Bein’s bridge, where I undergo an hour-long trudge along an elevated teak structure [to be washed away in the floods of 1992 and replaced by concrete and antique-look new wood a year later] to a pagoda and back. The bridge—actually a foot-bridge, built to span a seasonal lake—stretches over a dusty plain along which a bullock cart picturesquely trundles. There is also a convict being led on a chain by one soldier while being chivvied from behind by another with a machine-gun. The sun is lower in the sky. The light is good. I whip out my camera. God. What an opportunity.
'In the afternoon, I am taken to a silk-weaving factory. Girls, aged 9 to 12, labour from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on silk sarongs. The whirr of sewing machines, happy squeals whenever a finger is pricked. They get good money, Ko Nyunt says, a one-hour lunch break and enjoy themselves “singing their favourite Burmese songs”.'
February 24th, 2006. The Mandalay Hill Resort turned out to be a multi-national corporation, owned by a Thai-Chinese consortium, managed by another Australian, and thronged with Italian, Spanish and German tour groups. Its front desk was staffed by pretty virgins acquired from the Honours list at Mandalay University. The Kipling bar contained five local singers in cowboy hats and sequins, who perched on stools with slide-guitars and tambourines—I remember they performed a heart-aching version of Hank Williams’ ‘When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels’—and two British couples who spoke in brittle carrying voices about ‘Yookay’ and their digestive tracts. They were loudly critical of the singers (‘Home on the range, rahlly! What would Rudyard hev made of thet?’ ‘Hwah hwah, Bunny!’) There were also one or two furtive Hong Kong Triad types who occupied the window seats in the restaurant and slurped noodles noisily whenever I went near; it seemed to be an alarm signal of some kind. The waiters would rush forward and thrust a chair into the back of my knees, so that my arms flew up, and then immobilise the rest of me with swift lassoing turns of a starched white napkin. They liked to hover close by and stare fixedly into my face as I ate, and then, if I took too long in swallowing a piece of bacon or happened to glance at the orange and silvery carp cruising the pool outside, snatch the plate out from under me. I took to eating with wolfish haste, huddled over the plate, elbows thrust out, warding off the darting hands.
My garlicky taxi-driver had told me through the fumes—of his clapped-out Mazda pick-up, not his breath—that a village had been forcibly re-located in order to make way for the hotel. The leftovers of that ethnic cleansing now sold bananas from a hovel on the corner of 21st Street and Mandalay Hill road. A number of blue Mazda taxis and trishaws also waited around there, the drivers watching with the patient eyes and lolling tongues of starved dogs, while People Carriers and coaches with dark tinted windows swept in and out of the entrance. They were waiting for one such as I, someone eccentric or missing a marble or two. I said I’d take a ride with one man who came sidling over with betel-bloody grin and obsequious greeting—I never did, but he bore me no ill-will, gesturing graciously at his battered charabanc whenever he saw me emerge from the Resort’s leafy drive—before I went up the road to my station beside the great stone lions that guarded the south-west entrance to the Hill. It was here that I’d met Ma Yu Yu, Calypso of the sugar-cane juice, but I didn’t loiter there out of some nostalgic Odysseyan lechery so much as to wait for my guide, Chit Chit’s equally English-challenged descendent. There was no sugar-cane juice stand there anymore anyway, only Coke vendors and some re-located villagers sorting trash and bottle-tops under the trees.
On the way up the Hill, that first afternoon, I’d been greeted by Than-Than Sin, owner of one of the stalls selling Buddha images which lined the steps up to the statue at the top. She was a well-muscled midget in a sarong, surrounded by school exercise books and pictures of her dead father. We got on so well—'You are my new Papa,' she said mistily—that it soon became clear to me that I would have to part with a considerable sum of money if I was ever going to get rid of her. I decided to let her and her infant sister take me to a performance of Myanmar’s most famous vaudevillians and specialists in ‘pwe’ or Burmese opera: the Moustache Brothers A-Nyeint Troupe. This would allow me to give her some much needed US dollars (a far better gift than kyats) while allowing each of us to pretend that she’d earned them. We set off early, so I could catch U Lu Maw, English-speaking spokesperson of the troupe, for a private audience. Than-Than beckoned one of the blue taxis that periodically lurked in the fumous dusk on its ordinarily forlorn search-and-find mission. It ran out of petrol after half a mile, and we had to take a trishaw instead, me up front, the two girls hugging one another in the back. I had a number of exchanges with Than-Than on the way. She seemed to think, not unreasonably, that I would be fascinated by the various payas and zedis we passed. Instead, I displayed a perverse interest in modern architecture, pointing out a shopping mall (‘Blazon’), an NDL headquarters and an ice cream bar and wondering when they were built and who used them. Than-Than bore all this with great fortitude, but when I made inquiries about a cinema hall we were passing, she swung round incredulously. ‘In England, not have?!’
The cinema was showing an Indian film, the bandana’d stars posed against a wrecked and burning city, vaguely reminiscent of Mandalay. Something should be said for the way films were advertised in Myanmar. The hoardings were always eye-catching, the stars being represented in spectacular primary colours, their wrinkles botoxed and faces stretched and smoothed out. I particularly recall the strange reddened and agonised features of Jean-Claude van Damme staring down at the crowds of Yangon like the victim of an acid bath.
The Moustache Brothers perform only in Mandalay, only in their living-room, and only for tourists. When tourists first started coming along to watch, the local KGB (as Lu Maw called them) were stupefied. If Lu Maw was to be believed, they had remained in a state of stupor ever since. The Moustache Brothers passed a hat round after each show. Lu Maw would ask for a donation of 1000 kyats ($1). It kept the wolf from the door. The Brothers used to give shows all over Burma, but when troupe leader U Par-Par Lay and his genuine brother U Lu Zaw (the bare-faced Brother) went to Rangoon to perform at Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s compound on Independence Day (1996) and told a few off-colour jokes about thievish generals, they were arrested and thrown into the slammer. Lu Maw gave me the following dates (the itinerary is identical to that found in outraged British newspapers and Internet sites): 4th January 1996, performance in Rangoon; 7th January, arrest in Mandalay; 18th March, trial in Mandalay; 26th March, transportation to Kyein Kran Ka hard labour camp (27 miles north of Myitkyina, 500 miles away in Kachin state), a place—Lu Maw had become indignant—usually reserved for picklocks and cutpurses and other petty criminals, where they had to wear leg-irons (trammels and shackles) and break rocks; 30th May transfer to ‘ordinary’ prisons (though in locations still too distant for friends and relatives to visit);13th July 2001, release—with other political detainees all over the country by virtue of an amnesty negotiated by Suu Kyi. They arrived home thin and enfeebled, but still capable of raising a laugh. Though Lu Maw was now front man—because of his English fluency and the restriction to tourist audiences—the two ex-cons could still prance and caper and take a custard pie full in the face.
