24.02.2013 - 04.03.2013
A little piece of Surrey nestles high in the hills above Mandalay. The British in Burma have always flocked to the town of Pyin Oo Lwin for the cooler climate and strawberry jam, including amongst them my grandparents in the 1930s. I was on a mission to find the house they lived in, armed with nothing but a photo taken at the time to help me find it.
We took a pickup there, driven at the usual breakneck speed by a cackling psychopath, and arrived in a couple of hours, which seemed preferable to the all-day train journey leaving at 4am, the allure of rail travel having waned somewhat since arriving in Burma. Once a little way up in the hills, the blanket of smog covering Mandalay was so thick that the city was invisible.
To arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin feels like passing through a time warp. It has not changed a great deal since the British left: the town centre has more cars and trucks passing through now, but pony carriages are still the main local public transport, and the British-built clock tower still forms the focal point of the main street. The local shops offer little apart from jumpers, woollen blankets, jam, booze and mothballs - the British legacy, there. The leafy streets where the Brits lived are testament to the early twentieth century English mock tudor craze. All the houses have names like Fairview, Meadowbanks, Primrose Lodge, with privet hedges and rose bushes in the front garden. Apart from the heat and the palm trees and the dirt roads, you could imagine yourself in Dorking or Ashtead quite easily.
However time doesn't stand still, even in Pyin Oo Lwin, and changes are starting to take place. The polo club is now a restaurant, and the chummery is a hotel (chummery, the delightful Wodehouse-esque raj term for the social venue for young batchelor chaps). More frustratingly, a lot of the old houses have recently been bought up by wealthy Chinese (we are not too far from China here) and either altered beyond recognition, or demolished and bigger swankier new houses built in their place. And it seems that was the fate of my grandparents' house. After two days of cycling round examining every single house, I had to conclude, regretfully, that it no longer existed.
Apart from fruitlessly searching for nonexistent houses and enjoying the cognitive dissonance of Burmese Surrey, there's not a huge amount to do in Pwin Oo Lwin. Fortunately there was a bar next to the hotel. Unfortunately it specialised in Spirulina beer, which I understood to be a type of algal scum scraped from the surface of stagnant ponds. But beer is beer, so in we went. Spirulina is meant to have anti-aging properties, and after an old man who came to chat to us told me he guessed my age to be 25, it was clearly working (I'm nearly double that). We naturally ordered another jug. The town also has a beautiful botanical gardens, with a lake, ornamental beds, lawns and woodlands, giving Burmese people somewhere pretty to throw their litter for a change. It dawned on us that we hadn't seen flowers for ages - they looked inexpressibly lovely. Things you don't realise you'll miss.
From Pyin Oo Lwin we took the train a few stops down the line to Hsipaw (pronounced See-por). A 'few stops' is still an all-day journey, the train was still a filthy decrepit wreck, and buying tickets was a painful and surreal process consuming hours of our lives that we will never get back. We arrived at the ticket office the day before we were due to travel, a shabby room with two ancient and collapsing wooden desks piled with dusty ledgers, grubby books of tickets, bits of carbon paper, curling post-it notes and dead flies. The stained walls were covered in faded handwritten lists of numbers, affixed with crispy sellotape. At one desk sat the officious ninny who job was to write out tickets, at the other a gormless old man whose role was unguessable. Our startling request for tickets threw them into total confusion. There is one train a day to Hsipaw. There are only two trains a day through this station. Terror and blind panic ensued however. The ticket officer shrieked at us to come back tomorrow, then demanded to see our passports, then shrieked at the gurning old man, then threw things around and shrieked some more. A blizzard of dust, carbon paper and dead flies whirled around us as we backed out of the room, while he continued shrieking 'Which? Which? Where? What time? You come tomorrow!'
We did come back tomorrow and further chaotic hours were spent in pursuit of these precious tickets, but eventually we were on board and headed towards the Goteik Viaduct, which I was quite excited about seeing. It's the world's second highest rail viaduct, and it is very very high. What you see in the distance is an ethereal structure that appears to made from paper straws and unlikely to survive a stiff breeze, let alone hundreds of tons of cast iron Myanmar Railways rolling stock trundling back and forth every few hours. The train crosses very slowly indeed so you have plenty of time to imagine it slowly toppling off the tracks and plunging down the sheer drop below, or the structure gradually buckling under the weight of one too many sacks of potatoes (compulsory for Ordinary Class passengers to carry, it seems). Until recently it was forbidden to photograph the viaduct as its construction was classed a state secret by Burma's crazy generals, although it was built by British and American engineers. But now we can all snap away, fortunately.
