It's over four years since I made this trip, but it has always stuck in my mind as one of the most rewarding of my solo journeys. I had held a fascination about Myanmar and it's place in the British Empire for some time, so when I had a batch of expiring air miles to burn, I took the chance to experience it for myself.
As late as 2012, travelling to Myanmar was very difficult in terms of visas and currency exchange, but by 2015 it was much easier and may be even easier by now. Back then it was just the visa, which I managed to obtain in Hong Kong and I flew in to Yangon, arriving very late in the evening. I was lucky enough to be staying at the Shangri-La, so pretty comfortable for my first three nights in the capital city.
On my first full day, I took a long walk around the city and my first impression was that it looked like how Bangkok may have looked perhaps 20-30 years ago. The vibe was similar, pretty fast-paced, everybody with somewhere to go and something to do, a lot of noisy traffic, but no high-rise buildings. There were a lot of older colonial style buildings dotted here and there, most in pretty poor condition. However, it was when I hit upon the Strand that I suddenly saw a glimpse of old Empire. Building after building of impressive architecture that was clearly part of a major cog in the British Empire. In the early 20th Century, 'the garden city of the East' as it was known, was said to have an infrastructure on par with London. The photos below don't do the Strand justice, but most of these buildings have survived for over one hundred years and should last another hundred and more.
In the evening, I walked through the many street vendors and was fascinated by the old trinkets for sale. I don't know if they were genuine, but I bought a lovely set of opium weights - eight or so duck shaped figurines, each progressively heavier and well worn with age. I also picked up a second hand copy of George Orwell's 'Burmese Days' which I read throughout my trip and gained a fascinating and almost shameful insight into life during colonial times in Burma.
Day two was a pilgrimage of sorts. One of the reasons for my fascination with Myanmar was that I also have a long-term goal of visiting all Commonwealth War Cemeteries across Asia. Due to it's position at one end of the Burma (Death) Railway which ended in the southern town of Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar has at least two major War Cemeteries. So day two took me north of Yangon to the Taukkyan War Cemetery. Just off the main road this one was already pretty noisy, but the music blaring from a parked van didn't do much for the serenity. I spent a good hour walking through the rows of graves, and what always takes me back when I visit these Cemeteries is just how young the soldiers were. Most of these guys never made it out of their twenties, and the personal messages from family members also added to the poignancy.
On the way back, my driver stopped off to show me a curious attraction of two actual white elephants in a temple of some sort. The elephants were apparently revered, but that didn't stop them being chained up in a pretty confined concrete structure. Pretty sad to see. Anyhow, back to Yangon and more browsing through the street markets and an early night before my trip south the following day.
South meant Moulmein, or Mawlamyine as it is called today, which was the capital of British Burma from 1826 to 1852. This city was another fascination of mine - Rudyard Kipling briefly visited in 1889 and George Orwell was stationed here in 1926 - and it was also the stopping off point for my visit to the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery.
I left the hotel way too early and had a good hour to wait at the bus terminal. This was a pretty rough hour sitting among friendly Burmese in a ramshackle outdoor waiting area. Many Burmese have a habit of chewing and spitting betel nut, which also added to my general feeling of unease in such a confined space. Anyhow, my fault for being too early, and the coach finally arrived for our four-hour journey south.
I've said it many times about many things, but I really, really loved Moulmein and felt the old world charm as soon as the coach arrived. I made my way to the oddly-named Cinderella hotel in a residential part of town, and didn't take too long to head out and about. It was a very stop-start walk as I took so many photographs of old buildings that were surely former British family homes. George Orwell wouldn't have approved, but I almost felt at home. Rudyard Kipling only spent three hours in Moulmein, but his written words from that day still resonate today. He, as I did, worked his way up the hill towards a collection of pagodas at the top.