Lu Maw was a small wiry figure in a longyi and Shan jacket.He could be hyperactive to the point of mania and hospitable to the point of terrorism, plunging about his living-room/auditorium in search of gifts, placards, texts or tea. He had an impressive Viva Zapata moustache and a rasping voice (probably caused by the fierce green cheroots he kept tucking into, as much as by the oratory nightly performance demanded). His patter depended on a literal reading of English idioms (‘You’re a sitting duck! Bang!’), interaction, repetition and reflexivity (‘I’m a comedian,’ he’d say, turning away from us after lampooning some Hollywood celebrity or devotee of cosmetic surgery). His knowledge of current affairs had been gleaned from satellite TV (BBC World) and smuggled copies of The Economist or Banned! He kept a huge and growing library of media references to the troupe (books, articles, downloads from Internet websites and photographs, in a multitude of languages, mostly acquired from tourists), some of which he’d incorporated into his stand-up routine. (I had the uncomfortable impression that the Moustache Brothers had become pale simulacra of the Internet hype, authenticity's infinite regress.) He had several copies of the Lonely Planet guidebook. An Italian version of this had a photo of his wife on its cover, and much play was made of this during the show (‘See my wife is a cover girl!’ or “My wife is very famous!’ said in mock-praise of her poise and showmanship. He had a deflationary sense of humour, but without edge or bitterness. (While photos of Aung San Suu Kyi were stuck to the back wall—these were all old, one showing a very young Suu Kyi with Par-Par Lay in Rangoon and another one of the Lady with the Brothers on one of her rare outings in the 1990s —thus consolidating the troupe’s alternative ‘dissident’ credentials, the generals and their factotums were alluded to, if at all, as clods and buffoons, not as the mass murderers and tyrants a soberer assessment might have come to. Only in private did Lu Maw go into details of government venality and maltreatment, or provide a back-story for the troupe’s/country’s present condition.) When he learnt where I was staying, he begged me to bring him some complimentary soap and a shower-cap. 'I am a comedian.'
Lu Maw was scrupulous in his role as leader and spokesperson. He didn’t under-value or neglect the contributions of Par-Par Lay and Lu Zaw, or of his wife, Ni-Ni Ling (a classically trained pwe dancer) or the other performers, giving each a history and glowing testimonials before and after—and often during—their acts. He was proud of the troupe’s genealogy, its grounding in traditional Burmese operatics, satire and slapstick, and its national and international reputation. Where once the troupe might have relied on local follies for its satire and comic turns (grasping merchant, drunken rice-farmer, dim-witted policeman), now the field of reference had widened to include foreign oddities, be they American (notably Bush's startling resemblance to an ape), British, Swedish or Japanese, though with occasional lapses into what we might now call ethnic stereotyping—such as Par-Par Lay’s energetic parody of Indian speech-acts. But there were still conventional pwe dances, Ni-Ni Ling copying a coffee table book’s illustrations of classic dance positions, and the others performing a number of agricultural knees-ups. The show lasted over an hour, and was led, compered and commented on throughout by Lu Maw at his mike. For props, or prompts, Lu Maw surrounded himself with English slogans written on boards—‘MONOGAMY, POLYGAMY, SEX TRADE’ or ‘MI5, CIA, KGB’—which he would riffle through, scampering about the stage, in search of some word to underline a point he was making—‘I’m a comedian’—and then displaying word clusters such as ‘FEMALE, EUNUCH’ and ‘HAREM.’ It must have been difficult, mediating between fellow performers and tourists, most of whom were non-Anglophone, while delivering a stream of puns and other quickfire English quips. Even so, Than-Than was most impressed, guffawing until the tears came at Lu Maw’s description of a law enforcement officer resisting a bribe, digging me in the ribs ('Police thief, Papa! Police thief!'). Her sister sat open-mouthed, dazzled by the costumes and the racket of amplified music. She didn't speak all the way home, she just stared into the night with her mouth open.
The next day, after another breakfast spent negotiating drill-like stares and snatching hands, I went in search of the place of the pi-dogs, which I thought might have been in the temple city of Sagaing, just south of Mandalay. It wasn’t, or it had changed beyond recognition. On the steps up to Soon U Poonya Paya , I was befriended by Daw Myint Myint San, a merry widow and her two children, Piu-Piu and Chokyew-Chokyew. ‘Hello, good afternoon, and are you in good health?’ ‘Yes, thank you.’ ‘May I walk with you?’ ‘Of course.’ 'Are you married?' 'Not at the moment.' They were going to pray in the colonnade of the 45 Buddhas. The widow demonstrated attitudes of prayer for me. Afterwards, she took us—Than-Than was still glued to my side—to visit her sister who was cloistered in a nunnery farther down the hill. It was a pleasant walk through dusty foliage, past bullock carts and leafy brick-built monasteries. Little white butterflies drifted like snowflakes through the trees. ‘That is a school.’ ‘A school?’ 'The monks teach poor children and orphans.’ ‘Really. That’s...’ I wanted to say 'good,' but the word seemed inadequate and condescending. ‘Do you teach poor people?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’ The daughter was solicitous, even painstaking in her efforts to communicate with me, the son no less so with Than-Than which he managed without ever once moving his lips. Than-Than had found someone else to attach herself to. The widow had an alert flashing smile. Than-Than sold mineral water on a hill, her son was an army cadet. I pulled a leaf from a bush. This was life on the wing, small and fleeting, working its way into the soul with its sly manoeuvres.
The nunnery comprised a temple, a cluster of thatched roofs, woven bamboo walls and a pump. The white of the temple was patterned by diamond-shaped black shadows cast by neem tree leaves. It was very quiet in the heat of the early afternoon. The aunt, reclining like an odalisque on a bench, shaven-headed and leaf-shadow mottled in white robes and pink piled flannel headdress (suggestive, somehow, of a Trojan war-helmet) leered up at me. A sweat-wasp dive-bombed my nose. A banana visibly decomposed under my gaze. This, I thought, is about as far away as you can get from anywhere familiar, and also about as near. Piu-Piu and her mother vanished into a hut. ‘What are they doing?’ ‘They are having lunch.’ When they came out to wash at the pump, and I saw Piu-Piu drenching her fingers, I felt soiled, wicked and barbarous all at the same time. The women kept a change of clothes in the hut. Why? I never learned why. This was life on the wing. When they were ready, we headed off down the hill to the place where the blue taxi that had brought Than-Than and I waited. I’d said I was going to U Bein’s bridge and they could come along too if they liked.
The bridge, now only a few hundred yards long, boomed under the pressure of sandaled feet. Boys and girls (Chinese in jeans, Bamar in longyis and long dresses) monks, nuns, peanut-vendors, fishermen, farmers, day-trippers, flaneurs, whole families and one lone Englishman, long white legs tactfully concealed in khaki trousers, passed up and down. The habit of leisurely strolling, with ceremonial words and swapped looks, long ago vanished from our urgent Northern cities, I informed Than-Than, but was unable to drag her away from Chokyew-Chokyew’s engrossing silences. ‘Are you enjoying the view?’ Piu-Piu asked solicitously. ‘Enormously,’ I told her. ‘It was about here’—we were standing overlooking the southern stretches of the lake—‘that I followed a convict in chains twenty years ago.’ ‘A convict?’ ‘I managed not to take a photograph. See.’ And I showed her the picture of the bullock cart I’d taken two decades earlier. (I'd copied it to my digital archive.) I told her I’d take another one for old times’ sake. Farther along we came to a shelter, where we sat down and I showed them the rest of my pictures and then the contents of my wallet. The few Thai coins I had left were examined critically and expertly, the merry widow testing one with her teeth. She relieved me of my single surviving Thai banknote on the grounds that it bore the handsome features of King Bumibhol Adulyadej, whose good looks, she insisted, were uncannily reminiscent of mine.
