Saturday, May 26, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 14 - Burmese Days in Katha

Time again for a rest day. I was on the west bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River, in the northernmost part of Upper Burma. I had never heard of the town of Katha before I began researching this journey, but I learned that it was important in colonial times as the last outpost of civilization before the hinterlands of interior Asia.

Young Orwell spouting a moustache style that
has for some reason, gone out of favor.
In the early nineteen twenties, a young Englishman came to Katha in the service of the Indian Imperial Police. His name was George Orwell. He served in Katha until 1927, and seven years later, in 1934, he published his first book in what would become an important literary career. Orwell's first book, Burmese Days, is a tale of impotence, intolerance and imperialism. It's the story of a man who is beset by physical deformations, without a wife at an age which he should be married and beset by the cheap alcohol and easy living of the tropics.
I visited this tea shop on consecutive mornings. This old lady was there on both days. I suspect she's there every day.

I've said in earlier blogs that Orwell's protagonist is someone you want to sympathize with, but can't because he lets the reader down in one or another in every chapter, particularly in the last. Anyways, the protagonist and I have several things in common.
Which did you see first? Fish or butt?
First of all, we both suffer from a cosmetically disturbing condition. For him, it was a birthmark on his face, He was constantly compensating for it, turning his face unnaturally so that others couldn't see his deformation. For me, it's my psoriasis. My legs immediately draw people's eyes because of how disgusting they are. Furthermore, John Flory, the protagonist, likes to wake up and add alcohol to his coffee. He engages in carnal relations with the natives, but marriage doesn't enter his mind. Yeah, I've done that too. 

I'm not horsing around
Flory eventually undertakes some heroic acts, and I think my journeys might be called that, but his past acts catch up with him. I hope my current girlfriend doesn't come into church yelling what I've done... 

Enjoy my Burmese day in "Kyauktada" 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myannmar 13 - To Burmese Days

In this leg of the journey, I had to turn around. I was saddened by this; no proper motorcycle loop includes parts where you return and head back down roads you've already come up. Alas, I was not allowed to continues northwards deeper into Kachin State. These were disputed lands - they were places no foreigner was allowed to go. 

The proprietor of the place I had breakfast was wearing a shirt with the Shan
flag on it. Here he is with his wife. 
As I discuss in the video, something that surprised me about my time there at Indawgyi Lake and its environs was the the people who lived there, the people who cooked that delicious beef curry; they were not Kachin people. No, that part of Myanmar has been inhabited by Shan people. The Shan are ethnically similar to the Thai people and they happen to inhabit the southern end of Kachin state all the way up to the India border. It may be the KIA contributing the ruckus up there, but the average Somchan round the lake isn't K. 

My backtracking was only a few dozen miles and then I was able to make a left. Over (what I thought would be) my last range of hills on the journey. Down into the valley of the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River, back to where I started, in the heart of the Burmese plains. 

And it was in the Burmese plains that I started to read Burmese Days by George Orwell. If you were to create a top 5 list for the best English writers of the 20th Century, Orwell would be in consideration for that list. Well, he certainly would be if it were for the most famous English writers of the previous century. In any case, Orwell is very much connected to Myanmar because he spent most of his 20's here, working as a policeman on the Imperial service. He was stationed at a medium-sized town in the Irrawaddy called Katha.
Add caption
Although he doesn't mention it by name, his experiences in Katha were his inspiration for his first best-selling book, Burmese Days

If you haven't read it, I would recommend it, but with the forewarning that you won't feel better after reading it. It's a thoroughly depressing tale of racism, impotence, incompetence and imperialism. None of the characters are relatable in any way. Every character in the book is despicable in one way or another. Even the protagonist disappoints you in every chapter. And how the book ends, then you get disappointed by the writer. 

Anyways, there I was in Katha, the place where this book was set. I sat reading it within a few hundred yards where Orwell had experienced it. I went to the tennis courts. I could picture where the old ex-pat club used to be... I bought a copy of the book and started reading it there in the town... and it was profound.

Profoundly disturbing.

When I teach English, I try to speak slowly and clearly. Students have commended me on being easily understood. When I'm talking spontaneously to the camera on a travel video, this isn't always the case, so, here on the blog,  the transcript of me talking about Burmese Days from 5:56 to __ in the video.  I'm transcribing it because I think it's an important revelation that I want to remember . 

