How to begin to explore Orwell’s Burma, newly experiencing birth-pangs of freedom.
By Harriet O’Brien
At the foot of the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay a smiling woman brandished a copy of Burmese Days. Registering my interest, she began a cheerful banter of bargaining. The book looked fresh off the press, one of a pile of Burmese Days that she had by her side, ready to sell to tourists. In a country that has for years been hidebound by censorship, it seemed remarkable that there were newly printed books at all, let alone this poignant work.
The scene was vividly, tangibly expressive of the evolving freedoms of this nation emerging from 50 years of military oppression. After independence in 1948, Burma had an interlude of democracy – and then the army took over in 1962. Strange to reflect, that was just 35 years after Orwell left the country.
It was from 1922-27 that Eric Blair served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma. Aged 24 he sailed back to England on extended sick leave and never returned. Four years later Burmese Days was published under his pseudonym. Evidently Orwell now represents something of a hot ticket of opportunity in Burma. And it was this new Burma that I had come to see.
Having spent part of my childhood there, I have a 30-year acquaintance with the country and on intermittent visits throughout this period I have known it as a hauntingly timeless land of golden pagodas resounding with temple bells, of charming people almost always beautifully turned out in skirt-like lungyis, of bullock cart transport and aged river ferries.
It has almost invariably looked serene. Yet life has been laced with a palpable sense of fear. People disappeared. Several friends died in custody. Of course the country is not even called Burma any longer: after the particularly bloody uprising of 1988 it was renamed Myanmar – an act of window-dressing for a spurious new beginning. In defiance of the brutal regime many Western governments ignored the change and continue to call the nation Burma. Now, however, even the most hardened observers of Burmese politics agree that the military-backed government of Thein Sein, which came to power in March 2011, appears to be committed to genuine, liberalising reform.
I returned a couple of months ago to find Burma as I had never seen it before, happy and rejoicing. People were travelling around the country, marvelling at a freedom they had not been able to enjoy for decades. They were gathering in small chatty groups at teashops, a much loved and frequently banned tradition. They were visiting little internet cafes, albeit that severs work sporadically and many sites are blocked (bizarrely, I could get no access to my Hotmail account although for the most part Facebook functioned beautifully). And they were openly talking to foreigners, which was an indiscretion that might well have got them arrested in times (recently) gone by. ‘Things could yet backslide’, I was told by one such individual in Mandalay, proud to practise his commendably good English. ‘Even so’, he added, ‘there is so much momentum that some form of democracy seems an achievable goal. Really.’
I was visiting principally to report on tourism, expected to leap from about 300,000 visitors in 2011 to something approaching 1m this year. So I made a circuit of what have become the classic sights, buying a round ticket on the newly launched Yangon Airways, one of seven privately owned domestic airlines whose stalwart little propeller planes are mostly filled by tourists – the Burmese generally travel by cheaper, more laborious means.
In Bagan, the wondrous capital of Burma’s medieval kings, I re-explored a mind-blowing archaeological zone of pagodas and temples built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Local residents were forcibly relocated from the immediate area in the 1990s and now live in a satellite town nearby. Many have started returning during the daytime to do brisk business selling cleverly devised modern paintings of the ancient temple murals. In Mandalay, quite apart from revisiting the historic pagodas there, I was struck by the boomtime atmosphere, by the rash of glinting new buildings – and by the Chinese presence (about half the population now comes from China, I was told). I flew on to Heho, the little feeder airport for Inle Lake, the third and probably most spectacular of Burma’s chief tourist destinations. I had last visited in the late 1980s, touring the gleaming pagodas and carved teak monasteries of this watery world by longboat. There were few if any shops then. Now the longboats are motorised and in addition to the religious sites there are weavers, silversmiths, paper umbrella makers and more – all vying for tourist attention. The wonder is that after a lifetime of stultifying state control there is so much inventive private enterprise.
It used to be that foreigners’ movements were severely limited. Now, like the Burmese, tourists have far greater scope to travel – although parts of the country remain out of bounds due to ongoing ethnic warfare. Those with time, and resilience to challenging road conditions, can tour most of Orwell’s old haunts, quite apart from Mandalay, where he trained at the police academy. More or less in the heart of the country, the British hill station of Maymyo (now Pyin U Lwin) is still complete with botanical garden. Two of Orwell’s postings in the Irrawaddy Delta remain easily accessible: Twante and Syriam (now Thanlyin) are both day trips from Yangon (or Rangoon), the principal gateway to Burma. However, further west, Myaungmya, where Orwell spent three months, is in a sensitive area badly hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and it remains off the tourist radar. As is Insein, notorious in Orwell’s day, as now, for its large prison.
The towns of his last two postings are today particularly representative of Burma on the brink of enormous change. In April 1926 Orwell moved to Moulmein, the large port town in Lower Burma where his mother had been brought up and where his grandmother and aunt still lived. It was a scenic, sleepy place when I visited in the 1990s. Not for much longer perhaps. In October 2010 plans were announced for a major port and marine development along the Tenasserim coast to the south. Meanwhile Katha, where Orwell served in 1926-27, lies at the northern extremes of tourism. It’s a fairly quiet little town on the banks of the Irrawaddy, its original British Club still standing. Both Orient Express and Pandaw River Expeditions have been running a small number of cruises there. Undoubtedly these will be increasing in the near future. Trips for the autumn of this year are already selling fast.
So in the face of the development and the making of new Burma, can you still catch any hint of Orwell’s days? Up in the green hills of the Shan Plateau, Maymyo exudes a colonial air. And for all that there is a big base of the Burmese army here, it is a tranquil place with a Victorian clock tower and a botanical garden devised by the British. But it is Katha most of all that still captures something of the spirit of Orwell, for along its shaded little streets you’ll find the old police station and the British Club still standing 85 years after he left.
British travel agents offering tailor-made trips to Burma include Ampersand Travel 020 7289 6100; http://www.ampersandtravel.com and Panoramic Journeys 01608 811183; http://www.panoramicjourneys.com. Irrawaddy river cruises are operated by Orient Express 0845 077 2222; and Pandaw River Expeditions http://www.pandaw.com
Harriet O’Brien is an award-winning author and travel writer. She worked as an editor of the Weekend pages at The Independent during the 1990s, then worked in Canada and as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more – she is now a contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveller magazine.