I’d planned to go farther north to Katha where George Orwell had worked as a police officer, and which he would one day use as the model for Kyauktada in Burmese Days. But someone called Steve Martin (not the comedian, I concede reluctantly) had already cornered that market, and Emma Larkin had pre-empted my other idea for literary autopsy—inspecting the remains of Eric Blair’s postings in Lower Burma—with her elegantly written Secret Histories. The sense of being a literary vulture, or an increasingly desperate market researcher for some embattled enclave of Culture Inc, grew oppressive. I had no idea how to be original. I was immersed, immured, in other people’s languages. I could only co-opt things. Thus it was that, in Mandalay, finding I had two days going spare, I thought I could do a jazzier re-write of Martin’s mournful piece. But not for the first time, statistics interfered with my romantic agony. To get to Katha and have time to search out the ruins of Orwell’s evil empire (police station, club, tennis court, hospital and graveyard), I would have to fly there, which would mean stuffing more foreign currency into General Than Shwe’s back pockets. (I began to notice that if you said that name with too much Mandalay rum in your gut, it sounded like ‘Thank you’.) Than-Than announced that she would accompany Papa on this latest excursion. Fortunately, the driver told her that it was impossible for her to go, as she would never be given a permit to travel outside Mandalay or its environs. Myanmar, it seemed, was open to Western tourists but not to its own nationals. I was passionate in my outrage, until I realised that I needn't take her. It was impossible to go, anyway. I would stay in Mandalay for another two days, then take the ferry down the Ayerawaddy to Bagan, following, this time, in my own heroic footsteps.
January 26th. I said my goodbyes to Than-Than and family. I had my last meal in the Mandalay Hill Resort—in a setting seething with carp, buffet dishes and crouching waiters (imagine hunkered down over your water melon amidst a scrimmage of bullet heads and snatching hands)—then took a blue-taxi to a locally-owned family-run guest house at the other end of town. The guest house had no hot water or air-conditioning, but it did have two people of quite extraordinary warmth and refreshingly breezy good sense. They were also, as I soon discovered, unfashionably genteel and old-world; the man with his military bearing and whisky sundowners and the wife with her iron-grey bun and plummy locutions made me think of gentry in reduced circumstances in nineteenth-century Huntingdon. I felt I had stepped out of Gattaca or Orwellian dystopia into the comfortable English suburbs of an Anthony Trollope novel.
Daw Ohn Soe took me out into the garden to sit in the sun. She said she felt the cold inside. It wasn’t very gardenly out there. Gardenly is the wrong word for what I found out there. The ground was undressed concrete, unmarred by even a single blade of grass. There was a generator at one end, which resembled a northern English jakes. It shook and rumbled and even emitted hoarse oaths as of someone labouring over a stool. Daw Ohn Soe wanted to tell me about the country and its present malaise. She was a retired university lecturer, and was particularly pained by what had happened to education. For one thing, there no longer seemed to be any. If you wanted to go to school in the first place, you had to rely on the charitableness of monks, or find a month’s salary worth of fees to pay for it. The newspapers reported the opening of new universities all over Myanmar, but what they didn’t report was that there were few facilities in these places of higher learning. Science students had no labs, and the libraries were stocked with little other than Buddhist fillers and the odd remaindered Maoist pamphlet. The newspapers also omitted to mention the fact that universities were not so much springing up all over the country as being decentralised—Yangon still had three, much reduced in size, and safely removed to the far sides of easily destructible bridges. The more dispersed the students the less the likelihood of mass protests. (A student march in Rangoon had precipitated Ne Win’s Tianemen Square-style crackdown in 1988.) The much-vaunted Distant Learning programme was a joke, as computer technology existed in only two or three places in only two or three cities, and the country’s electricity supply was being more or less constantly diverted to Pyinmana. When Daw Ohn Soe agreed to my taking notes, she said: ‘Tell them about U Win Tin and General Tay U.’ U Win Tin had been an outspoken editor of the Mandalay Times, and General Tay U was once a leading member of the NDL and a close friend of Daw Ohn Soe’s husband (they had trained together in Aldershot, in the Fifties). ‘How long have they been in prison?’ Daw Ohn Soe stared off into the distance. ‘Decades.’
We talked about Myanmar’s national character, as understood by foreign tourists and back-packers. ‘We tourists tend to regard the Burmese as simple and innocent,’ I told Daw Ohn Soe, ‘perhaps as compensation for our own complexity and corruptibleness. We want Burma to remain authentically Burmoid.’ ‘Burmese are simple,’ she said. ‘We want very little.’ ‘Foreigners like it that way,’ I countered. ‘We are overwhelmed by your lack of up-to-the-minute creature comforts, by the bullock-and-cart lifestyle, by the roadside shacks and emaciated old. That’s why we come, to be charmed and reminded of our privilege and weight.’ Daw Ohn Soe was a very cool lady. ‘Perhaps we should be thankful to the generals, then,’ she said, ‘for keeping us simple and thin.’
Yadana Labamuni Hsu-taung-pye Paya, the Snake pagoda, Paleik. This paya was known for its three pythons that lay coiled in ziggurat shapes about a small Buddha image. At 11.00 a.m. each day they were carried from their slumbers to two troughs of water in which rose petals floated. There, they were washed and kissed. Then they were lifted to the floor and fondled, caressed and kissed again by their doting handlers. Visitors were encouraged to do the same.
To the image of the Buddha, rather than to the pythons, Burmese visitors were making offerings of fruit and flowers. A shrivelled man pinged an embossed brass triangle in the corner. Two women assembled a bouquet out of carnations, jasmine and bananas in another. In one of the side temples, women prayed to a tall Buddha statue covered in peeling gold-foil, their thin buttocks bobbing above the tiny inverted commas of their feet. A bespectacled elder, frowning off to the left, indicated that he would declaim professionally for a modest retainer. The rest of us examined photographs displayed on a wall—rows of manically laughing women and screaming infants draped in serpentine folds—or bought sugary drinks, biscuits and tamarind sweets from the unctuous vendors under the trees. We were waiting for the hour of the handling and ritual washing. Just before it came, several coaches arrived.
A Japanese woman videoed the entire proceedings. She was so involved she never once tore her eyes from the camera’s monitor, elbowing people aside with the device stuck to her face like some plastic-to-flesh synergy in a Shinya Tsukomoto film. The reality disclosed by the quaking led display of the monitor was far greater than the surrounding temples and their small accidents of gold and sparrow, shade and toppled votive. This thing, this future perfect thing of witness ('I saw that, I was there') was what mattered. We stumble through our always-already worlds, crushing the now underfoot as we photograph the enormity of the then. The tourist's consuming gaze is always after the event. We prefer cold cuts to fresh steaming meat. The woman was in the vanguard of a tour-group which was now barging and wheeling through the temple like an army of Robocops. This, as far as one sprawling toddler was concerned, was far more menacing and spectacular than any 12-foot python.
The old days were gone. I’d thought this place was way off the beaten track. How to avoid the itineraries of power? I recalled two Germans at my lodgings who’d set off that morning on bicycles for Amarapura. Holy warriors. For me, the hazardous blue taxi or trishaw, with its skinny monosyllabic driver, seemed to be the only viable alternative to the coached and packaged life-management teams that appeared to have descended on Myanmar like a Biblical visitation in the interim since 1986. In 2003, George Bush imposed sanctions and in 2005 Tony Blair called for a European boycott on tourism to Myanmar. Neither tactic seems to have worked, to judge by the twittering cargo-panted Westerners in Yangon and the British and American tour-groups I saw alongside the Spaniards, French, Germans and Italians in Bagan and Mandalay—always only in the best hotels.
