Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Burma Road

A geography-based guide to selected books about Myanmar

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Katha in Sagaing Region, where George Orwell (Eric Blair) lived in 1926-7 and where he set his novel “Burmese Days” under the fictional name Kyauktada

Some of these books might inspire readers to travel to the destination depicted, while others might make you think twice before following the hellish path trod by others.

Southern Kachin State

American author Tim O’Brien once wrote that “a true war story is never moral … If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted … you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Few will experience any sense of moral uplift from reading Brendan Koerner’s Now the Hell Will Start (2008), the harrowing but enthralling true story of Herman Perry, an African-American soldier assigned to help build the Ledo Road during World War II. Facing demoralizing, pestilential conditions in the jungles of Kachin State, and further unhinged by his epic-scale indulgence in opium and marijuana, Perry eventually snapped and shot dead a racist lieutenant, then fled into the wilderness where he found shelter in a Naga village. While Perry went native, even marrying the village chief’s daughter, the US Army launched its biggest manhunt of the war to bring the fugitive to justice. War is indeed hell. You can experience your own small bit of hell by trying to get an official travel permit for this difficult-to-access region.

Northern Kachin State

Well-known snake specialist Joe Slowinski has the unfortunate distinction of having died on September 11, 2001, and so news of his passing went largely unnoticed in the midst of events of greater global significance. Fortunately, writer Jamie James felt that Slowinski’s story was worth telling, which he does in fascinating detail in The Snake Charmer (2008). Slowinski met his end during an expedition north of Putao in Kachin State, the same territory explored by British plant hunter F. Kingdon-Ward in Burma’s Icy Mountains (1949). The description of Slowinski’s last 24 hours, in which he struggles to fight the effects of a venomous snake bite, will have readers gasping for breath. Of course this account should not stop anyone from trekking in the wild and beautiful Putao region – just be sure to decline if someone invites you to reach your hand into snake-filled bag.

Myeik Archipelago

Hear the word “pirate” and one thinks either of the Caribbean (thanks to the seemingly never-ending Disney/Johnny Depp movie franchise) or Somalia, where modern-day ship hijackers are doing their part to de-romanticize the concept of the loveable, heroic swashbuckler. But during the 15th century the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were also hotbeds of pirate activity, with ship and cargo thieves often hiding out among the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago until they could escape from authorities. Siamese White (1936) by Maurice Collis brings this era back to life in a way that will prompt many readers to drop everything and book a boat trip in the islands. While you’re not likely to find any gold buried in sunken chests, the unspoiled sand, sea and sky will be treasure enough.

Inle Lake

Amy Tan earned her name as a writer through books that explore multi-generational family relationships, such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Her 2005 novel Saving Fish from Drowning, with its more adventure-oriented plotline and occasional attempts at humor, is somewhat less successful but it still makes for a decent casual read, especially for those interested in fictional depictions of modern-day Myanmar. The book tells the unlikely tale of a group of tourists who enter Myanmar from China, follow the Burma Road for awhile and end up at Inle Lake, where they are kidnapped by a group of ethnic guerrillas. Tan’s presentation is more whimsical than suspenseful, with the clueless tourists not even realizing they are being held hostage – they think the trek to the ethnic village is part of their package tour. In reality, of course, visitors to Inle have zero chance of being kidnapped, and the events in the novel are really no weirder than watching cats jump through hoops at the mid-lake Nga Phe Monastery.


British poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” (1892) is by far the most famous piece of English-language writing, fictional or otherwise, to have been inspired by Myanmar. It’s been posted in hotel bars, used on the websites of tour companies and cited ad infinitum in travel stories about the country. Once you get past Kipling’s religious and cultural biases, and the fact that it’s not possible to look “eastward to the sea” from anywhere in Moulmein/Mawlamyine (but you can look westward to the wide Thanlwin River), it really is a nice little poem, successfully evoking a romantic image of colonial-era Myanmar. It’s also a reminder that Mawlamyine in Mon State is well worth a visit: a quiet, leafy town bisected by a ridgeline topped with numerous pagodas, including Kyaikthanlan Paya, thought to have inspired Kipling’s poem.


