Miscegenation, snake wine and the transmitters from hell
By Jeff Dell
George Orwell's 'Pages from a Scullion's Diary' is a Penguin 60s extract from Down And Out In Paris and London and I bought it as holiday reading because of the appealing association of two left wing heroes. Stewart Scullion is one of the finest wingers ever to play for Watford: I saw him play many times, the most memorable being at Old Trafford in the Cup in the 68/9 season when he scored a fabulous goal to put us in the lead. Law equalized and then scored two goals at the Vic in the replay to take United through. I saw that too, along with 34,000 others.
I'd been looking for Orwell's Burmese Days as perhaps the most tangible of the few associations I could make with the country - a line from the Blockheads, an exceedingly good poem of Kipling, the Chindits, Ord ('Ord'?) Wingate and a film starring Bob Hope, Bing ('Bing'?) Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. I'd actually been to Burma in 1976 - for a week on my way to Australia - but I don't remember much about it. 1976 that is.
We'd decided on a trip round the golden quadrangle of Yangon, Pagan, Mandalay and Lake Inle, a twelve-day round trip of 1500 miles, and for reasons of convenience we hired a car and driver. Our car had seen better days and had it not been for discipline and good manners of the driving on Burmese roads, we'd have worried more about the absence of seatbelts. Car and driver cost $40 per day - everything included - and for that we got its unlimited use and an unobtrusive and very knowledgeable chauffeur. Our kids are fairly well adapted to long car journeys and have the capacity, when required, of putting the mind in neutral and the body in automatic - a skill I find occasionally useful at work.
We had two and a half days in Yangon before setting out to see the country, enough time to visit the stunning Shwedagon Paya - where I had my fortune told - and begin an acquaintance with things Burmese. Shwedagon is the most sacred of Buddhist sites in Myanmar and we did what we have never done before - took a guided tour around the complex. I have a problem with faith, not having any myself, but regard other people's as an endless source of fascination and a very good way to learn about a country and its people. I prefer to be lost than found, and given the choice between light and dark, well, turn the lights out. Thus, it wasn't in search of truth that we visited Shwedagon, more for a glimpse at what the people of Myanmar hold dear. And for this, for the sheer size of the complex, for its beauty, for the reverence it inspires, for its ubiquitous donation boxes and statues covered in money - for the sheer differentness of it all - it's worth a day of anyone's life.
Our first stop out of Yangon was in Pyay, or Frome as the Brits called it, a few hours drive from the capital and about half way to Pagan. It's pleasant enough, though without too much to recommend it - apart, that is, from a restaurant that featured highly in the Lonely Planet guide which we snubbed on the grounds that it was in the Lonely Planet guide. We preferred to eat sweet and sour monosodium glutamate in a Chinese restaurant on the banks of the Ayeyarwady.
We reached Pagan in the afternoon of our second day on the road. Now, if you thought that a stupor was something you slipped into gently on a Friday night in the pub, you're right - I've seen you. A stupa, on the other hand, is a Buddhist monument, the defining architecture of Pagan, sixteen square kilometers of faith. You can walk, drive or cycle along uncluttered roads from one stupa to another, some large, lofty and magnificent, others small and humble. It won't matter that belief is not your scene, or that you don't have a spiritual bone in your body: you could take a sociological view of religion and still find yourself - one hesitates on aesthetic grounds to say this - 'stupefied.'
Two and a half days in Pagan hardly did the town justice before we were on the road to Mandalay. On the way we stopped at Mount Popa and climbed the thousand steps to a monastery at its top. We met a Buddhist Monk on this journey called Tommy Williams. "My grandfather was British," he said, "Bob Williams." Tommy had been educated in a Catholic school in Yangon but had set out on a different path to personal fulfillment and looked none the worse for it. In the monastery I met Eddie from Baltimore who was returning to Myanmar for the first time in twenty-nine years. He'd left the country vowing never to return but here he was, with his wife and two American Burmese boys on top of Mount Popa, a tourist in his own country, a stranger in a strange land.
Orwell wasn't keen on Mandalay, calling it "disagreeable, dusty and intolerably hot." He described its five main products as "pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes", but this was, after all, back in 1934. Uninhibited by the present day's obeisance to relativism, and believing more in his duty to his truths than in today's main concern of not causing offence, George told it as he saw it. As I see it, Mandalay is a sprawling town of questionable architectural appeal and you have to get under its skin if you're to enjoy it.