Blair’s comparison of Myanmar with the South Africa of 20 years ago was either inept or unprincipled. (Perhaps Blair didn’t know what a white oppressor was.) Apartheid South Africa was a by-product of external colonization; Myanmar was the creation of internal oppression, aided and abetted by the Chinese, and Western non-intervention. Comparisons are obvious, and, since one has to be made, then Tibet offers a much closer and less dishonest one. Eastern, Buddhist, socialistic, the Chinese connection, isn’t it obvious? Why didn’t Blair make it then? Perhaps it was because Tibet hadn’t been bantuised by occidentals with abstruse Protestant leanings. Perhaps because Tibet was being systematically oppressed by an extremely powerful market-driven UN Security Council member, not a bunch of pot-bellied lascars with gold teeth and tattooed thighs.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Mandalay, photographing odd sights (Barthesian puncti), examining the unusable condoms and fake watches in Zeigyo market, following a file of pink Trojan war helmeted nuns (how they smiled and giggled!), fending off the spirited requests of trishaw-riders, and entertaining some waggish tea-drinkers with my footwear. At a tea-house, I watched a long-haired Burmese boy (hair tinted copper) in a chequered longyi and his girl watch a locally-made rap video on the house TV. They sat with their backs to me, motionless throughout, saying not a word to one another, occasionally sipping tea—the contemplation of the televisual modern coexisting with the reflex of the tea ceremonial. The singers rapped with ingrained local diffidence, making hesitant, pathetically epicene finger-gestures at the camera. When the video finished, the boy called for the bill, then got up and walked out, not even looking at the girl. She followed, straight-backed, small and dainty in an outsize polyester jacket (bearing the legend PUBLIC ENEMY on the back) and blue sarong. They climbed onto the boy’s China-made motorbike. He put on his shades, she put her arms round his waist. Off they went, engine shyly squealing.
In the evening, a novice monk joined me at the night market, falling into step with me as I browsed old paperbacks laid out on polyester mats, sharing my interest, even pausing over the same titles. He copied everything I did, eyes following mine. I felt he was trying to understand something, seeking clues. On one mat we found a book on electrical wiring, selections from Marx and Engels and a Barbara Cartland novel, a collocation that I found mysteriously satisfying.The monk smiled with me. He was uncertain and tongue-tied, but desperate for English conversation. Sadly, he only had a couple of words (‘Book, book!’ and ‘You name?’), reminding me of a poem of my brother’s (‘Door, door’). I gave him my email address, writing it out on his crumpled note-paper, even though he would never be able to contact me.
January 27th. Palace of King Mindon, actually a moated grange, nearly 3 kilometres square, situated below Mandalay Hill, alongside the main drag and its expensive new hotels. According to the Free Burma Campaign, the reconstruction was done by forced labour, the young people of the district being obliged to spend one day a month on the project. According to the Lonely Planet guide, this place was also where starving soldiers grew vegetables to make up for pitifully low incomes. You filled out a form at the entrance with your passport details, giving your date of arrival and signature, then handed over 10 dollars at the kiosk. Corrugated iron, painted the colour of dried blood, roofed the new structure. It was said to be hideous. It made me think of a setting in a Zhang Yimou movie. I saw lots of visitors, local Chinese and Burmese, as well as foreigners, who took the customary photographs without grimacing. The buildings had a prefabricated, hasty, brief look.But how is that so different from EuroDisney, Centre Park or a lot at Universal Studios? It may be that it is this sense of being brazenly manipulated, or of allowing ourselves to be led by the nose, that disturbs us most, and not the knowledge that our foreign currency is being unapologetically diverted into government pockets.
The Chinese population had exploded. I was told 60% of Mandalay’s inhabitant were ethnic Chinese, with loyalties to either the Fujin or Yuhan monasteries in the northern district of the town. Mandalay University offered few humanities, except languages (Mandarin, English, Burmese). The Chinese were not ant-government, they had many opportunities to travel outside Myanmar, especially to China. If you were Burmese, you needed a sponsor and no police record—which effectively ruled out the rest of the population.
I got cornered by a man in a trishaw. He said I shouldn’t walk in the sun. I’d get sunstroke. I said I didn’t mind, I enjoyed a good walk. He said in that case I should consider helping him out. He was a needy case, he said, lacking my advantages. His English was really good. He showed me various backstreet features, employing withering laconisms (‘That is our National Health Service’, ‘That is Apple City’). A drunk began screaming at us from a table outside a beer shop. ‘Top of the morning to you!’ the man yelled in exaggerated pitch-perfect Ascotese. ‘That is my son,’ said the trishaw driver, adding, ‘I was a teacher once. I taught English and Burmese grammar. I also translated English books into Burmese. People said things against me.’ ‘What did they say?’ ‘I don’t know. Things. I spent 3 years in prison. I lost everything, including my family. My son despises me. Now I am a trishaw driver. Now I take foreigners to visit the Chinese quarter. Pay me what you think I deserve. Thank you for your time.’
It's always possible the generals had their own sense of humour (Moustache Brothers incarcerated with thieves after impugning the legitimacy of the generals’ acquisitions; foot soldiers supping on gruel; trishaw-drivers compelled to instruct foreigners in the ways of Socratic irony), contra the standard take—which is that the generals are just a gang of humourless thugs: tilting inanimate figures who appear on Myanmar TV behind waxwork smiles, stiff handshakes and wobbly haircuts. They have glamorous children, who've been educated at expensive Western schools, and now appear in magazines or on TV, brandishing a mobile or a culinary implement. Who on earth do they pose for? How easy it is to live on the right side of the tracks. From that angle, there is nothing else to see. I saw a Burmese girl dressed like someone out of Hello! magazine board an airplane at Mandalay airport. She got into a tizzy because the plane was delayed. She used a mobile to phone someone, possibly the pilot. Daw Ohn Soe's comment rang in my head. 'Perhaps we should be thankful to the generals for keeping us simple and thin.' Liberal Westerners, keen to consolidate their own civic virtues, tend to dwell on the tyrannical practices of Myanmar's rulers, not their wit. In the film ‘About a Boy,’ a Helpline character is shown informing an auditor that you can get five years for telling a joke in some parts of the world. He mentions Par Par Lay by name. I thought the generals rather waggish, in a grotesque infernal sort of way. Too much open-mindedness can cause your brains to fall out. I forget who said that.
31st May, 1986. Pagan. I love that name. I am heading into the world of the pagan, I tell myself, the dangerous bloody heart of ancient belief. In my mind's eye I see a naked man with woad-blue face gnawing on a human femur. I may be a little bit delirious from lack of sleep or too much soda pop. The forward deck is laid out with bicycles and tin containers with soft foil lids that have to be cut open like Peak Freans biscuit tins. There are also mounds of heavy oily rope. I embarrass myself by failing to lift one. Ghostly Burmese oldsters sit under the awnings opening bundles of rice wrapped in banana leaves. A toothless crone smiles up at me, speaking in a soft rhythmic lallation suggestive of a baby after milk. The river is broad, a sort of latte colour, with flat brown dust-blurred fields beyond. There are some burnt-looking reeds on the banks, and little clusters of neem or tamarind trees, casting dark olive-green shadows, out of which snow-white egrets step. The water turns over under the bows like chocolate cake-mix under a spoon. A single star hangs in the sky, as pointy, iconic and ludicrous as a Christmas card representation.