Smile As They Bow (2008) by Nu Nu Yi is the first novel by a Myanmar writer to be translated into English and released by a major American publisher, and in 2007 it was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. The brief novel is set in Taungbyone, just north of Mandalay, during the nat (spirit) festival held every year around the full moon of the lunar month of Wagaung (August). Nu Nu Yi follows the story of aging transvestite medium Daisy Bond and an unfolding love triangle involving his assistant and a young beggar girl, but the star of the book is the festival itself, famous for its loud and boisterous atmosphere. The author’s lively descriptions pull the reader straight into the center of the action. Travelers who find themselves in the Mandalay area in August will want to check out the festival, guaranteed to offer an over-the-top sensory experience unlike any other in Myanmar.


No Myanmar-bound backpacker’s travel kit would be complete without a copy of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, but how many visitors actually make their way up to Sagaing Region’s Katha, where the novel is set? The name of the town in the novel has been changed to Kyauktada and the story is fictional, but the place is real and visitors will still recognize many of the landmarks that were in place when Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was stationed in the town in the 1920s as part of the British colonial police force. The tennis court is still there, as is the old British Club, among others. Visitors to Katha will quickly discover that the way to these buildings isn’t exactly called out with flashing neon signs, but aimless wandering in an unfamiliar town is one of the real pleasures of independent travel. And if you get lost, locals will be happy to unintentionally misdirect you until you stumble upon the sites on your own.

Mon State (Mudon)

Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma (1946), as well as director Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant film adaptation The Burmese Harp (1956), focuses on a group of Japanese soldiers sent to Myanmar to fight during World War II, but it’s less about war and more about the effort to retain some sense of humanity under inhuman conditions. Most of the story takes place after the soldiers are captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Mudon, Mon State, where they boost their morale by singing, and also try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of one of their compatriots. Captured Japanese soldiers might have been more concerned with getting home after the war than admiring the scenery, but the area around Mudon is a fascinating landscape of forests, rubber tree plantations and streams flowing to the sea from the mountains. The town is located about halfway between Mawlamyine and Thanbyuzayat, the latter being the location of the western terminus of the Death Railway immortalized in the film Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Pyin Oo Lwin

In 1975 Paul Theroux published the book The Great Railway Bazaar, recounting his 25,000-mile journey by train from London to Southeast Asia, on to Japan, and back to London on the Trans-Siberian Express. Three decades later he repeated the trip and published his updated observations in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). On both trips he visited Myanmar, the first time on a forbidden quest to ride across the Gokteik Viaduct in northern Shan State. Most interesting, however, is the comparison between Theroux’s overnight stay at Candacraig in Pyin Oo Lwin in the 1970s, and his return decades  later, by which time it had been renamed Thiri Myaing Hotel. The manager remembers every detail from the earlier visit, and tells Theroux that people still come from the US, Britain and Australia “holding your book, wanting to meet my father” – a vivid illustration of the power of good travel writing to get people out of their homes and exploring the world.

Eastern Shan State

Set in 1886, Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner (2002) tells the story of a Londoner named Edgar Drake who is hired to travel to Myanmar to repair the piano of a British army doctor stationed in eastern Shan State. The author’s evocative description of Drake’s journey through Myanmar – by ship to Yangon, up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, eastward by horse through the mountains of Shan State to a village on the Salween River – has a dreamlike quality that combines historical realism with timeless romanticism. It’s the type of book that makes adventurous explorers yearn for the days before the invention of the package tour, when getting off the beaten track meant more than taking an air-conditioned bus down a slightly narrower road.

Along the Burma Road to the China border

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 2


Driving on the old Burma Road between Lashio and Muse.

Until recently, foreigners were not allowed to travel past the town of Lashio on the Mandalay-Muse Road without a special permit. But in early 2013, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs released a list of previously forbidden destinations around the country where foreigners are now allowed to go, including Muse Township along the border with China.