On our first night in town we ate at a vegetarian Indian restaurant managed by a women of Anglo/Karen background. Her father had been a colonial Brit and her mother a Karen hill tribeswoman. Over vegetable curry and chapattis she told us of her family's imprisonment by the Japanese and of her father's subsequent death of a heart attack. Unable to prove her Imperial connection, she could not leave for Britain as she had wished. She retained an affectionate memory of 'the good old days' and described herself as a "chip off the old block." Her story concluded with a shrug of the shoulders and an "oh well, mustn't grumble" that would have had reduced Bill Bryson to tears. I suspected an idealized past, and heard the echo of a threnody for a show that had long since left town. I wondered, too, about the 'block' that she was a chip off since in Burmese Days, Orwell's anti-hero Flory says that Europeans wouldn't touch Eurasians "with a stick" and describes them as "complete outcasts - not quite the thing to talk to them in fact."
The following day we ate Indian again, this time at the Punjabi Curry house, a hole in the wall joint down town, owned and managed by members of Myanmar's ten thousand strong Sikh community. In Punjabi and English a sticker proclaimed 'I am proud to be a Sikh' - and why not indeed! The Sikh community came to Myanmar in British times as merchants and business people, mostly from Chandigargh in the Punjab. So far as we could gather from an hour's conversation, they were getting along just fine - things were expensive, it was true, and Burmese people did receive preference in the jobs market, we were told. On the other hand, the Sikh community was not being given a hard time by anyone and was free to practice its religion without hindrance. Moreover, the economy was now opening up and as business people they had no problems with that.
The four of us ate a thali of rice, dhal, cabbage bhaji and pickles for the princely sum of $2. Just around the corner was one of Mandalay's two Gurdwara's to which we were then invited. Since it was the day before Guru Govind Singh's birthday - he shares it with Burma's independence day - there was a full reading of the Guru Granth Sahib underway which would last about two full days in all. Downstairs a group of Sikh women were preparing a meal for the festival, hanging out and chewing the metaphorical fat. We were given an offering of Prashad and an invitation for the next day's meal, which, unfortunately, we were unable to keep.
So far our hotels had been fairly unspectacular; an expensive number in Yangon, an old wooden job in Pyay and a brash complex in Pagan. We struck lucky in Mandalay, finding a six roomed family hotel owned and managed by an ex-army Chinese Burmese man with a soft spot for Britain since his 1952 training on the Provost Officer's course in Aldershot. He'd fought against Chiang Kai Shek's forces in the north of Burma at the end of the Second World War and had a tale or two to tell. However, indiscreet questioning of the modern period in Burma was met with polite evasion - nobody gave anything away and we stopped asking - it didn't seem fair and it wasn't right. Still, we shared a few beers and a couple of glasses of rum and he told me that he was a soldier 'of the old school.'
In 1997 a British gold prospector working for a Chinese firm had rented the hotel. His name, and I kid you not, was Mr. Rainbow. What sort of a world is it, I thought, that a rainbow should be traipsing round the world looking for a pot of gold. Sad! On our last day in Mandalay, I had a massage from the hotel cook, a wiry old soldier with killer thumbs and toes. "Special Forces", said the manager by way of explanation. For an hour's massage I paid sixty US cents, exactly twice the old boy's monthly army pension. For two double rooms in a quiet area of town and endless friendliness and hospitality we paid $32 per night. Beer, rum and conversation was free.
And so on to Lake Inle in Shan State, crossing the mountains on the way, and to a hotel of dubious merit. We stayed here for two and a half days and did what one does, cycling, visiting the floating markets, eating good food and drinking Mandalay Rum at ten cents a shot. It's a beautiful place, peaceful and unspoiled. I'd been intending to buy some Tiger Balm - ethnic Vic really, I know - and checked out the prices. A storekeeper recommended one large Chinese pot for two dollars against a neat looking case of ten smaller pots at about the same price. "What's the difference?", I asked. "These", she said, pointing at the case of ten, "are useless".
From Lake Inle it was the best part of a two-day car ride back to Yangon and we broke it up with an overnight stay in Taungoo. Luck was with us again: we arrived in town on the very day of a Burmese fete or mela. Hundreds of stalls sold everyday items for the use of ordinary Burmese people and, if there was nothing we particularly wanted to buy, there was little that we didn't want to look at and explore. Here, as everywhere, people were curious about us, friendly, confident and courteous. Strangers would engage us in short conversation, say 'Welcome to Burma' and move on. We felt enormously touched. This was the second such mela we'd come across; the first was in Pagan, where the occasion was a mass feeding of monks at a particularly important Pagoda. Villagers had come from miles around on bullock carts and were camped around the site in huge numbers, the bullocks grazing and the families sat round camp fires, their children asleep on blankets, men and women chatting and laughing over tea. Both were completely local affairs - as far as we could tell we were the only foreigners there.