Pagan is not a town. It is a theme park beside a loop in the Irrawaddy in the middle of nowhere. A dry plain glitters and twinkles (all that gold and whitewash) for some 50 square miles with temples and payas, some in a state of molten red ruin. Many appear to be only ten or so yards apart. If I were Gulliver in Brobdinag I would be walking on eggshells. I am not Gulliver. The heat sucks out my body fluids as I climb paya after paya (it is expected by one's guide) and trudge round innumerable creepy Buddhas bathed in musty darkness, startled by bats and beggars bandaged like bedraggled mummies. Ouboum, ouboum.The offer of a soda pop poured over fresh lime juice is disarming. I am led by the nose to a furtive, transparently felonious gent at the back of a ruin. He unwraps a cloth revealing priceless rubies and emeralds. The people of Pagan are more shrewdly hospitable than the people of Mandalay. This is a tourist resort. There are hard luck stories, slick English phrases and unbelievable offers to negotiate. The things I appreciate are the Burmese food (nuggets of beef curried in cloves, cinnamon and coconut water), the cold beer and the sinister haunted bungalows of the government rest house.
Maung Aung Myin runs a lacquer factory. He has a very good command of English. He has opinions about nearly everything. He would be at home in the corner seat at the bar of an English pub. He sets me straight on Burmese marriages (wedding party, gifts of money, no ‘making love’ beforehand), the blackmarket (a Toyota Hilux costs 25,000 kyats, about US$925, air-conditioning 10,000 kyats or $370), education (350 kyats or $13 a month), the average monthly income (300kyats or $11), and the cost of living (450 kyats or $16). He calls the government ‘stupid’ and ‘tight-fisted,’ claiming that the generals have made provisions for only a third of the required amount of rice. The only way to get rich in Burma is through smuggling and something called ‘business’—I am unable to get to the bottom of that one, but it seems to entail fleecing people in a sustained and elegant way. Maung Aung Myin has the same take on Western liberties (‘at 18, you leave home, you are very free, and can make love before marriage’) as I have previously heard—accompanied by a fine spray of spittle and a significant bulge in the undergarments—in Third World countries from Saudi Arabia to Kuala Lumpar. He makes trenchant points about the opium smokers of northern Burma (‘their wives like us because we can make love with them’), Rangoon (‘we get corrupted if we go there’), Israelis (‘patronising’), the Japanese (‘they copulate with blowfish’) and mechanical cigarette lighters (‘rubbish’).
There is a nat shrine, located improbably amongst trees, behind the sprawl of souvenir shops. A number of carvings are arranged in drunken attitudes around a tamarind.
1st June, 1986. I awake hearing slithering sounds, as of creatures seeking lodgement in the netting around my bed. I know who they are.
Bagan. 28th January, 2006. I couldn’t get a berth on the ferry, so had to fly out of Mandalay after all. The airport was a huge echoing place with numerous terminals and very little custom. Air Bagan offered a joyless 30 minute trip over rolling dun-coloured lowlands, sparkling with payas, pools and wing-mirrors. My fellow passengers were the stinking rich.
Daw Ohn Soe had booked me a room at the Aung Mingalar Hotel, an array of chalets facing the Shwezigon Paya and some importunate horse-and-cart drivers. I took one of the latter up to Old Bagan. I wanted to check out the Thiripitsaya Sakura Hotel, in one of whose bungalows, then bearing a more prosaic name (plain old Thiripitsaya), I had stayed twenty years earlier. The Sakura in the new name showed the direction the country was taking. The Thiripitsaya was now Japanese-owned (though the government kept a finger in the financial pie, by way of licensing and invisible joint partnership), and comprised rows of horrid little rooms overlooking the Ayeyarwady. Usual ghastly accoutrements (toilet seat wrapped with monogrammed white tissue, toothbrush, razor, shampoo and cologne set, satellite TV, mini-bar, lotus-flower on a table, massage services) and toothy bell-hop, switching things on and off, opening and shutting doors. This was not the stark nat-filled cubby-hole of memory, with its scowling uncommunicative personnel and dust-filled swimming-pool. I felt like a jaded voluptuary. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Marx got that wrong. It's the other way round.
I enraged the driver by making him take me round the rest of Old Bagan’s grand hotels as the gloaming set in. ‘Can’t see,’ he kept saying, gesturing violently at the stars, ‘Why?’ He was hunched up in an old-fashioned windcheater, longyi wrapped around his ankles—it was noticeably colder in Bagan than Mandalay—occasionally warming himself by thrashing the horse’s bony flanks with a monstrous rawhide whip. ‘Stop here?’ he indicated a lantern-lit restaurant. ‘Good Burmese food.’ ‘No thanks. Thande Hotel, please.’ He grunted and glanced round with peculiar distaste. I felt I was committing a solecism or intruding on some terrifying private grief. ‘I’m not looking for somewhere to eat, I’m checking the big hotels out, seeing who owns what, and what’s in them.’ ‘The generals own them. Old Bagan is government resort. They moved the people to New Bagan. They close the roads down when minister visits, so he isn’t annoyed by traffic or sightseers. All the people who live here now have government licenses. For horse and cart I must pay 10,000 kyats a year. That is the price of a hotel room for you in Tharabar Gate hotel.’ ‘Ah.’ The Thande hotel turned out to be a group of shaded tastefully lit atriums arranged around pools and gardens. The rooms were lined up at the back, next the river. The place looked like a Bond film-set, quickly thrown up for the cameras, full of beautiful people and pointless leisure devices. The front-of-house was a man with a frigid smile and the sort of bowing deference more usually found in a Dickens novel. The Thande claimed to be the only hotel in town that could accept credit cards. Tour groups used the place. It had one room available, for US$150 a night. When I rejoined the cabbie, he gave me a sour look.
29th January, 2006. Going round the payas, negotiating precocious little boys and coquettish nymphets with quick hands and ready smiles, I learned several useful phrases: ‘What’s oo name?’ ‘Where oo from?’ ‘Give me plesent,’ ‘Need money for school,’ ‘Business no good,’ and the ubiquitous, if inappropriate (it must have been doing the rounds of Chinese tour groups), ‘Lucky money!’ The kids were persistent, searching for a crack in my resolve, pulling at my sleeve, looking for an answering glint. They sold the usual junk—lacquer, parchment paintings, postcards, fake gems—moving in a leaping Jungle Book convoy through the temples and up the steps of the payas, playing hide and seek amongst the columns. ‘Lucky money!’ They were self-reflexive, enjoying my mimicry and then aping one another’s in a sort of Moebius strip of recursivity. A frat-boy who emerged from Gawdawpalin temple in a pair of Gap shorts said, ‘Say “ Babalawaba” or something. ‘It means, “I don’t want it”,’ he explained snappishly, without breaking stride, as he strode back to his horse and cart, leaving me with a sanguine impression of the American traveller’s capacity for personal and cultural growth. Such unasked for kindness might have been a metaphor for other kinds of American foreign interference. Watching him go I knew I was seeing the future. It was wearing Nikes and Diesel sunshades, for what it’s worth. I hope it was also equipped with a condom.
Ju Ju was a skinny tubercoloid 17 year old. She looked about 12. She and her friend, ‘Monkey Girl,’ sold Shan-style cotton shirts at Upali Thein, a squat shoebox-shaped ordination hall housing 13th century frescoes of the Buddha on his journeys. I rebuffed them at the entrance, which caused Ju Ju to berate me for my surliness. When I left, she ran up to me and offered me a handful of sunflower seeds. I was so taken with this act of unasked for kindness, I told her I’d be happy to have her as my personal guide. She said she’d be happy to take on the job. I asked her where she’d like to go. She said Youqson Kyaung, a wooden monastery, 30 kilometres away at Salay. I said I’d pick her up the next day and we’d go by taxi. She gave me her address, more in hope than expectation, I realised later: Ju Ju, c/o of U Bo Oo, Taung Bo Village, Old Bagan, Myanmar. She also wrote it in Burmese, in case the taxi driver couldn’t read English.
