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A guidebook to leave at home

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My review of Caroline Courtauld’s Myanmar: Burma in Style, published in The Myanmar Times. The book is nice to look at, but the text has some problems that I expect will be fixed for the second edition.

Guidebook obscures modern Myanmar under retro patina

Myanmar: Burma in Style by Caroline Courtauld, Odyssey, 2013

Most travel guidebooks are not intended to be read cover-to-cover, but instead dipped into whenever information is needed on a specific region or aspect of the country in question.

Caroline Courtauld’s awkwardly titled Myanmar: Burma in Style, a guidebook released earlier this year by Hong Kong–based Odyssey Books, aims to offer a more complete, and more literary, reading experience for those planning to visit the so-called “Golden Land”.

The book immediately stands out for the effort put into the visual presentation: It’s printed on heavy, glossy paper, and the pages are peppered with dozens of colorful, high-quality photographs of people and places around the country.

But does the content of Burma in Style deliver on the promise of the surface sheen?

The book’s basic structure holds few surprises. The introduction includes sections on history, geography, people of Myanmar, religion and society, and festival and theater. There are also facts for the traveler (getting around, visas, health, food, shopping), practical information (travel agencies, hotels, restaurants), reading recommendations, maps and a glossary.

As for destinations, the focus remains on the main tourist circuit – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake – while information on secondary sites such as Nay Pyi Taw, Mrauk Oo, Mawlamyine and Kachin State is kept very brief.

As such, Burma in Style is best suited for readers who have never been to Myanmar. However, even those who have lived in-country for a while might find it handy to read the “Special Topic” sections on nats, lacquerware, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and more, as well as “Literary Excerpts” by authors ranging from George Orwell to Norman Lewis.

Burma in Style is not without its problems. For starters, the text seems quickly written. The sentence structure is often awkward, even sloppy at times, and there are occasional irreconcilable, and inexcusable, contradictions within the same paragraph.

To give just two examples:The brief section on Setse Beach begins: “Before starting the hot return journey to Mawlamyine, pause at Setse Beach for a refreshing swim in the clear waters of the Gulf of Mottama (formerly Martaban).” Three sentences later we read, in reference to the same beach: “As this beach is south of the Ayeyarwady Delta the sea water here is brown, so not so inviting for a swim.”

Concerning Thatbinnyu Temple in Bagan, we are told that “its main attraction is the view from its terraces, spectacular both at dawn and dusk” and that owing to its central position it is “the most popular vantage point in Bagan”. But then: “Sadly, due to the erosion of the brick it is now no longer possible to climb this temple.”

There is also a disappointing lack of specificity concerning “recent” events, which might point to a lack of up-to-date primary research. Strangely, precise years are given for remote historical events, such as the construction of specific temples at Bagan, but pretty much everything that has occurred during the past two decades is lost in temporal ambiguity.

For example, the National Museum is said to have moved to a new building in Yangon “a few years ago” (it moved in 1996), while Chaung Tha Beach lacks adequate accommodation because it only opened to foreigners “fairly recently” (also 1996).

In fact, the word “recent” recurred so frequently in lieu of precise dates that its repeated appearance soon became very noticeable and very grating.

The author’s focus on the distant past rather than more “recent” developments fits comfortably within Courtauld’s tendency to over-romanticize Myanmar. Any form of development is apparently felt to be an inconvenient and inconsequential assault on the quaintness that foreign visitors hold so dear.

For sure, the old-school description of Thingyan Water Festival won’t come close to preparing visitors for the chaos that rules the streets of Yangon and Mandalay during the holiday, and Courtauld even claims that festival-goers will wait politely while you put your camera away before splashing you. (I hope the publishers have a good team of lawyers on hand to deal with readers who follow this poor advice and, as a result, find themselves in possession of broken, waterlogged cameras.)

Other examples abound. In one photo caption, Inle Lake is erroneously described as “unpolluted” (there are, in reality, big problems with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, siltation and untreated sewage from villages), and Mandalay is rather bizarrely portrayed as a city of wooden houses and grand colonial mansions (although in “recent years” the city landscape has started to change in ways unspecified by the author).

This “charming” picture seems, at least in part, the result of an odd reliance on severely dated secondary sources. George Scott’s 1882 volume The Burman: His Life and Notions is used as one of the author’s main resources throughout the book, when it probably should have been relegated to a single “Literary Excerpt” sidebar.

Despite these problems, Burma in Style – especially the first-rate photography – will succeed in infecting most readers with the travel bug. I’ve been to nearly all the destinations covered in the book on multiple occasions but perusing it gave me a strong urge to lock up the house and head upcountry for a few days of exploration.

What the publishers have created, in effect, is an undersized coffee-table book. Those considering a trip to Myanmar will likely be inspired – certainly by the photographs and maps, and possibly even by some of the text – to start booking their travel plans right away.

But Burma in Style will have limited utility out in the field, and therefore probably won’t make the cut when you’re deciding what to pack in your suitcase or backpack. Bring along your much more useful Lonely Planet guide instead.

Written by latefornowhere

June 5, 2013 at 2:23 am