Our hotel in Taungu was out of town, set in agricultural land, and cost $20 for the night. This included an all-we-could-eat breakfast of omelet, banana fritters, pancakes with coconut filling, star fruit, papaya, banana, tangerine, melon and avocado. And so on to Yangon for our last night in Myanmar. We went to a Chinese restaurant called 'Sea Food', recommended by our driver. On two levels, and with an open plan in-your-face kitchen, it's lined with cages and tanks of reptiles, birds, animals, eels and fishes that you may select for the wok. A peacock walked between the tables to add a further touch of exotica to the evening, and a baby sloth and a monkey were tied to the legs of a work surface for unknown purposes. The agitated monkey would bite the sloth in the head. With its small round head, doleful eyes and dazed 'why me?' expression, the sloth bore a striking resemblance to Norman Lamont. Karma man, Karma.
The restaurant reminded me of a scene in Tiziano Terzani's 'A fortune teller told me'. The author is in a Chinese restaurant with some Buddhist friends, having just completed a course in meditation. Caged animals are similarly arranged. Some of the monkeys had no hands because a customer had ordered monkey palm; the wound would be cauterized and the monkey returned to its cage to await its next customer. The animals screamed in terror whenever a person dressed in white went past and this, understandably, caused Terzani some distress. He postulated that in a future life roles would be reversed, with the cooks in the cages and the monkeys serving them up, but he was corrected by his friends who said that this notion of justice was not at all Buddhist. Though Terzani is extremely fond of Buddhism at the level of the individual - and praises Buddhists for personal qualities of tolerance, kindness and consideration for others - he has doubts about Buddhism at a political level, regarding it ultimately as a negation of civil society.
At the end of our meal of oysters, crab and chicken I asked for Sake, an old habit picked up on stolen afternoons in Soho. There was no rice wine to be had, I was told, but the restaurant did sell 'snake wine'. It was contained in a five-gallon bell jar, which sat on the counter on the ground floor. The ingredients included three different types of snake - viper, cobra and rattler - scorpions, geckos and small birds. Tequila? Ha! Mexico, eat your heart out! An inch-thick sediment had settled at the bottom but the snakes ghosted around at the top, white, eaten away by the alcohol in which they had been fermenting for three years. We did what one must in these circumstances - ordered half a liter to take away.
For those with an interest in civil society, Myanmar poses - let us say - some problems. In the absence of any legitimate institutionalized mechanisms of popular expression, there is no way of knowing what people think, what they believe in and what they aspire to. At the moment, it is the armed forces that claim this knowledge and the right to represent the 'people's desire', but one suspects that they have a wider and more prosaic worldview than the achievement of nirvana and escape from rebirth that is the aspiration of many in this traditional rural country. There is a striking discord between the tolerance and gentleness of Buddhism and the low-rent language of the official organ, the 'New Light of Myanmar', that describes the people's desire thus:
- Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
- Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
It is impossible not to be aware of the political situation of Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the father of Myanmar's independence movement and national hero. Her name is shortened by the state media to Suu Kyi as if to distance her from the reflected glory of her father. She is referred to as a 'genocidal prostitute' by the New Light of Myanmar - an astonishing compliment in my book - and 'an ogress in human form'. She is accused of wanting to 'devour flesh and blood of the people'. This sort of language is so absurd to the Western ear that one wonders why the government should allow such nonsense to be printed in English in a daily 'newspaper'. Aung San Suu Kyi is particularly vilified for her marriage to a foreigner - something that I positively encourage - and for this, and for her Eurasian children, she is linked to the 'neo-colonialist bloc intent on dominating and enslaving the nation.' This is heady stuff indeed but there is more. According to the same journal the 'wish of the masses' is to 'deport Suu Kyi', 'smash and remove Suu Kyi and her cohorts' and 'declare the NLD (her political party) as an unlawful association.'
Hearing this stuff, one might reasonably assume an overt military presence in the country, yet in twelve days and through fifteen hundred miles we saw no military presence at all, and hardly a police car. But oppression is real and people are afraid to air their views. Moreover, they have no official way of doing so. A network of informers operates, spreading germs of insidious doubt and caution into perfectly decent people. If gossip is the Devil's radio, informers are transmitters from hell.
One imagines there are two worldviews in Burmese society, that of the conservative rural community striving to acquire merit in this life and eventual release from rebirth, and the more short term and temporal inclinations of the ruling regime. One hopes for an accommodation between the spiritual and the temporal that will serve the interests of all, especially as Myanmar heads towards 'development' and the mixed blessings that will be its consequence. Already Yangon is showing the signs of growth - new hotels, new office complexes, new money - but there is no discussion yet about the future of the country. What does it want to change from, what does it want to become and how should it make the transition? And who, in this debate, is going to represent the 'people'?
Baltimore Eddie had a vision of the future. On Mount Popa he overheard me telling my templed-out children that they would need to come back in twenty-five years time to fully appreciate the place. "Better make it earlier than that" he said, "it's not gonna last that long."