So I'm sitting here in Katha, the place where this book, Burmese Days, was inspired by.  The place where the events took place... well.. it's a fictional story but Orwell was inspired by his time his time here, as a policeman, way up in Upper Burma, 

And it's funny, I'm only on page 28 and already I can see some of the attitudes, mannerisms of the white people in this book, who are, on the whole, a rather despicable lot, in how they treat the Burmese people. (mumble mumble)

But there are certain aspects, for example, I was out on the road today, and my throat was dry and I pull into a restaurant and I just want a beer. And I look and I say, bia shi la? Which, to the best of my ability is how you say, "Do you have beer?" and they look at me like... ???...
You can se the fear in her eyes.  

The girl was scared.. Intimidated by me. You can see it in her face. 
See, even now I'm mocking then in how afraid they were in having a white person in their establishment in this rural restaurant where no white people ever comes to, and
OMG they're so different and Ohhh! (mumble mumble)

Anyways, I got a little angry. I got impatient. Barked at them in English, which of course they didn't understand. It was stupid. Yannow.
You say you don't have beer and then look, I found it. OF COURSe you have beer! Beer! Give me one! MMerrr... 

I'd love to work somewhere that your could wear pajamas to work. 

It's like I was character out of this book.They would do something like that. And that's what I did today.

And I have to reflect. My role and attitudes and position, here, in what used to be called Burma.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 12 - Indawgyi Lake

On the evening of my arrival at lovely Indawgyi Lake, I was relaxing on the patio of the guesthouse, looking out onto the calm waters of Myanmar's largest natural lake. Off to the north, I heard explosions, something between the sound of thunder and fireworks. It wasn't a furious bombardment; there were two salvos a couple minutes apart. Based on the concerned looks on the faces of the locals around me, the nature of these booms were what I thought. These explosions were the sounds of war.

I had been told the area around Indawgyi was dangerous. The hills to the west of the lake and all the area north of it was off-limits. Landmines and rebel camps are reported to exist. The Kachin Independence Army is active in the area. I knew this on an intellectual level, but it was quite different to hear shelling in real life. I've never heard artillery being fired before.  I've seen it thousands of times on TV and in films, but actually listen to the sounds of groups of armed men trying to kill each other put a lump in my throat.
Maybe they were firing at the ogres
The other expat who happened to be staying at the guesthouse started to talking about fleeing south to nearest large town. I certainly was starting to reconsider my plan to head north the next morning and exploring the sights on the lake shore. 

After a quiet evening in the morning light, the threat of a few shells being fired didn't seem so ominous. It hadn't been a proper battle. It was probably just the Myanmar military reminding the KIA that they were there. Off I went to explore the lake. 

Some points of note that you'll see on the video: 

At 2:35, you'll see a long stretch of large structures. Behind them were a line of bathrooms. These buildings were obviously meant to be inhabited, but given that there were no walls or internal divisions, they weren't permanent dwellings. My guess is that this was a camp for displaced persons - refugees. Whether they were intended for people displaced by natural disasters or conflict, this camp could handle thousands. 

I also saw the mis-named "Bamboo Buddha". I guess the alliterative name sounds better than "Rattan Buddha". 

Ultimately, I enjoyed my full day of rest at Indawgyi Lake, but whereas I had originally intended to spend two days, I was eager to head out in the morning. 

Enjoy the video. I've moved away from the bluegrass music theme for the background music.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 11: Into Kachin

Northward ho! The journey continues as I leave the town of Indaw with a goal of Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State. The similarity of the names of the two places must be coincidental. They're a good 125 km apart. I'm not sure what "Indaw" means, but I know that "gyi" means "big". So we're going from Indaw to Big Indaw.

The countryside was typically agricultural out of Indaw.  Lots of beautiful rice paddies to be seen out of town. After another range of hills, I got to the border of Kachin State. At the moment, there's been a breakout of violence in Kachin. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been fighting the central government of Myanmar on and off for 60 years. After a long period of ceasefire, the fighting flared up again in 2011 and has been ongoing ever since with the conflict increasing over the last few months.
Welcome to Kachin!
Consequently, the gov't restricts access to the state in general, and forbids foreigners from large parts of it. Whether this is out of concern for the safety of visitors or not wanting outsiders to see what's going on, I'm not sure.

In any case, this photo was taken by a border guard whilst he was detaining me to check my bona fides and see if I was okay to enter this disputed area. If I hadn't stopped to take a picture of the sign with me "now entering Kachin State", I wouldn't have been stopped at all. Instead, I was detained for 20 minutes while they photocopied everything from my passport (I guess they needed to go into town to make the photocopies, because 20 minutes was a long time). 

