Thursday, 7 February 2013

Thou, Burma, art fair and beauteous to see (8)

Part VIII - Vestiges of the empire

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who then was the gentleman?

“I was too shamefaced to utter the imperial platitudes that fall so trippingly from the mouth of those who make it their business to govern empires. – WSM, The Gentleman in the Parlour

Kalaw. Former colonial hill station popular with the British during colonial rule and nowadays with high-ranking military officials for its pleasantly cool temperatures, the grand villas ‘English style’ occupied by many a general in summer residence. Surrounded by pine forests and misty blue mountain ranges, it is a peaceful and quiet, small town located at an altitude of 1320 metres, 50 km from Inle lake.

See Burma by train...
Burma is not noted for the attractiveness of its regime, to put it mildly, but things are now improving”. I’m quoting The Man in Seat 61. “ used to tell tourists not to go to Burma at all, but it changed this advice in 2012.  If you decide to go, you'll find a fascinating country which is easy and safe to visit, with friendly and honest people.  Paradoxically, the lack of mass tourism due to the boycott of the regime has preserved Burma from westernisation, making it one of the most interesting places to visit now, before it's too late.  Burma's British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you'll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses.  The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.”

Quite right. The slow train from Shwenyaung to Kalaw is an adventure indeed that takes two long hours of your life. “Worth adding is that the train and tracks are not in a very good condition and thus the ride is far from comfortable.” The trains themselves seem to stem right from the colonial era, as do the tracks that by the look of them have hardly been maintained since the building of the bridge over the river Kwai. The ride itself feels like the hand that rocks the cradle and visions of The Cassandra Crossing and Sophia Loren’s terror-stricken eyes came vividly to mind. But the views are unsurpassed, I admit.
Shwenyuang station has a station master proper and buying a ticket for the grubby first class is an administrative showdown the likes of which would not be unbecoming at Checkpoint Charlie in the Cold War. Luckily we colonials had our servant Té deal with it.

The Seven Sisters

“'I’ll tell you. If I married her I’d have to stay in Burma for the rest of my life. Sooner of later I shall retire and then I want to go back to my old home and live there. I don’t want to be buried out here, I want to be buried in an English churchyard. I’m happy enough here, but I don’t want to live here always. I couldn’t. I want England. Sometimes I get sick of this hot sunshine and these garish colours. I want grey skies and a soft rain falling and the smell of the country. I shall be a funny fat elderly man when I go back, too old to hunt even if I could afford it, but I can fish. I don’t want to shoot tigers, I want to shoot rabbits. And I can play golf on a proper course. I know I shall be out of it, we fellows who’ve spent our lives out here always are, but I can potter about the local club and talk to retired Anglo-Indians. I want to feel under my feet the grey pavement of an English country town, I want to be able to go and have a row with the butcher because the steak he sent me in yesterday was tough, and I want to browse about second-hand bookshops. I want to be said how d’you do to in the street by people who knew me when I was a boy. And I want to have a walled garden at the back of my house and grow roses. I daresay it all sounds very humdrum and provincial and dull to you, but that’s the sort of life I want to live myself. It’s a dream if you like, but it’s all I have, it means everything in the world to me, and I can’t give it up.’
He paused for a moment and looked into my eyes.
‘Do you think me an awfool fool?’

The reverse of Kipling’s sailor’s Come you back to Mandalay, There's a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o' me.
The progenitor of the Seven Sisters in Kalaw may have forgotten about some such dream and given way to marry the local girl after all in the end. His offspring, the seven sisters, serve meals in the dining room of the distinctively British ancestral cottage on Union Road. With old photographs of dear papa and his Burmese wife adorning the walls.

“It is an error to think that because you have no train to catch and no appointments to keep your movements on the road are free. Your times for doing this and that are as definite as if you lived in a city and had to go to business every morning. Your movements are settled not by your own whim, but by the length of the stages and the endurance of the mules. Though you would not think it mattered if you arrived half an hour sooner or later at your destination, there is always a rush to get up in the morning, a bustle of preparation and an urgent compulsion to get off without delay”. 

Our guides were our lodestars, our eyes and ears and tongue’s sweet airs in our midsummer night’s dream; our drivers our faithful mules man’s best friend without whom we would hardly have been able to cover a mile without having died at least five times.
The one exception being the guide in Bagan, who was in need of a career change. Too long in the business. “He marshalled his facts with precision and delivered them with the fluency of a lecturer delivering a lecture he has repeated too often. But I did not want to know the facts he gave me. What did it matter to me what kings reigned there, what battles they fought and what lands they conquered. I was content to see them as a low relief on a temple wall in a long procession, with their hierarchic attitudes, seated on a throne and receiving gifts from envoys and subjugated nations, or else, with a confusion of spears, in the hurry and skelter of chariots, in the turmoil of battle.”

Té in first class on the train to Kalaw

Mandalay - UD and our driver, who invited us to his humble home in Sagaing

'Five hundred miles away from home' behind the steering wheel on the death road from Yangon to Pyay 


“The days followed one another with a monotony in which there was something impressive. In the life of cities we are conscious but of fragments of days; they have no meaning of their own, but are merely parts of time in which we conduct such and such affairs; we begin them when they are already well on their way and continue with them without regard to their natural end. But here they had completeness and one watched them unroll themselves with stately majesty from dawn to dusk; each day was a flower, a rose that buds and blooms and, without regret but accepting the course of nature, dies. And this vast sun-drenched plain was a fit scene for the pageant of that ever-recurring drama. The stars were like the curious who wander upon the scene of some great event, a battle or an earthquake, that has just occurred, first one by one timidly and then in bands, and stand about gaping or look for traces of what has passed.”

The End

With thanks to William Somerset Maugham and 'The Gentleman in the Parlour'

Dining room, Seven Sisters, Kalaw

First class, Kalaw slow train

Green Haven Hotel, Kalaw

Green Haven Hotel, Kalaw

'English style' houses, Kalaw


Original British colonial house - Kalaw

Kalaw railway station


Pyay - 1830s

Pyay - 1830s

Zawgyi House cafe, Yangon - 2013
when in dire need of a cappuccino