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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.

Mawlamyine

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.

Taungbyone

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.

Katha

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.