In a way it's like every Asian city rolled into one, but poorer. Blistering heat, cracked pavements, foot-high curbs, Stalinist towers linked by thick anarchic tangles of electrical wires, occasional colonial buildings whose stains and tarnish cannot conceal their magnificent bones, dense fields of sidewalk stalls hawking food and every cheaply made article under the sun, ancient automobiles of every description converted into taxis.
(Yesterday I rode in a red Volkswagen van which I think was older than I am to the Savoy Hotel, a converted colonial mansion, where I ate at Kipling's restaurant and drank at the Captain's Bar while watching Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea. I suppose I should have quaffed gin-and-tonics rather than Dagon beer to make the colonial kabuki play complete. Note to HP Lovecraft fans; Yangon/Rangoon's original name, for some 500 years, was Dagon.)
It's located at the juncture of three rivers, not far at all from the ocean, beneath the hill which is allegedly the most sacred spot on Earth. Said hill is now host to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most colossal temple in all of Myanmar. The main pagoda, and the forest of lesser towers and filigreed halls full of colourful Buddhas that surround it, are indeed quite impressive; I overheard a guide claiming that they were decorated with a full 60 tons of gold; but what I liked most about the place was the vast plaza that surrounded it, and its endless nooks and crannies, and its laid-back feel. People come here to worship, yes, but also just to hang out. I would like churches far more if they were the same.
From the Pagoda you can see Rangoon sprawled out before you like a reeking corpse. That's unflattering, isn't it? But there's no denying: the city smells. A little fresher near its inland lakes, Inya and Kandawgyi (sic?), where the upscale suburbs full of embassies can be found. But even riper near the rivers, where the jetties are strewn with filth and chaos, where hawkers shielded from the awful sun by parasols sell fruits and other foods of every description and some that threaten to defy any at all. The traffic there, both human and industrial, is teeming and constant. (But no motorcycles; they are banned in the city center, as autorickshaws are in downtown Mumbai.) Another pagoda down by the river is all but sealed off by a gigantic wall of shipping containers.
The downtown is divided into occasional wide one-way avenues interspersed with many narrow alleyways thick with life, and commerce, and dogs. The sheer number of feral dogs in Myanmar must be immense. They find places in the shade to hide, during the worst of the day, but in the last hour before dusk they come forth. I saw packs numbering in the dozens in the shadows of the temples of Bagan, and another ranging up the train tracks in central Rangoon this afternoon, beneath the monumental four pagoda-like towers of the central train station, keeping a wary but not fearful distance from the humans doing the same. They are silent and watchful. One could almost get the sense that they are waiting for something.
Not so the human population. What they have been waiting for - freedom - seems at last to be at hand, after fifty years of military tyranny, and the city is erupting with life, action, noise, trade. Department stores and new hotels are under construction all through the downtown. Shirtless labourers pause to stare at flocks of beautiful young women in filigreed cheongsam-like outfits beneath delicately decorated parasols. Elderly taxi drivers regard their new city with some suspicion; they have no longer seen it all. Bald Buddhist monks mingle in the markets, small groups of fresh-faced bespectacled teenagers, or lone burly men in with tattoos beneath their saffron robes. Even during the heat of midday hardly anyone lingers. Everyone seems to have a mission. Except for me.
Not far east of my hotel is the Ministers' Building, once the seat of Burma's government: a gargantuan colonial complex of red brick, occupying an entire huge city block. Seven years ago the government was moved to a purpose-built city midway between Yangon/Rangoon and Mandalay, and today the complex languishes abandoned, its grounds thickly overgrown, rusted strands of barbed wire green with moss dangling from its outer fence. Aung San and his entire cabinet were assassinated in this building, one dark and bloody day fifty years ago, before the military took over.
Now there is talk of converting the entire edifice into another four- or five-star hotel. To an outsider that may seem somehow disrespectful of the past; but then, in Burma, and especially Rangoon, the past is not something that anyone wishes to cherish or celebrate. This is a city giving itself with abandon to the future.
That dusty land of many temples. And you mean many. Eighty percent of them razed or devoured by the ravenous mile-wide Irrawadday River, and still nearly three thousand of them remain, crammed into a mere hundred or so square kilometres of dusty land. More than two thousand pagodas and monastery, ranging in size from "chapel" to "cathedral", all red brick covered by whatever may remain of weather-eaten plaster, occupying the foreground, background, and skyline in every direction, jutting into the sky above rice paddies, bushes, cactus walls, thatched farmhouses, five-star hotels, an eighteen-hole golf course. Some remain original, but most have been reconstructed -- unconvincingly --
"What about you, Marlowe? Do you think my reconstruction methods have become...unsound?"