Burma's railways redeemed themselves on this journey. We weren't offered fried sparrow, my internal organs were in more or less the same place when I got off the train as they had been when I boarded and a friendly young teacher chatted and sang Michael Jackson songs to us. In all our travels, I have never been anywhere with such a love of singing, loudly, coupled with what seems to be a national tone-deafness. Our new friend was no exception, but he persisted with his uniquely tuneless rendition of 'We are the world' undeterred, and repeatedly. The guard bashed away at the coupling between our carriage and the next with a large club hammer every few minutes, presumably to keep the train together. A group of ticket inspectors slept in their vests. Another Burmese rail journey crawled by.
Hsipaw turned out to be the nicest place we visited in Burma. Even higher up than Pyin Oo Lwin, the cold mountain air in the morning was delicious - cold air, something else I didn't think I'd miss. The surrounding countryside is the Cotswolds of Burma, full of pretty villages, thatched cottages, rolling green hills and wild flowers. Local traders have adopted a helpful naming system to enable foriegn visitors find what they need around town. The bookseller calls himself Mr Book, there is a restaurant called Mr Food, a milkshake seller called Mr Shake, and so on. There is also a Mrs Popcorn. As this is Burma, she doesn't sell popcorn at all, but does run a lovely cafe in her front garden, where she serves up wonderful fruit salads, all home grown produce, and delicious home-made drinks, in between swishing at her nine cats with a long cane. All of which is quite charming, and she is a sweet old lady, and then you find out that her pension as a former teacher is about 5 GBP a week. Burma might be a poor country but it is certainly not cheap, so she will be serving tea and fruit to foriegners in her garden for the rest of her days to make ends meet.
And next to Mrs Popcorn's there just happens to be an old crumbling stupa with a tree growing up through it.
I promised earlier that my slagging of the French and the USA that pervaded the previous posts on this blog would be balanced by some harsh words about Britain when I came to write about Burma. So here we are. The colonisation of Burma is one of the most shameful episodes in British history. Britain absolutely raped Burma. A bogus invasion was launched in the 1880s under the pretext of liberating the country from a tyrant, but was just a cover to get our hands on Burma's immense natural resources. The welfare of the Burmese people was of no interest - oil (sounding familiar?), gems, minerals and teak certainly were. British troops took Mandalay with machine guns - no match for the king's soldiers armed with swords and muskets. The king was exiled, driven through the streets in an ox cart as a final humiliation, and the royal palace turned into an officers' club house, once all the treasure had been looted and was on its way back to England. The library of ancient manuscripts was torched. When the god-king was deposed, the Buddhist religion collapsed, and with it education. Rebellions were numerous and were put down with bloody force - public floggings and mass public hangings were common. Quickly deciding the Burmese were ungovernable, Burma was made a province of India and millions of Indians were brought in to adminster the country. Burma no longer existed as a nation, and the Burmese became third-class citizens in their own land.
Fast forward through decades of repression, exploitation, poverty, illiteracy and enforced non-development to the Second World War, when the British bomb Mandalay to repel the invading Japanese, leaving the entire city in ruins and hundreds of thousands of Burmese dead. The independence movement led by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, succeeds in winning freedom from British rule after the end of the war, when we have little further use for this shattered country. As a final toxic legacy, the independence agreement promises a vote on autonomy for the ethnic groups of Upper Burma, who make up a considerable proportion of the population. Naturally they all vote for self-goverment and Burma collapses into the world's longest running civil war, lasting from the 1960s until, well, now. Aung San is assassinated, with British involvement, a brutally repressive military dictatorship takes over and things go from bad to worse for the long-suffering Burmese. Oh, and we then piously impose sanctions in response to the regime's 'human rights abuses' and leave Burma to rot.
Burma is an absolute mess. Everything is broken. That's how Britain made it, and left it. There is nothing positive that can be said about the British occupation of Burma at all. It has been suggested, in reponse to a previous anti-colonial rant here, that there is no reason why this generation should feel guilty about abuses perpetrated by our forebears - after all we didn't plunder Burma, they did. I disagree. Britain enriched itself at Burma's and the rest of the empire's expense. The affluence and quality of life we enjoy as a nation now, and take for granted, is built on that plunder. We reap the benefits still. That's why I think this matters.