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Burma Road
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Great Journeys

The Burma Road

Every capital in the Third World seems to have one hotel which is pointed out proudly as a relic of former grandeur. I have never been to Singapore or Cairo, but the names of Raffles and Shepheards Hotels are well known to me. In Rangoon, capital of Burma, the equivalent is the Strand Hotel and a lovable old place it is too, but I hope for their sake that Raffles and Shepheards are in better nick than the Strand.

My bath was palatial, but there was only two hours of hot water a day. The bedroom was so long that the three lights in the ceiling cast pools of yellow light which did not even join up; walking down the room at night was a bit like going along a badly lit main road. When I asked a girl at reception if I could phone up to one of the second-floor rooms, she confessed: ‘It is much quicker if you walk up and knock on your friend’s door.’

The effect was that of a stately home whose family have fallen on bad times. There just wasn’t enough money. The bar was spacious but the drinks you wanted were not always available. And yet the whole threadbare service was maintained with great charm and a complete lack of guilt. The Burmese hate saying ‘No’. They hate it so much that they do not have a word for ‘No’, which means that when you ask a barman for a beer he does not say: ’I have no beer’; he says: ‘The beer is not here yet’ or, ‘What I would suggest instead of beer is…’ and you take it without feeling deprived or disappointed.

And there are unexpected bonuses. Every evening at 6 o’clock a man came to play the piano in the large hall, and what he played was Burmese music. Now, the piano is not a Burmese instrument and it is totally unsuited to Burmese music, which has no harmony to speak of – only melody and rhythm. If you play two notes at the same time on the piano, you have harmony. This pianist did not play two notes at the same time; he played long streams of notes very fast to give a shimmering impressionistic effect, like Debussy at speed or perhaps on speed.

I saw him as a kind of symbol of Burma. In any other country I know, that man would have been playing more or less debased cocktail music, but the Burmese don’t make many concessions to the West. They are among the last people to resist trousers – it is still very rare to find a Burmese male wearing anything but the loose sarong called the longyi – and a man wearing the longyi and playing Burmese music in the foyer of the Strand Hotel seemed to me to represent a country which was not too bothered about jeans and rock ‘n’ roll.

A hundred years ago Burma was in the British Empire, but it was an invisible part of it, being attached to India for administrative purposes. Fifty years ago our fighting men in Burma were known as the Forgotten Army. Forty years ago Burma went independent and promptly drew up its bamboo drawbridge against the world. Now you’re dealing with a country which is naturally invisible and likes being that way.

* * *

Don’t stay longer than you have to in Rangoon, they told me. Get your black market money and off you go. So you seek out the black market to get your 36 kyats to the US dollar instead of the official 6 (actually, the black market seeks you out as you leave the Strand Hotel and says: ’Hey mister – got any dollars?’) and then you go to the station to start the journey northwards.

The train for Prome leaves two hours late. Nobody seems surprised. We travel through hour after hour of countryside which manages to be lush and arid at the same time – the train raises dust going through the villages bright with flowers and loud with dogs, at that respectable speed which allows you to put your head out of the window without being deafened, blown away or hit by a bridge. Water buffalo lumber about, young rice grows piercingly green, and on almost every rise there is the curve of a stupa, that licked vanilla shape peculiar to Buddhism. For an hour it is enchanting, but after three hours I retreat to my seat, with my book because this train has something I’ve never seen in my life before: a travelling librarian. He hands out books for a small fee and collects them before the end of the journey. They are all in Burmese except for a stray copy of Wuthering Heights.

‘Do you have any other English books?’ I ask.


‘What are they?’

Wuthering Heights.’

‘They are all Wuthering Heights

‘Yes. It is very popular.’

That is not quite the whole story, I learn later. In fact Wuthering Heights is the prescribed book for English students that year, and the Burmese book industry has risen to the occasion by producing several different editions, all annotated and all with the text considerably pruned. The cover artists do not seem to be familiar with the look of Victorian Yorkshire, as they all feature thatched cottages, smiling landscapes and girls in jeans and blonde hair with ponies. New readers may be in for a shock. The copy I buy also had a few poems by Alexander Pope, including the one starting: ‘Happy the man, who free from care…’ and the editor explains that Pope is lauding the simple English farmer content with his small herd of water buffaloes.

Apart from their Bronte production, the Burmese book trade seems to have no interest in foreign books. I looked vainly for George Orwell’s Burmese Days, his first novel based on his three years in the Burma police. I gave up when a Burmese writer quietly took me aside and explained that, as Orwell had made it quite plain in the book that he neither liked the British nor the Burmese, they had preferred to return the compliment. The book was not actually banned, more forgotten.

Apart from Orwell’s unread first novel, Burma had nothing except Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’, and that, as befits a poem written after a couple of days in Rangoon, is riddled with mistakes,

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

China is hundreds of miles away, the dawn doesn’t come up over the bay, there are no flying fishes… But one thing he got right. The road to Mandalay is the River Irrawaddy. I was going to Prome to get on to the Irrawaddy.

