On the way to Pyin Oo Lwin
I’m on my way to a small town in the northeast of Mandalay called Pyin Oo Lwin. Cooler temperatures from the altitude made it a popular holiday resort for the British in the summers of their colonial days and I’m curious to see how that heritage has lasted in contrast to the rest of the country.
Squeezed into one of the front seats of a pickup truck (not the back, at least, because I’m a foreigner and am expected to pay the extra 50 cents), I watch the growing hills of the Myanmar countryside go by. The driver seems more interested in the road.
“This road, it built by the British,” he leans above and tells me, blowing his betel nut breath in my direction.
“It a very good road. The British, they are smart. They have bigger brains than us. They do good here and help us.”
It’s strange to hear him say that. It’s certainly not what you would expect from a race that spent so long under a colonial rule that basically treated the local people like savages. But it’s not the first time that sentiment has come up.
George Orwell’s Burmese Days
I’ve been reading the George Orwell book ‘Burmese Days’ as I travel around Myanmar. It seems to be the done thing here – I guess because it’s one of the few books about the country. (And all the backpackers have already read ‘The Beach’ and ‘The Alchemist’ so there aren’t many options at the book exchange.)
And a recurring view through Orwell’s cynical but penetrating window into colonial Burma is the way the local people do actually believe the British to be better people.
“While your businessmen develop the resources of our country,” one character says to a British timber salesman, “your officials are civilising us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of self-sacrifice.”
I’m sure Orwell had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as he wrote this, but it’s an interesting sentiment to bring up.
Travelling Myanmar today you don’t get the sense that the people consider themselves to be inferior but, like in many developing countries, there is a respect for foreigners that goes beyond just simple courtesy. The driver of the truck seems to think there is an intellectual difference between the races. Obviously they don’t get ‘Eastenders’ on the telly here.
Pyin Oo Lwin
Pyin Oo Lwin is about as close as I’ll get to the town of Katha, where George Orwell lived during his days in Burma… but called Kyauktada in his book to try to avoid any defamation problems. Katha these days, several hundred kilometres north, is in a region closed to foreigners because of ethnic fighting.
You can get a feel for the British influence here, though. The busy market in the centre of Pyin Oo Lwin is the typical Myanmar experience I have come to recognise. Bending your head to walk underneath wooden beams; trying to turn the stares of the locals into smiles; dodging children on the floor and mothers too busy pointing at garlic and dried fish. But as I walk away from it, it only takes a couple of blocks before the Tudor-style mansions appear.
The huge colonial houses along the roads leading away from the city’s centre have been turned into schools, government buildings or hotels. The best-known, made famous in Paul Theroux’s ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, is a hotel called Candacraig. From the gate, along the driveway, up to the balcony made for drinking gin, it looks like it is still in the turn of the twentieth century. Except for the large Myanmar flag flying from a post in the middle of the well-manicured garden.
It’s a reminder of the present, placed conspicuously front and centre of the past. It’s like the clock tower in the middle of Pyin Oo Lwin which still plays the same chimes as Big Ben, but it’s just a faint cry from a bygone era that is lost on those rushing by on their motorbikes.
Flory, the central character from Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’, at one point takes a new British arrival to a local dance and tries to explain the beauty he sees in the Burmese woman performing on stage.
“Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that – a civilisation stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in woad.”
Orwell’s time in Burma, like that all the British colonialists, will just be a blip on the historical narrative of this country. But it’s still nice to be able to come somewhere and see the evidence of that era. For me, it takes it off the page for a moment or two.