"I don't see...any method at all...sir."
-- but they're still magnificent, eerie, mindbending. Especially at dusk, when the hordes of feral dogs who infest the area appear out of nowhere and make it look like a land sacred to canine gods rather than human ones. But truth be told, you're a little templed out, and the sight of just one more gilded Buddha might make you wince, or groan, or even howl with some kind of cumulative fury.
So you take the bus. Easy enough. It comes to pick you up, at your guesthouse on the warren of motorcycle-ridden dusty streets called Old Bagan that overlaps the Monument Zone. Almost every establishment on these streets caters to tourists; there is almost no industry other than Bagan, in Bagan.
Only ten minutes out of town it is different. Everything is ragged, hardscrabble, utilitarian. The villages are wooden buildings with mostly thatched roofs, maybe one or two of corrugated metal. Roadside stalls sell gasoline in converted one-liter water bottles. The road is pitted but decent, and mostly empty; motorcycles are ubiquitous in Burma, but gasoline is expensive, and inter-city transit prohibitive.
Beyond the road's laterite red and the brown villages there is little but green on green. Rice paddies, orchards of some spindly trees, tufts and thickets and clusters of bushes, flood plains filled with palm trees, steep hills dark green with thick uncultivated vegetation. Some few are topped by white-and-gold temples.
The bus has room for forty but carries only twenty: fifteen Burmese, dressed in longyis, mostly burdened with many bags of cargo carried as errand or favour; two elderly German women; a French couple; and you. The seats are large and comfortable, air conditioning hisses down to every seat, and floral curtains cover the windows against the sun. Music videos and surprisingly well-made Burmese movies play on the television at the front, with the soundtrack turned up to 11. The faces of the women and children are chalked with the by-now-familiar pale tree-bark paste. Here it is not artfully arranged, as it is in stylish Mandalay; here it is streaked and smeared.
You stop for lunch at a large roadside restaurant of wooden terraces, where soup and rice and a Coca-Cola cost you a combined 1500 kyat (US~$1.90), a dark cloud of flies buzzes around the block of squat toilets, and women sell small roast chickens and other less identifiable foods for the road from trays balanced on their heads. Back on the bus, and then, suddenly, the highway.
A gleaming, divided, four-lane highway that connects Yangon and Mandalay. It is almost entirely deserted but for buses. Once you pass a man in a ragged longyi with a wicker basket on his back, striding along the path worn into the highway median, carrying a bright C-shaped scythe in his hand, like some Burmese avatar of Death. And green, green, green, hills and trees and rivers but mostly an endless almost-indistinguishable green, a sea of life. Rainy season only just ended.
The penumbra of townships that surrounds Rangoon come as a rude shock. As does the smog, which you try to convince yourself is fog.
Notes from the Burma Road
I write to you from Pyin U Lwin, née Maymya, roughly seventy horizontal kilometers east and a thousand vertical meters up from Mandalay, in Myanmar aka Burma. It's a town originally built by the British as their summer capital; every year their civil service would move here en masse
for several months to escape the brutal heat of Rangoon. They left behind a church, a clocktower, a number of magnificent colonial buildings now converted into hotels or government offices, the loveliest botanical gardens
I've ever seen, and sizable Indian and Anglo-Burman
populations. There's also a railway station, of course, on the line from Mandalay to Lashio, which in turn was one terminus of World War II's famous Burma Road.
But enough of history. If ever a nation has had too much of history, it is this one, and today, at last, it seems to finally be shrugging off history's yoke. Today the streets of Pyin U Lwin bustle with thousands of motorcycles (and scores of horse-carriages) and shake with the passing of Toyota trucks. On the road here, the 'gas station' we stopped at consisted of a few metal barrels from which gasoline was siphoned into large aluminum kettle-like containers, which were then poured into cars via a big aluminum funnel; but that was an aberration. Directly across the divided highway was a modern (albeit Chinese-style, not Western-style) gas station, and I've seen far more of the latter than the former.
