George Orwell became, it seems, an unwitting advertisement for Myanmar, or Burma as he knew it righting not so fictional fiction about a country fighting for an identity and later just fighting for survival against it’s own repressive government.
This isn’t a far historical cry, small towns and cities still cry out with bare openly their scars of a not so distant past. Mawlamyine indeed only this year opened it’s death railway museum accompanying it’s already established memorial grave for foreign victims of its tainted past.
Row after row of Englishmen, Americans and many others caught up in the bloody construction of the railway construction and the struggle under Japanese rule. A tort tale of trickery, manipulation and extortion of a trusting people and prisoners of war.
Not for the first time I was caught unaware of the full events and found my self slowly winding through row after row of graves for my countrymen with tears in my eyes as I read the loving eulogies engraved from absent families.
This small town and the surrounding area is one of the places Orwell was posted during the war and still bares many scars of turmoil and war, but also is a place of crumbling european architecture and modern Burmese triumph, housing the largest reclining Buddha in the world and a pretty impressive, if not a little creepy, mountain complete with shrine and ‘men only’ summit.
Up North is home to the main focus of Orwells stories, Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin.
The boat to Mandalay had me humming and reciting all the songs and literature I could recall about the road to Mandalay, ultimately this just ended with me humming Robbie Williams, thinking of my Mum… not very deep or cultural but it put a smile on my face!
Mandalay never really stood a chance, after Bagan lets me honest no temple stood a chance and in my case, wasn’t enough to make me pay the (in my opinion) extortionate fee. Instead we opted take a tour of Mandalay on foot.
Without a map we soon found our way out of the city in the outlying slums. My cheeks haven’t hurt this much is an age, we were constantly being waved at or smiled at, we spent the day wandering so contentedly we full on missed the sunset at U Bein bridge, the oldest teak bridge in Myanmar and arrived as the boats were bringing their punters back in.
Not ones to miss out we sat ourselves on the bridge edge and caught the last half hour of light and basked in the dusk. Us, the last of the tourists, the young couples (singing to their girlfriends as they looked all twinkly eyed and love struck up at them) and the monks.
These particular monks were especially excited to see us, asking for photos and stopping to talk, even wanting to partake in a selfie.
It has to be said that in comparison to the rest of Myanmar Mandalay felt very lack lustre and inspired little in me except a will to leave. If however you’re there looking for food Shan Ma Ma on 81st St between 29th and 30th is really good for food, we went there 3 times and it’s a gorgeous family run place with amazing cheap food and a lovely host!
In line with the Orwell trail we made a dash out of Mandalay for a trip up to Pyin Oo Lwin for the cooler climates and to admire this hill station of the north. This features heavily in the book ‘Burmese Days’ and I was excited to pick out some places from the book. There’s still a British charm that lingers over the town like an Elephant in a rather small room.
The charm that seems to haunt this fully reclaimed town almost felt unnerving even though the refreshing air and wider streets felt like a chance to breath after the tainted smog of the city, the old colonial buildings and typically cheesy English-esque flower displays merged with the hustle and bustle of Asia and the calls from market stall, was almost an assault on the senses and sent me reeling into a confused yet intrigued frame of mind.
One minute squeezing through crammed market stalls with exposed meat next to kids toys and winter blankets, next thrown onto horse drawn carts to Botanical gardens, I felt like Alice having just fallen down the rabbit hole.