Long ago, Prome was the capital of Burma. Almost every Burmese town has once been the capital, because when a new king took over he was usually so fearful of threats to his person that he had his nearest relatives murdered and moved the capital. But all the ex-capitals have one thing in common; they are all a stone’s throw from the Irrawaddy, because although you could afford to lose all your family, and move all your possessions, you couldn’t afford to be far from the river. It was the backbone of the country for hundreds of years, a broad, flat highway which reached up hundreds of miles into the north, the road to Mandalay and way beyond.

The British carried on this tradition when they arrived. Not only did they move the capital from Mandalay to Rangoon (I don’t know how many relations the British commander slaughtered) but they built up the river flotilla to over six hundred vessels – a bigger navy than Britain has today. It all vanished on the day the Japanese invaded Burma and the order was given for the flotilla to be scuttled. The boat I was hoping to catch, the ferry which goes from town to town up-river, had been built in Japan since the war.

‘The boat leaves tomorrow,’ said the man in the ticket office. ‘At least, it comes tomorrow. Perhaps it leaves tomorrow.’

‘At what time?’

He shrugged and burst into Burmese.

‘He is saying that he does not know when it comes, so he does not know when it leaves,’ translated the person behind me. ‘It depends on the weather, the currents, the supply of fuel…’

My fellow passenger, as he turned out to be, was called U Thein San and was on his way to Mandalay. Something to do with business, but you don’t ask too many questions about people’s business in Burma as it quite often turns out to be black market. The only people you can be really sure about are the soldiers with their rifles and the monks without anything.

'Perhaps you would like to have a stroll around Prome looking at things?' Said U Thein San. ‘I think you should buy some sandals. Burmese sandals are very good. They are better than those English shoes.’

He was quite right. Burmese sandals, which are simply a sole and two leather thongs covered in velvet, are fine once you get used to them after the initial two days of agony. Now even after a six-month gap, I can put Burmese sandals on again and not feel a twinge.

‘You must give your sandals a bite before you put them on the for the first time,’ he told me. ‘We consider it good luck.’

I bit them. They didn’t taste too bad. ’Why are they called Tractor?’ I said, looking at the thickish rubber base.

‘Oh, probably they are made from old tractor tyres. Everything in Burma in a market like this is made from something else. Look at that hardware stall over there…’

It was true. The watering cans, the money boxes, the candle-holders, the vegetable graters, the oil cans - they were all made from something else, usually beer cans, petrol cans or Coke tins. I still have the vegetable grater I bought there, which was converted from a tin of German insect-killer; that is probably why I bought it.

‘Burma cannot afford to import things,’ said U Thein San, ‘and we have not got the raw materials to hand, so we have to recycle things. Nobody throws bottles away; they resell them on the black market. Someone will cut the top off and make them into very good glasses.’

As we walked down the friendly grid pattern streets of Prome, I realised that things like turning bottles into glasses do not happen in factories tucked away in industrial estates; they happen in front of your eyes, in people’s homes. In one house people were outside, finishing off sandals (you could dimly see the chief cutter indoors, dealing out the sandal shapes with his mighty scissors). In another house people were boiling sweets, cutting them up and wrapping them, all in the same room. People were making umbrellas, rolling cigars, inventing toys, all in their own homes. If you think of current efforts to get people to work at home, then it was way ahead of its time.

‘Oh, it is Friday,’ said U Thein Win. ‘I must go to the pagoda.’

Not, as you might think, because it is a special service day. Buddhists do not have services; everyone makes his own worship. But on the weekday on which they were born many Buddhists make a special point of going to a temple for a prayer and an offering. U Thein San bought some flowers outside (there they sell flowers outside temples, with us outside hospitals) and left them on one of eight such shrines.

‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘There are eight weekday shrines, but there are only seven weekdays.’

He smiled a little sheepishly.

‘Well, for the symmetry of the temple there have to be eight shrines, but as there are only seven days, we name the eight shrine after a day that does not really exist – from Wednesday midnight until Thursday dawn. You will quite often find Buddhism stretching things a little. For instance, Buddha forbids us to kill any living creature. Yet we eat meat quite often. How is this reconciled?’

I still don’t know.

The river at Prome is fat, sluggish and wide, a bit muscle-bound like many famous rivers. But as this is the dry season, it is not quite so wide or deep as usual, and there is a sandy foreshore which is not usually there. Up and down the foreshore charge buffalo carts, going up with sacks of concrete and coming back empty. I don’t know where the concrete is going to, but it seems odd to find something so modern as concrete being transported by wooden carts pulled by buffaloes, lashed on by men roughly dressed like peasants in my old Bible illustrations, in that all-purpose oriental wrap-around costume. They charge up that bank without rolling back again. The dust and sand get kicked up in a swirling cloud, and the sun makes patterns though the trees and the murky air. A raft turns from being a blob on the river horizon into a 50-foot-square construction of bamboo carrying dozens of huge pottery jars, big enough to hide Ali-Baba in. Ten minutes later comes one twice as big, bearing nothing except two or three huts, half a dozen people and a camp fire smoking dangerously. It is like a village sailing past. But for the life of me I can spot no cargo.

