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Beyond pagodas

Myanmar: In Theroux's tracks


TALL TALES: The impressive Sule Pagoda is no longer the defining icon of Yangon's skyline. Highrises now make it look like any other Asian city

A traveler retraces an author's footsteps to find a Burma beyond pagodas and politics.

For a destination that has been receiving so much attention, Myanmar continues to remain as mysterious as ever. Its popular images are those of its pagodas in Bagan, its barefooted boy monks with their black lacquered alms bowls, the leg rowers of Inle Lake, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi. This is how movies on Burma begin and end and this is how travel guides touting its status as the next hottest destination tempt tourists.

I was curious to see if there is another face of the country that revealed a bit more of the mythical Myanmar. And for this I turned to Paul Theroux.

Published in 1975, Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar is widely considered to be among one of the great travel books of all times. In essence, it is a chronicle of his train journeys beginning from London to the far east and back, crossing Burma on the way. It is helplessly obnoxious and colonial in parts, but consistently revealing. In the book, Theroux declares that his only objective in Burma is to see the Gokteik gorge and the bridge that spanned it. Built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company for the British Raj at the turn of the twentieth century, the Gokteik Viaduct (then the second highest in the world) was considered an engineering marvel.

Today, the Gokteik Viaduct has few fans and those that travel over its creaking contours are in search of other destinations, but Theroux's broad itinerary -Rangoon to Mandalay to Maymyo to Gokteik and beyond - remains a fascinating one, not least because it takes you across the length of the country, from bustling cities to northern hill states through former royal capitals and more.


Theroux begins his journey in Yangon (then Rangoon) and finds himself at the heart of the city, a. k. a Sule Pagoda Road. He describes it as "mobbed with people, dressed identically in shirt, sarong, and rubber sandals, men and women alike puffing thin green cheroots and looking like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes". Today, you are likely to find the scene altered, including a generation of men of who have slipped into fake Levi's and polo t-shirts.

There still remains a fair share of longyi wearing Burmese, their faces streaked with thanaka paste, but the green cheroots are few and far between. Instead, the Burmese have taken to eating paan with a vengeance and now sport, nearly without exception, reddened mouths and ruined teeth. The road is also now a hub of tourists, who throng its sidewalks - eyes glued to their maps, cameras ready - looking a bit stunned that Yangon looks like a regular city after all. Gleaming hotels, trade towers, busy cafês, boutique shops, art galleries, even a shopping mall (the malls may soon outnumber the pagodas) jostle with streetside tea stalls, betel leaf stands, and vendors hawking mohingar (a noodle and fish soup that many consider the national dish).

A quick escape to Bogyoke Market (Scotts Market to most foreigners) restores some semblance of Burmese sensibility with rows of shops selling goods typical of the country: colorful longyis, jewelry of jade and rubies, teakwood handicrafts, and - perhaps the most popular item - money. Myanmar is an all-cash economy and for travellers it is essential they carry wads of Kyats, the local currency, wherever they go. The best exchange rates are to be found here.

It is easy to get addicted to Yangon: its small but thriving night life, its love of street side teastalls where one can drink endless cups of green tea for nothing at all, it's clean, wide avenues that take you through leafy lanes and past football games, its crumbling colonial facades, its easy energy and welcoming vibe. But I have a bus to catch.


The 'Road to Mandalay', first made iconic by Rudyard Kipling in his eponymous poem, is today a multi lane expressway that takes you from one former capital to another in just under 10 hours, with the convenient option of leaving at 9 in the night and arriving around 7 am the next day. Theroux did this stretch in a train, an excruciating journey that can take up to 17 hours. The city displeases him and he describes it as "large but without interest". It is true that those arriving in Mandalay in search of untold exotica will be disappointed. In contrast to its image, Mandalay is a rather fresh faced newcomer on Burma's historical landscape. Its days of glory are not even two centuries old, when it became the capital city of the King Mindon, considered the last great Burmese king. His palace - an imposing structure with a moat around - is among the great attractions of the city. Theroux was unable to visit it - it had been put off limits by the military government that had come to power in the bloody coup of 1962. Today, you might find yourself jostling with a crowd, local and foreign in equal parts, while buying tickets. Also no longer valid is Theroux's jibe: "Mandalay has two hotels, one cheap, the other expensive. Both are uncomfortable, " so I chose the cheap one. " As any travel booking website will attest, there are well over a couple of dozen stay options, ranging from the high end to the homey (one of them, the Hotel by the Red Canal, curiously boasts of a fabulous North Indian restaurant ). However, unlike Yangon's Sule Pagoda Road, there is really no "downtown" in Mandalay that offers you all its attractions at walking distance. The trick is to treat Mandalay as a gateway to a greater past.