Wandering around yesterday, I came upon, to my surprise and delight, a very new and very modern Japanese lakefront restaurant serving Thai, Chinese, and even sushi. I hadn't even known there was a lake. Discretion being the better part of inland Burmese sushi, I didn't try it, but still. There was free wi-fi, too, slow but acceptable. I haven't come across any blocked sites at all, although uploads to Flickr seem to be barred in some way - they begin, get to about 5-10%, zero out, begin again, etc. ad infinitum.
Many of the women and children here wear wing-shaped pats of clay smeared artfully upon either cheek (and sometimes chin and forehead too) allegedly as sunscreen and moisturizer, which gives them the look of going about semi-masked at all time. Girls also start riding motorcycles at a young age, so it's not uncommon to see two teenage clay-faced girls roaring along on a motorbike, one driving and the other riding sidesaddle, in flowing clothes utterly devoid of any road-rash protection...with one or even both in conversation on their mobile phone. It's pleasingly surreal.
On the whole, though, this is really no longer the Land That Time Forgot. True, there are no chain stores here, and I've seen no Western brands at all except for Coke, Pepsi, and Apple, but while Burma/Myanmar is much less wealthy than Thailand or even Cambodia, it really doesn't qualify as remote and isolated any more. Twice now I've been passed while walking by gleaming new tour buses full of elderly Europeans. Everyone seems very pleased to see so many tourists - many smile and/or cry out "Hello!" to me as I pass - but no longer surprised. And this is just the beginning; once ATM and credit-card connections are forged (right now it's a cash-only country) and visas-on-arrival are implemented, the floodgates are really
going to open. After all, it's only US$200 return from Bangkok to either Mandalay or Yangon.
This whole post-tyrannical phase is deeply weird for the traveller; I can only imagine what it's like for the Burmese. Is it OK to spend money at government-owned establishments now that Aung Sun Suu Kyi picked up her Nobel Peace Price and joined the parliament? (Although technically she's still barred from the presidency because her sons are foreign citizens; this restriction, though, is widely expected to be loosened before the 2015 elections.) Pyin U Lwin is a resort for wealthy Burmese and Chinese -- there's a golf course, and a dozen high-end hotels. Do the worldly, fashionably dressed packs of young rich Burmese I saw laughing and goofing off in the botanical gardens today feel unease about their families' presumed complicity with the military government? Or relief that they're no longer international pariahs? Do they expect amnesty, or fear prosecution? Do they think about it at all?
While waiting for our visas at the Bangkok embassy, the subtext of most discussion was "I'm so glad I get to go there now
, before it's ruined!
" To which I couldn't help but think: what, ruined by democracy and freedom? Come on!
And yet. I can't say I didn't understand. To the traveller Myanmar always loomed large as another world entirely, one shrouded behind the curtain of tyranny; travelling there, it was said, was like travelling back in time. No longer. I felt far more in-another-world in the global shipping hub of Djibouti last year than I do here. Of course being connected to the world, and its wealth, and its investors, and its goods and medicines and technologies, is inarguably a good thing; and yet, for the travellers who seek places away from not just the madding crowds but that web of roads and wires called modern society, it's a little bittersweet to see them all being slowly eaten up, one by one, year after year.
Well, not all
. You can get really remote and isolated and untouched-by-the-modern-world if you really want to, still; you can mount an expedition to the Danakil Depression, or the Irian Jaya jungle, or the remote mountain fasts of western Nepal; it just takes a whole lot of time and work and money. And in Burma/Myanmar it's arguably a moot point, as it was already heavily economically influenced by China before the doors were opened to the West. It's still a really interesting place, in this weird time of flux.
But as much as I approve of the web of packets and supertankers and shipping containers that connects us all, I'm glad I commenced my travelling career before it was quite so pervasive. In China in 1997 and West Africa in 1998 I felt - because I was
- far away in genuinely alien lands, to which one could venture and return (and make phone calls) but not expect to check your e-mail daily or eat at Pizza Hut in every major city. It seems kind of a shame to me that today's generation of travellers will never have that same experience unless they put a whole lot of time and effort into it. The changes are for the greater good, of course, but at the same time, I think it's fair to say that something has been lost.
Some thoughts on Hilary Mantel's A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY
- This is a phenomenal book. The other Mantel I've read is WOLF HALL, which is a terrific book and I don't begrudge it its Booker one bit; but it isn't a patch on A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.