‘U Thein San, what are they carrying?’

‘They are carrying bamboo. The raft is the cargo. When they get to their destination, they will dismantle the raft, sell it, and go back home.

‘How will they get home?’

‘Oh, hitch-hike, I expect. Perhaps go on our boat, if they make a good profit.’

Our boat gets in at 6 o’clock the next morning. It’s a grey slatey dawn, barely light enough to see our feet as we walk the plank up to the ship. Purchase of a ticket entitles you to a space on the deck about 6 feet by 2; they are actually painted on the deck, these spaces, but we can’t see because they are covered in bodies. If they get up there is nowhere to go but below, to the cargo, or aft, to a kind of tea bar with four stools, so they might as well stay where they are, and sleep.

U Thein San and I have gone up-market. We’ve paid to enter the only cabin, a single room at the prow with five dead hard bunks, a table and chair, and some privacy. In our case it also contains two pongyis or monks, one quite old and one a mere boy, but both instantly recognisable because of their orange robes and their shaven heads. The word ‘monk’ gives a wrong impression, because we think of monkhood as a kind of very special, terribly badly paid profession which requires a now-or-never decision. It’s only one short of becoming a hermit or lifer in a top-security gaol. But in Buddhist countries everyone becomes a pongyis for a while. Religion is so much part of life that it is quite natural to go off to a monastery and meditate or learn full-time, and then come back to life again.

‘I do not like this monk,' U Thein San mutters to me after conversing with the older man.

‘Why not?’

‘I think he is a spy.’

‘You what…

‘Look at his chest. It is a military chest. Why would a poor monk be travelling with army property? He must be a spy.’

Quite why a spy would be disguised as a monk travelling up the Irrawaddy in the late 1980s is not quite clear, but that’s not the point. The Burmese government has for twenty years imposed a heavy censorship on the news and recruited informers everywhere. As always happens in a society starved of real information, rumours flourish, everyone is seen as a spy and the BBC World Service becomes very popular as the only source of unpolluted news.

The sheer joy of moving up a big river outweighs everything else. Through those windows – wooden casements windows, rather nineteenth century – you can always see something new on the banks – pagodas perched on unlikely outcrops, river birds making a living, farmers cultivating the new foreshore in the six months they have before the river rises again, villages, women washing… And right below you, the top of a pole rising and falling as a sailor takes the depth measurement every ten seconds…five…five and a half…five…four and a bit… five…

‘If it goes down to three and a half, we’re aground,’ says U Thein San.

* * *

The days, seven of them, came and went. There was not much sailing at night, unless we were hurrying for a destination – then the captain would switch on a huge searchlight, the beam of which he swivelled from one bank to the other while it attracted huge crowds of insects. In the morning, most of them lay in a sad, grey pyramid below the light, burnt to death. If it is possible to get an idea of timelessness in seven days, then a boat on the Irrawaddy is the ideal place to get it. Not only does the clock seem suspended, not only is there nothing to do, not only are you surrounded by people staring into space, but you are cut of from the riverbank world, the real world, the world of clocks, calendars and timetables.

You also pass the most timeless place I have ever seen, Pagan. I have been lucky enough to see a few of the world’s great temple sites – Petra, Machu Pichu, Stonehenge, St Peter’s – but this is the one. What makes it unique is that this plain was once the site of a great city studded with temples, 5 miles across. The capital, for once, did not move for over two hundred years and in that time they built huge temples out of glittering white stone and deep glowing brown brick, rising out of what must have been the Rome of the East. But when in our Middle Ages, there was an invasion by Kubla Khan, the Burmese king simply turned tail and fled. The city was abandoned, and slowly all the houses, shops and palaces – made of wood - disappeared.

But all the stone and brick temples survived, and most of them still stand, like precious stones on a necklace from which the string has rotted. When people talk about Buddhists buildings in Burma they call them pagodas, but the buildings at Pagan are called temples, and they are indeed quite different. The pagoda is always topped by a stupa, that gently curving, friendly mushroom shape which I think represents a major achievement: it is the only religious architectural silhouette which is not aggressive, phallic or forbidding. But none of the temples at Pagan come into that dome-on-top bracket; they are all square, and you can climb to the top either via stairs inside or simply up the stepped exteriors, as if you were going to the top of some ancient Buddhist football terrace.

As the boat goes up-river again from Pagan the pagoda count seems to increase, and it rises to a great frenzy a mile or two before Mandalay; the establishment of one of the great holy places there has covered the hills on the left-hand bank with domes like a prize-winning display of meringues. The first sight of Mandalay itself is quite different: a waterfront full of dilapidated jetties and decrepit -looking boats, dusty and down-at-heel. For steam fans there was one sight to gladden the eye: the last remaining steam-driven paddle boat on the river, now converted to a dredger. But once past the shabby waterfront, Mandalay emerges as a city of green and leafy charm, a huge garden suburb awash with bicycles…

The Burma Road

BBC Great Journeys 1989


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