When we went to find her, she was nowhere in sight, but someone said she was cycling to Upali Thein, so we drove back to intercept her. She almost fell off her bike when the driver called to her, and she saw who he was with. We left the bike at the hall. Ju Ju didn’t know how to open the car door, or close it. She sat in the back, hugging her knees throughout the 45-minute journey, glistening, staring out of the side windows. It turned out that this was her first trip to Salay. In fact it was her first trip outside Bagan. She’d never even been in a car before. But she was in her element at Salay, acting the tour guide to the best of her abilities, keen to live up to her side of the bargain, even though she knew nothing about the monastery. We visited a temple over the road which had Indian-style corncob finials (sikara). Ju Ju skipped through a garden of Buddha images and chucked cumquats at me. We looked up the insides of a Buddha statue and saw a circlet of blue at the end.
Ju Ju’s home was a shack made of woven bamboo at the end of a bumpy track, next a squat grey pagoda. It had a veranda with a hammock. A few thin trees grew around about and there was a peanut field off to one side. Two tan dogs slept in the dust. The dwelling housed seven people, Ju Ju’s parents, herself and her brother, and her uncle, and his wife and baby. The kitchen was a patch of blackened earth, some charred wood and a few bricks. The family had a small tank of water—a portable drum on wheels—but no electricity. The bathtub was the Ayeyarwady. The shack had a busted roof. During the rainy season, the family slept in the paya, which had a cavernous underground structure like a crypt. The family’s original home had been destroyed in a fire. The Department of Archaeology, which employed Ju Ju’s father as a gardener, had provided them with the shack. It was a temporary arrangement.
Despite her reduced circumstances, Ju Ju’s mother was fat and jolly. She had very few teeth, but was not shy about exhibiting them. She laughed like a drain. She cooked us a meal of rice, chicken bones and hard-boiled eggs. We drank Chinese tea and munched peanuts. Ju Ju’s brother had a bandaged foot and a weepy eye. I was unable to tell her what was wrong. The baby—son of the uncle—was a solemn individual seemingly incapable of facial expressions. (Darwin would have been impressed.) He was the recipient of considerable tender loving care, being beamed at, caressed, generally admired and passed about amongst the family like a Toby jug. I was asked to photograph him as he stood in the dust, peering severely off into the distance. He had a Napoleonic profile, I told his mother. Only Ju Ju and her father worked. Father was never around. Ju Ju said he liked to play cards with friends in town.
Monkey Girl’s husband was a policeman.He’d gone north, and forgotten to return. Monkey Girl, who had two kids, now had no means of support, other than this wearisome round of the payas. Wherever Ju Ju took me, we would find her, badgering tourists, face taut with the effort of forcing another smile, keeping the shrillness out of her voice, concocting amused unconcern at each rebuff. She had a good friend in Ju Ju. The picture records a moment of relief. 'Now we can eat for a month.'
That evening, I ran into Orson. He gave me an account of his troubled relations with Marigold. His tone was ambiguous. ‘She’s kind of energetic.’ Just now, she’d cycled off to view the sunset from one of the pagodas, very much the touristic thing to do in Bagan. He’d followed at a distance, a can of beer in his rucksack. A can of beer was really what he wanted, not a climb up a pagoda. ‘I thought I’d have a beer, you know?’ After a while, he’d given up the chase, come back to the hotel, had his beer, and now he’d met up with me. ‘Gee whiz!’ he said, and squinted at me through milky blue eyes. I said I was going to Mount Popa tomorrow and if he and Marigold wanted to come along, they were welcome. Orson perked up at that. He said he thought Marigold would like that idea. Marigold was very interested in nats, it seemed, and Mount Popa had nat shrines all the way up its stairway to heaven. They hadn’t thought of going, as they were on a pretty tight budget and you had to hire a car to get there. ‘Cool.’ That word seemed incongruous, tripping off his bloodless straw-hat shaded lips.
Small world. How well-worn the tourist circuit was. (It had been the same 20 years ago, only then you had less chance to break clear and go your own way.) At the Aroma 2 Indian restaurant on Yar Kinn Thar Road (or Restaurant Road as Lonely Planet called it), I bumped into two Dutchmen—Kees and John—I’d met at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. Kees was a film-maker, John a designer. They didn’t conform to my ideas of the world of film and interior design. They looked like a couple of stuffy Pythonesque accountants trying to look comfortable in cargo pants and ‘Thailand Land of Smiles' tee-shirts. Kees was making a documentary about the last days of a French monastery. He’d been filming the monks for three months, their day-to-day activities, fly-on-the-wall technique. He’d been to Ethiopia to make another film about the Falasha, another vanishing tribe. ‘It’s good to escape from home,’ he said, munching fish entrails in the heat of a Thai hole-in-the-wall. ‘R and R, you call it, right?’ It seemed a practised speech. He’d looked off into the distance, frowning as if with the effort of recall. ‘Kids, wife, you know, family.’ I thought of Robert Bly and the Iron John men of Montana. I left Kees and John enjoying curries with two Western women, one drunk and garrulous, the other silent and impenetrable. The old Adam, I thought. On the way back I saw the man from Crewe sitting in solitary stork-like splendour over a bowl of Shan noodles at an otherwise empty local restaurant. It seemed best not to intrude.
Marigold was perched on a bench pretending to read an English language newspaper. She said she was excited to be going to Mount Popa. Orson had been proving a handful lately. They shared a room to lessen costs, usually in guest houses. She hadn’t expected to stay at the Aung Mingalar, as at $25 a night it was a bit beyond their means, but Orson needed rest and recuperation after his travails at Inle Lake. ‘I’m not young,’ Marigold said, tossing her blonde mane, ‘but he’s definitely old, too old, I guess, for this. You saw what happened on the train. That was just for starters. I guess I’ve got a cast-iron constitution.’ She’d been all over Asia. She liked street food, native crafts and fleapit hotels.
The two had planned to go on to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but Orson was sceptical now. ‘What are my chances?’ he said solemnly over a breakfast of bananas, making his bouts of diarrhoea sound like preliminary skirmishes before some horrific battle with a superhuman being. He’d heard Bagan was one of the seven wonders of the world, which evidently cancelled out the necessity of a journey to Angkor Wat, especially as they’d have to go overland from Thailand. Bus journeys were hellish, worse than trains. His bald head wrinkled conclusively. Orson used to be a potter, he still made ceramics part-time. Marigold had been a teacher, working in Africa for the Peace Corps. They were exploring retirement not as a leisure activity but as an occasion to discover new directions, new lives. They’d banded together to share costs, and halve the burden of travel. They’d been going for three weeks now, muddling along, from Malaysia to Thailand to Myanmar. They'd intended to wind down in Bali. Marigold's idea. Orson seemed to be trying hard not to say anything damaging about Marigold.
Marigold joined us for coffee. ‘They water it down,’ she drawled, producing a satchet of Nescafe which she tipped into her cup, to strengthen it, give it a kick. She’d picked up several satchets in the local market. Marigold was an old hand at this game, you could tell. She had the laid back attitude of one who’d listened to Jefferson Airplane in their youth and knew lots about crystals and feng shui.