"I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever. Leaving this far too lovely maiden I went up the steps. The hillside was ablaze with pagodas - from a gorgeous golden and vermilion beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed. Far above my head there was a faint tinkle as of golden bells, and a talking of the breezes in the tops of the toddy palms. I climbed higher till I reached a place of great peace dotted with Burmese images. Here women now and again paid reverence. They bowed their heads and their lips moved because they were praying. I had an umbrella - a black one - in my hand, deck-shoes upon my feet, and a helmet upon my head. I did not pray - swore at myself for being a Globe-trotter, and wished that I had enough Burmese to explain to these ladies that I was sorry". Then Kipling left and sailed on his way, and never saw Burma again.
Fortunately I had still more time, but even now I can look at my sundown photo above and daydream endlessly about Moulmein. I like to think that the view, the sounds and the smells that I experienced on that day were the same as those of Kipling. Rest assured though, while I admired their grace and beauty, I didn't fall in love with any Burmese girls.
Day two took me 65km further south to Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery. The drive was nice enough, open country with pagoda after pagoda breaking up the horizon. The Cemetery was pretty isolated and immaculately presented as they always are. I'm not sure it gets many visitors, but those who tend to it do so with tremendous care and attention. As I wandered the rows of graves, one thing that struck me was just how long these cemeteries will remain. Another hundred years? Two-hundred? With WWII still reasonably fresh in our minds, we can still appreciate the sacrifices those men made, but would people feel the same as the years pass by? And local people tending to the graves of long dead foreigners? Not to mention the more pressing global priorities that future generations will face.
It's sombre enough seeing the graves of so many young men, but knowing they all rest together while their graves are so meticulously tended to and their names forever set in stone, is surely some consolation. As I left, a few teenagers arrived and joked and laughed as they ran freely through the graves. I don't think they meant any disrespect - maybe they're not even taught what the place is about - but by visiting, at least there is a chance they may learn one day. On the way back, we passed the world's largest reclining Buddha at Win Sein Taw Ya. I can't remember actually visiting, but I believe my lack of photos is evidence that I declined in favour of preserving my War Cemetery frame of mind.
Once back in Moulmein, I took my last late-afternoon stroll through the sleepy town which only reaffirmed my love for the place, and the evening call to prayer from the local mosque only added to my memories. In the morning I left early for my morning run and passed an array of churches that would not have looked out of place in the English countryside. Later that morning I left Moulmein, unfortunately not by paddle-steamer, and although I was as sad to leave as Kipling was, at least I know I can return one day.
Back in Yangon, I was once again fortunate to be staying in the Shangri-La, and on my final day I decided to venture to Yangon's most famous feature - the Shwedagon Pagoda is said to be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,600 years old. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't make enough effort to visit and instead I opted to pop in during my early morning run. Unfortunately, without any cash for the donation or any long pants, I managed to get up the stairs to the base of the pagoda, but didn't get past the guy at the kiosk. Well, I actually did get past him to take a few hurried photos, but after his third or fourth reprimand, I heeded to his request to be on my way. I'll be sure to visit this amazing sight properly on my next visit whenever that may be. So, with all my objectives ticked off, I packed my gear ready for my morning departure.
I think it's good to write about my trip after several years of reflection, as I can now look back at Myanmar as probably my favourite country in Asia. While the city was far from perfect with it's traffic and pollution, and their history was not always well-preserved, I loved that it was unspoiled by modern development. Indeed, the country was pretty much in a state of self-isolation from 1962 to 2011, which has helped to preserve its old world charm. It's almost as if it was frozen in time, and doesn't everyone often yearn for a taste of the old days? I also loved that the people were honest and almost naive in their outlook on life. Anyone visiting Asia will know that they are always the target of being over-charged at every turn, but I never felt like that in all my time there. I almost always expect to be asked to pay more, and often oblige, but I was never asked for anything more than face value. Many a time, I was almost urging the taxi drivers and stall-holders to ask me for more! I'm certainly glad I visited when I did, as Myanmar surely cannot retain it's old world innocence for much longer.