I was keen to explore this border area but also knew from previous experience that in Myanmar, the reality on the ground does not always match the “official” word from the capital Naypyidaw: Local authorities in northern Shan State might not be aware of the ministry’s new decree and might still be stopping foreigners from traveling past Lashio.

To help defuse any confusion, I brought along a Myanmar-language printout of the ministry’s list of newly opened areas, as well as multiple photocopies of my passport and visa to satisfy immigration officials. As a last resort, I had loaded my mountain bike into the back of our pickup truck: If I was stopped, my family – all Myanmar nationals – could keep going, and I could spend three or four days cycling around Kyaukme or Lashio until they returned – not the worst way to pass my holiday.

Since departing Yangon the previous day we had met up with more relatives in Kyaukme, and we left town at 7:30am in two cars: me, my wife Pauksi and Maung Maung Lwin in the Ford pickup, followed by a Toyota Belta sedan carrying Pauksi’s mother Nang Hseng, brother Tha Tun Wai, aunt Daw Thein Htwe and family friend Zaw Oo. Still others traveled to Muse by bus, to avoid the frigid ordeal of riding in the back of the pickup: Pauksi’s sister Naychi, my stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi’s uncle L Zaw Maw from Taunggyi.

We started with Maung Maung Lwin driving the pickup, first in sunshine, and then through a valley of cold, dense fog. We stopped just past the town of Thibaw for a quick breakfast of Shan noodles, and again in sunny Lashio for a mid-morning meal.


Shan noodles: The best breakfast anywhere in the world.

I took over driving when we left Lashio, and the “moment of truth” passed anticlimactically as the old foreigner-impeding checkpoint outside of town had indeed been dismantled, as per the ministry’s orders. We sailed calmly into far northern Shan State, and suddenly I was in a region of Myanmar few Westerners have visited since the British colonial era.

We were now on a legendary stretch of highway, following what had once been the Burma Road, which played a strategically important role just before and during World War II. The 717-mile (1,154 km) road, extending from Lashio to Kunming in southwestern China, was built in the late 1930s and used by the British to send supplies – consumer goods, military materials, parts and gasoline – to China, which was suffering under a war of aggression and naval blockades launched by Japan.

An excerpt from the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia describes some of the hazards of the Burma Road: “At its prewar peak, about 10,000 tons of supplies per month came through the road. However, the road had many limitations that made it a serious bottleneck. It was not an all-weather road, limiting its usefulness during the monsoon. It passed through areas in which malaria was endemic. Its status as the last link between China and the outside world made it a focus of intrigue and corruption.”


A treacherous section of the Burma Road in 1939 or 1940.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The two-lane road is now a paved, “all-weather” thoroughfare, but still poses challenges. There were flat, fast stretches through agricultural land, and tricky sections that hair-pinned up and down steep, forested mountains. There were plenty of dusty construction zones, and we were constantly forced to pull into the oncoming traffic lane to accelerate past trundling, road-hogging trucks carrying Myanmar-grown watermelons to China. But the mountain scenery was green and gorgeous, and the brisk air made for pleasant travel.


A quiet section of the Burma Road in December 2013.

We reached Kutkai – the halfway point between Lashio and Muse – around noon; it looked more like a grimy bus depot than a proper town. We had an early afternoon break in Nampaka, where we ate lunch at another Shan restaurant, and we finally reached Muse and the China border around 3:30pm.


Lunch in Nampaka

Some members of our group stayed at Shwe Yar Su Hotel – overpriced at $50 a night but boasting friendly staff, clean and decent-sized rooms, and free wi-fi (but the China-sourced internet connection meant Facebook was censored) – while others stayed at the nearby Kachin Baptist Church. We spent the evening checking out the unappealing array of shoddy Chinese goods at the town’s night market, had barbecued fish and beer for dinner, and then walked back to the hotel through the cold, commerce-hectic streets of Muse.


Roadside scenery: A cemetery along the way between Lashio and Muse.

Written by latefornowhere

January 4, 2014 at 8:11 am