Ju Ju was waiting in the taxi. She joined Marigold and me in the back, so that Orson could enjoy the comforts of the passenger seat. When Orson removed his hat, Ju Ju stared at his head. When he nodded off, she poked me in the ribs. Marigold quizzed her on her schooling. It cost 1000 kyats for books, clothes, etc. and another 200 for tuition fees. This was why the kids did the pagoda circuit, flogging trash and satsumas. (Later, Ju Ju would tell me that she hoped to go to university in Mandalay after matriculating, but it was only a hope. Too expensive. Her mother suggested I take her to England and educate her there. She didn’t laugh when she said it.) Mount Popa grew out of the flat plain like that the mashed potato structure Richard Dreyfuss scrapes together in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There were trees on its flanks. ‘What kind of tree?’ Ju Ju said. (She’d taught me how to recognise trees the day before, neem, tamarind, mango, teak, star-flower, bodhi. I still had traces of the sap from the bodhi leaf she’d stuck in my shirt-pocket.) ‘I don’t know.’ She laughed. ‘Sandalwood!’
30th. January, 2006. There were, it was claimed, 777 steps up to the temples and shrines at the top. Ju Ju ran or danced up, only stopping to feed the monkeys that begged and yanked at her skirts. Orson toiled behind, wheezing, gripping his valuables, fending off the snatching pink hands. Marigold loitered in the way-side shrines reading the story of the Queen of the Nats and her lover, writing punctual notes in her journal, granny specs on the end of her nose. (‘Reminded me of Tristan and Isolde,’ she said later.) While we waited for her to catch up, we were passed by two Western men and their youthful consorts. Ju Ju was fascinated by the latter. ‘Are they Bamar?’ ‘Thai,’ I said (I’d remembered them from the airport in Bangkok). ‘They marry?’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘They dress like you.’ ‘Yes.’ Ju Ju was eyeing up their jeans and tops. ‘Not like me?' 'No.' 'Oh.' Ju Ju was staring into an exotic barely credible possibility. Then she forgot it, and skipped off. When she saw the men, Marigold was scathing in her judgments. ‘Sometimes, such men are the only option left to such women,’ I said. ‘Uh-huh.’
At the top Ju Ju taught me some Burmese:
Ni-kan-char-da-pah-lay=what’s that? (This could be shortened to ‘da-pah-lay?’ for ease of communication.)
I was not sure about all that. It seemed a rather pointed inventory. Was this how Westerners came across? Was this how I came across? A large-snouted racialised being who constantly asked questions and chased after women? I behaved with extraordinary gallantry towards Ju Ju over the next hour, rescuing her from the attentions of a local na-poo and teaching her some cultured English expressions (room with a view, heaven on earth, king of the world). When I wandered off to explore the nat shrines, I heard her yelling, with a terrible hopelessness, ‘Pee Pee! Pee Pee!’ (this was her version of my name, you understand, not a demand for a urinal). ‘Ju Ju! Ju Ju!’ I yelled back, remembering how she'd done this once before at a dark bat-thronged paya in Old Bagan. I found her sobbing in Marigold’s arms. ‘She thought you’d gone,’ said Orson. At the bottom Marigold treated us all to street food (soup and noodles), which Ju Ju gobbled and Orson picked over gingerly. ‘I guess if I just drank the liquid…?’ It struck me as unnecessarily frugal that he and Marigold should share the same 20 kyat bowl. Even Ju Ju was moved.
3 a.m., 1st June, 1986. Travelling in Burma means that you only have one week to visit what you can before you have to leave. The generals want your surplus cash but not the neo-liberal values that come with it. We have to get back to Rangoon by the 3rd, before our visas run out. We're provided with a dilapidated minibus.
I say ‘we’ because in Pagan, a one-horse town, foreigners are penned in the same hotel. We keep meeting one another. Unlikely friendships are struck up over the croissants. Quarrels take place on the top of crumbling monuments. Love affairs flare up at the prospect of doomed marriages. There are acts of unrecorded heroism in the bushes. Someone’s five o’clock shadow becomes an object of emulation. It's much like being born. You don't choose your family.
The minibus will take us from Pagan to Thazi, where we will intercept the Midnight Express. A third of the way to Thazi, the minibus breaks down. We return to Pagan. Its replacement is a Toyota Hilux with a leaking radiator. We stand and admire the drips. A guitar-toting German hippie, equipped with the anatomical and orthodontic embellishments of Arnold Schwartzennegger, points out the leak to the blind or dim-witted amongst us. ‘Yo, man!’ he bawls into my face. ‘Fucking radiator’s got a leak!’ We pile in. There are 13 of us: 7 Germans, 3 Britons, 2 Americans, and the Norwegian ambassador to Japan’s personal secretary. Brigit Brantenenberg, a woman of formidably compact thighs and loose cotton wool hair that catches in one’s eyes whenever an animal appears in the headlights or the vehicle speeds up, elects to sit as close to me as possible. We break down seven times. On each occasion, Arnold steps out, reaches for his guitar, puts his foot up on the trailer step and regales us with the following lyric: ‘We’re thirteen lost souls, looking for a road out-of-this-place…yeah.’ He seems undisturbed by the repetitive nature of this piece (it only has the one line) or the set jaws and dying eyes of his audience. He has the indifference or egotism of one accustomed to sitting around campfires playing to people in comas. We do not feel uplifted particularly. Linda, a lank blonde from Scarborough, is sick into a bush. ‘Shut the fuck up, will you!’ eventually shrieks Eugene, a bearded libertarian from America’s deep south, actually vibrating in his transport. The ‘you’ comes out as a sort of a high-pitched diphthong, like the sound a bullet-train makes on its way through a station. I have never seen eyeballs so distended.
When we reach Thazi, several hours after the Midnight Express has thundered through, we find we have two options: the 3.00 p.m. Noon Express, offering seating in the form of benches in Third class, or the 9.30 a.m. Mail Train, standing room only in Second and Third classes. We confer. Eugene opines that the first option is too much of a risk. Breakdowns on the line can last six or seven hours. The Mail Train will arrive soon anyway. ‘Stay loose, man,’ Arnold informs Linda, and pumps a bicep for her to feel. No one likes Thazi station, which has the appearance and facilities of a ghost town. A phantom in the waiting room is selling Chinese fried rice. While we wait for the train, some of us drink People’s Soft Drink sodas and eat brilliant yellow rice. Others, squeamish about street food, munch bananas. Arnold changes his shorts in a shaft of sunlight, while Linda applies sunscreen to his buttocks. Brigit tells me about conditions in Somalia which compare favourably with those in Burma. Time drifts by, the day heats up. Danny from Munich tells us all about the Tiger Lily Bar in Patpong, Bangkok. The phrase ‘fucking wild’ when used by a German speaker of English is not euphonious.
How did we all end up here? I wonder. Are we travellers in search of authenticity and identity? Are we unwitting stooges of post-imperial capital? What stories do we have to tell? Eugene mentions Theravada Buddhism. Stooping myopic Peter, from Dusseldorf, is eloquent on the subject of pwes. Brigit came here because she wanted to see what lay behind U Ne Win’s bleak economy. She says she is very disappointed with Tourism Burma. I came because I wanted to go somewhere dangerous and little known, risking fungicidal infections and kukri wounds, the romance of temples and temple-dancers, which I can tell my startled family about later. I don’t say this to anyone of course. I think I mumbled something about antiquarian interests.