Amarapura, an ancient town that preceded Mandalay as the royal capital, is a 30 minute taxi ride (read pick-up truck) away from the Mandalay Palace. It's where you find the world's longest teak bridge, known as U Bein's bridge. Easily one of the world's most photogenic sites, a walk across its length takes the better part of an hour and is filled with encounters with locals. Groups of boy monks, Sennheiser earphones hugging their tonsured heads, dance past;lovers canoodle on the benches;families giggle-gaggle their way through, filling up on sodas and savouries;young men sit contemplatively and chain smoke packets of Red Ruby cigarettes;souvenier sellers - all young girls - flirt with foreigners and coyly promise them marriage in return for the purchase of a trinket. This goes on till the sun, reluctantly, sets over the placid waters of the Taungthaman lake.

It is still true that Mandalay is dusty (" so dusty at night the lanterns on the pony carts and the headlights of wooden buses shine as if through thick fog" ) and at this time of the year, uncomfortably warm, so I wasn't too unhappy leaving it for my next stop: Pyin Oo Lwin. This time I decide to follow Theroux more literally and take the train.


Theroux knew Pyin Oo Lwin as Maymyo, the rough equivalent of Dehradun, but with cooler temperatures and a more compelling beauty. The train from Mandalay leaves at 4 am and reaches Pyin Oo Lwin just as a milky dawn breaks over town. Theroux had the opportunity to ride into town in a horse-drawn carriage but I have to settle for a bike-taxi. But we both have the same destination: Candacraig, estd. 1904. "The name was Scottish, the place really a chummery for unmarried officers of the Bombay-Burma Trading Company, to keep the lads out of trouble in the hot season after months in remote timber estates: here they could take cold showers and play rugby, cricket and polo. "

Candacraig is now called 'Thiri Myaing Hotel" and it looks like a well maintained ghost house. Owned by a local tycoon with strong links to the military government, it had been passed over by foreign tourists in favour of smaller, independent guesthouses - a situation that has its echoes across the country. Its tariff is also ludicrously high.

It is possible to stay on for days in Pyin Oo Lwin, enjoying the weather, the beautiful gardens - the sprawling Kandawgyi botanical gardens alone will absorb you for a full day - and cycling through the tranquil insouciance of the place. Only the curiousity of crossing the Gokteik bridge can pull you away.

At the time Theroux made his journey, the legality of travelling to the northern states, to Gokteik and farther north to Lashio, close to the China border, was questionable. Of course, Theroux did cross the Gokteik viaduct (" a monster of silver geometry" ) and even had a glimpse of the bridge briefly through "veils of threadbare silk". At the end, he writes, he still didn't know whether he was "going to get arrested for going through forbidden territory". My journey is devoid of any such adventures. The man at the Pyin Oo Lwin station who sold me my $5 Upper Class ticket repeatedly told me to take many pictures. (This is not to suggest that there are no troubled areas in Myanmar. When you get your visa at the Myanmar Embassy, you are politely told that "due to security reasons and personal safety, foreign visitors will not be allowed to travel to . . . areas in Kachin state".

Theroux had turned back at Naung Peng, a small station after Gokteik, but having come all this way without a real interest in the viaduct, I push ahead, first to Hsipaw and then to Lashio. Hsipaw is an ancient mountain valley town along the winding Namtu river and is a near perfect mix of the contemporary and the time-honored. There is a clear northsouth divide here. North of Hsipaw is all Shan palaces, teak monasteries, watermelon fields and bamboo homes with cheroot smoking grand aunts picking tamarind rinds in the courtyard. To the south is a backpacker haven with guesthouses and restaurants, longyi workshops, cheap bars and colorful open markets. It is a convenient base for up country treks into the heart of Shan villages like Pankam and Namshan and the town is beginning to build itself up around this newfound interest in their land. Lashio, on the other hand, is no place for the tourist. Not because it is forbidden, but rather because there is nothing at all. Except Chinese electronics.
Lashio is my last stop and for my return to Yangon I want to try a mode of transport that Theroux didn't have the luxury of: Myanmar domestic aviation.

In most countries, even poor ones, airports tend to stand out as islands of development. In Lashio, the best that can be said about the airport is that it is an intact shed with three benches and one desk. About 2 hours before the flight, a neatly dressed woman appears behind the desk and puts down a placard that says "check in". People saunter up to her, chat, update her with gossip and hand them their tickets (the old booklet style). She painstakingly inscribes the details in neat longhand into a register and hands them their boarding card, informing them that the flight is 2 hours delayed. Instead of getting angry, the passengers just dust their longyis and resume their animated conversations.

But like in the rest of the country, there is change ahead. Past the security area, a concrete structure was being repaired, a new coat of paint applied. Lashio, like rest of Myanmar, expects new arrivals: traders and businessmen, travellers and explorers. The country has had to wait long for this, has had to suffer the fact that for too many of us, Myanmar became an image of its Government, and the people - some of the world's friendliest - were erased from our imagination, leaving only lifeless pagodas and political postcards as references.

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