- No, I take it back, I suppose do begrudge the WOLF HALL win a bit, because the implication is "if you read just one Hilary Mantel book, make it this one!" and that ain't so.
- One thing she does phenomenally well here, and I can't think of any other examples at all come to think of it, is portray a cohort of colourful, intelligent friends who by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time seize - and are seized by - History. But they were by no means destined for it. If the aristocrats had been just a little less corrupt and incompetent, they could have tottered on for another 5-10 years before revolution came, and then it wouldn't have been Camille/Danton/Robespierre's revolution. (And what then of Bonaparte?)
- As a result, the character's don't feel like Camille Desmoulins, and Danton, and Robespierre, the titans of history; they feel more like people you know. In fact, I couldn't help occasionally casting friends of mine as them (and as Lucile, and as Anne Théroigne) as I read, and I bet I'm not the only one.
- She does this by not beginning with "the cataclysm" - the days before Bastille Day - but rather with a slow burn and build starting from the births of our three protagonists, and their schooling, and their collective finding of feet in the legal profession, and Camille's initial relationship with Lucile and her mother - all very historically accurately, but not Historical Events, if you take my meaning. But it works, not least because Mantel's such a terrific writer that even at this stage her sentences are like rapier thrusts.
- She also completely convincingly portrays the slow transformation of Robespierre from unpaid advocate for the poor / devout anti-death-penalty activist to mild-mannered blood-drenched dictator. Every step along that road makes sense. It's his very saintliness, his purity, that is the source of the Terror, in the end. I feel like I understand Orwell's famous line "Saints must always be considered guilty until proven innocent" a little better now.
- Whereas Danton is corrupt and verging on amoral, and Camille a headstrong enfant terrible, but both are still pragmatic idealists, in their own way, unlike purist idealists, like Robespierre and Saint-Just.
- I'm reminded of a conversation with my sister once, about why right-wing political groups so often seem so much more effective than left-wing ones (cf. the right-wing governments in left-wing UK and Canada, where the liberal votes are split across two parties.) The conclusion we came to is that most right-wingers -- the non-religious types, for instance -- don't really care if their fellow-travellers-of-the-moment are ideologically pure: Tea Party? Libertarian? Wall Street mogul? Whatever! "We'll all work together now, and sort out our differences later!" Whereas left-wingers tend to put much greater stress on ideological purity: "How can we possibly work together now, before we sort out our differences?"
- There's a real extra frisson/edge to reading this book in Cambodia, which suffered through the worst of all revolutions thirty-five years ago (one which killed an estimated one-third of the population); Bangkok, a gleaming ultramodern city of skyscrapers and skytrains which still had a gargantuan mob of armed insurrectionists occupying its streets not two years ago; and now Burma, which has been in the iron fists of tyrants for decades ... except that over the last two years said tyrants have been unilaterally relaxing that iron grip, something almost unprecedented. Visceral reminders all that revolutions don't just take place in historical fiction.
- Camille, Danton, and Robespierre were the protagonists of APoGS, but it became increasingly clear to me as the book progressed that Lucile was the hero, inasmuch as there was one. And her transformation from callow shallow twelve-year-old to revolutionary princess and warrior was quite superbly depicted.
- I wonder if the Terror would have been possible without the guillotine. It just wasn't possible, before the invention of that dread device, to execute so many people so quickly with anything like the decorum that a state execution requires. The very notion wouldn't even have occurred to people. But once it became possible to slaughter the enemies of the state in a neat, almost surgical manner, at a rate of one every five minutes... well, then, it became almost inevitable that someone would start doing so.
- One thing that struck me; if France was riven by discord, and the streets of Paris running red with the blood of the Terror, why were its armies ultimately so insanely effective? A theory: at the time, European warfare was in large part a game in which aristocrats could show how brave they were while killing off thousands of the lower classes. So their armies were incredibly inefficient. Whereas the French army, once suitably revolutionized -- eg by the execution of generals on the word of their maltreated troops, at the hands of (25-year-old!) Saint-Just when he was at the front -- improved drastically in both valor and efficiency.
- Looking back, the French Revolution was just a hopeless and hapless disaster; some 20,000 people died in the Terror and the September massacres, including almost all of the flower of the Revolution itself, and yet, a mere decade after Bastille Day, Napoleon was King in all but name. I suppose, though, we have to forgive some of the many incredible mistakes they made, as no one had ever made them before; they were making it up as they went. And they killed each other for it.