I decide to sample some local tea, which seethes promisingly in a chipped enamel bowl, and appears to have solid bits at the bottom. This should make me ill—and that illness, like Richard Burton’s malarial fevers or a Boer War veteran’s amputation, will be taken as a badge of courage, of an encounter with brigandage or asceticism in obscure eastern parts, of learning and experience undergone at the hands of a lama or assassin, by those who greet me when I return to my homeland. My frequent visits to the bathroom will testify to my self-sacrifice and stoicism. I already see their awed and shiny faces.
Diarrhoea, or dysentery as the savvy traveller calls it (it is a graver, more compelling condition), is the contemporary tourist’s version of the 1920s big game hunter’s mangled and chewed buttocks. One must look wan and frail when one returns from the remote regions of the earth. A hush must fall on the receptions one attends. One should send one’s samples to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, London.
The Mail Train has very little standing room left. What there is will cost us an extra 75 kyats each. Brigit is not impressed. She recites the text of a letter she has been mentally composing to Tourism Burma. To sleep or rest we must do so standing or lying huddled on the floor. Unwashed bodies, the fumes and smuts from the engine (the windows are all open), odours of stale piss and fresh excrement. The worst thing is the heat caused by the squash of bodies. I am soaked in sweat. In desperation (with just a hint of Gem and Magnet adventure-heroism), I swallow a pint of sugar-cane water, which has been passed in through a window by a vitiligo-whitened hand. It takes about 26 hours to get to Rangoon. I am visited sometimes—do I dream or are these apparitions?—by multi-coloured nats that seem to float above the train, monstrous, bloated, pink and orange like hot-air balloons. Sometimes I wake or slip back into consciousness to find Brigit’s hand tugging at me. ‘You see,’ she hisses, ‘they can sleep anywhere, in any position.’ She is pointing at the people who lie along the corridor, head to toe, eructating softly (‘it’s worse in Africa’). An old man, wrapped toga-style in a yellow robe, steps across to tip urine from a tiffin bowl on to the track, some of the blowback spraying across an angelic profile. The old man doesn’t notice. Brigit does.
I come round again at a stop. Hordes of shaven-headed infants, their craniums bulbous and scarred, thrust their evil faces into the carriage, screaming, ‘What’s oo nam? Where goo from?’ As the train rocks over the links, I register youths swarming on the carriage-couplings outside, others scrambling onto the roof. Toddy palms throw up their fronds against the night, emblems of vegetable shock. When next I waken, I see an old lady, grinning in her sleep, hanging on to the door outside… Burma passes in an electrical storm, a whisk of sharp stinging rain, a vile-smelling station, as if the dead have been left out to decay, where three beautiful women with jars on their heads chant ‘wa-ma-lay-di-wah’ as we chug through and one of them turns to smile back at me.
February 1st, 2006. Suddenly tired, I flew back to Rangoon, the fat silver S of the Ayerawaddy falling away beneath me. No one was sick. People used the lavatories, not the floor. The air smelt of Glade Air Freshener (pine).
I couldn’t get a room in the joint I was aiming for (the Haven Inn), and had to settle on a dump called the Yuzana Garden Hotel, chiefly notable for its colonial façade and teams of doormen who wouldn’t let me pass through the main door without rushing to open it, all four of them all at once. The hotel also boasted Yangon’s premier night club, the Pioneer, which Lonely Planet promised was the resort of US naval personnel and one or two under-nourished (and probably under-age) Burmese prostitutes.
Singapore’s Kitchen. The Chinese men at the next table summoned the waiters by making loud kissing sounds, rather like the way people in England call their cats into dinner.
February 2nd, 2006. Botataung Paya. After the British annexed Upper Burma, in 1885, the commander of the British army, General Prendergast 'took away' (this nice phrase is in the Myanmar Port Authority's leaflet for the paya) 300 Buddha images, including the Royal Palace bronze (Nan Oo) cast by King Mindon in Mandalay. This was returned in 1951 and stored in the Botataung Paya. It is an object of veneration, along with three of the Buddha's hairs and two of his body parts which are also enshrined in this pagoda. The paya is hollow, its interior walls lined with fractured mirror glass and glass cases containing coins and statuary. People shika at the place where Nan Oo is kept, which is a sort of niche cut into a corner of the maze. I didn't know this when I first visited the paya, but the people at the entrance, this time round, made sure I got the leaflet I've quoted from. This was the first time I had been treated with anything approaching hostility.
Strand Hotel. The barman mixed me a Strand cocktail. It was his invention, evidently much admired by epicureans from Basingstoke. He told me he’d worked at the hotel for twelve years. He’d seen the old Strand in its heyday. I asked him about the new prices. What sort of people could afford them? He smiled, and said nothing.
Golden Valley. I wanted to find an attractive nat effigy. This meant hiring a taxi and visiting the antiques shops in the region behind the Shwedagon, in the neighbourhood of the posh Golden Valley district. The places where old colonial villas used to stand had been replaced by Gulf-style condos and government buildings. On Thu Dhammar Road the retailers seemed to be scowling Sikhs and Dravidians down on their luck. 'Only Art,' which was hidden away amidst sprawling concrete villas and lush greenery, was owned by foreigners. The staff had the hushed attentive air of undertakers. They showed me items that had not been sawn off teak monasteries in Kachin province. There were stone figures that had not been looted from the payas of Bagan. A backroom speciality was teak-ware. The workshops were on-site. I was shown men labouring over a life-size elephant sculpture. Other foreigners, it seemed, felt no compunction in supplying the owners (and the government who had to have their rake-off) with large sums of money, despite the Bush and Blair doctrines of boycott and bluster. Two American interior designers had just spent $35,000 (how meagre that amount seems at this distance!) on 20 monastery scroll chests, which had not been plundered from the retreats of Sagaing and Bago. They are now decorating lobbies in the Hamptons.
Mandalay Restaurant, Pansea Orient-Express Hotel, Governor’s Residence. I was announced by a gong. I sat next the carp pool, under sealing-wax palms, lit by lanterns. A pwe simmered romantically in the background. The diners came in, mostly in twos. They were all Westerners. They had been dressed by Valentino and Armani. Nearby, a raddled looking couple expired over a bottle of red wine. They made me think of Salvatore Dali and his wife, or George Melly and one of his. She was dressed like a teenager, and wore her freshly-dyed black hair thrown over one bony shoulder. She had a heavy smoker’s carrying rasp. He was wearing a Zorro hat and a Colombine suit. He seemed to have something wrong with one side of his face. At a table on the other side of the pool, two French boys in identical linen trousers stared tenderly across at one another over their interlinked fingers. A meal here cost an arm and a leg. I watched a fat New Yorker, decked out in jewellery and a gold lamé wrap, hack her way through a pile of crustaceans.
February 3rd, 2006. At the Dusit Inya Lake Resort, we came across army security checks. They were looking for explosives. I was told that a year ago there had been four sequenced blasts in Yangon, all outside major foreign or government-owned establishments, such as this one. I asked, with plodding irony, if they had been placed there by terrorists. ‘No, sir,’ said my driver, without any irony whatsoever.
Myanmar’s oppressed are the same as the wretched of the earth everywhere. They smile a lot, crack jokes, lounge about, work hard in the factories, teak forests and peanut fields, keep a rattan ball in the air using only their feet, get married, gamble and generally have fun while they wait. They don’t sit on street corners looking conveniently immiserated. If they don’t ask for handouts, that doesn’t mean they aren’t waiting for something more—a lot more—than we allow them.