There were a couple my ranges of hills before I got to Indawgyi, which was basically as far north as I was allowed to go. I think. I'm not sure. It's very confusing.
The guesthouse on the lake was in a town called Lon Ton, sometimes spelled London. On the north edge of town, there was a military check point. 4-wheeled vehicles were stopped and checked. Motorbike riders were required to dismount and push their bikes through the checkpoint, something I didn't understand as I rolled up and on through.
I just drove right through it with no repercussions. Quickly though, it dawned on me that I was in a "No-Go" zone, and I turned around and went back to London. 

At the guesthouse, I encountered the first foreigner since Mandalay! She was a Dutch grad-student who was spending three months in London, studying the local language. She was also rather snooty and had no interest in talking to a fellow foreigner. 

I spent the whole of the next day at Indawgyi, which I'll document in the next blog, but to conclude, I discovered something I will never forget. The beef curry there at Indawgyi was one of the best things I've eaten in this country. 

Enjoy the video.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 10: Ye-U to Indaw

Having just gone through a grueling ride the day before on my detour down to Ye-U, I wasn’t looking forward to another 250km slog through what I thought was going to be rather boring, dry landscape. My goal on day 11 of the trip was to get to the town of Indaw, which, according to google maps, had accommodations. 

Bike needed washing again
I was back down in agricultural heartland of Myanmar, and so I had expected to see mostly just farmland. Instead, this road through Sagaing Division was as varied and interesting as any other. There were rolling hills, tree-lined smooth highways, scrublands and forests. 
One of the most pleasant aspects of riding through Myanmar is that everywhere you go, most of the highways are
lined with lush trees. It's like driving through a green cave.
Seeing a Buddhist monk on a motorbike always fascinates me. This one is being joined by a few
hundred of his brothers over on the left side of the road.

This is what a truck normally does when you want to pass. They move
over a bit.
When it comes to the driving part, my biggest challenge of the day was getting round a military convoy. Half a dozen large military trucks full of soldiers with assault weapons were making their way up the road (I won’t say where exactly) at a speed that was just a bit slower than I wanted to go. Normally, when there’s a truck in the way on a narrow highway, one simply gives a friendly tap on the horn, and the truck will move over a bit and let one by. Well, first of all, these trucks were so big, they didn’t really have space to do that without going off on the shoulder. Second, there’s a natural reluctance to honk at a truckload of armed men to tell them to get out of one’s way. Hey Myanmar military! Get out of my way! I’m coming through. Umm… No. 

Umm.. excuse me.. sorry to ask..umm... if it's not too
much trouble... could I get by please?
With other big trucks on narrow roads, another option in passing them is to wait for another truck to come along the opposite direction. In those instances, both trucks have to slow down and go off onto the shoulders to pass each other. Then, simply use the motorbike’s superior acceleration to get by. By chance, there were no trucks coming the other way, and so for mile after mile I was stuck behind these dust-churning trucks being stared at sternly by the curious soldiers.  

Unfortunately, you won’t see much of this on the video. Somehow, I thought recording troop movements on my GoPro might get me in trouble. I do live in a country which is still experiencing armed conflict (more on that in later blogs). 

Indaw is a medium-sized town not too from the border with Kachin State. Nothing all that remarkable about it except for the truck graveyard I happened to come across. 

Enjoy the video!  Bluegrass version of a Guns N’ Roses hit! 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 9: Mawlaik to Who Knows Where!

Mawlaik. I was in Mawlaik a day ahead of schedule. I’m  guessing my reader has never heard of the town of Mawlaik; I certainly hadn’t until I began planning this journey through northwest Myanmar. Mawlaik is a little town on the Chindwin River in northern Sagaing division. There are no banks.
There’s two restaurants and two guesthouses. I recommend the AKZ Guesthouse; the other place didn’t seem like they were ready to accept visitors. 

My biggest concern as I rolled into Mawlaik was how I was going to get across the river the next morning. The Chindwin is a formidable river and there wasn’t any bridge linking to the two sides. If I had continued further north on the western bank of the river, I would have ended up in India and nowhere to go from there. The  continuity of the “loop” demanded that I cross the river. 
I needed help. I have a new friend who works part-time as a translator, Nikki. So from the AKZ Guesthouse, I called her up and asked if she could help me out making arrangements to cross the river. I was willing to pay whatever it cost, but I said I didn’t think it should cost more than 10,000. I ended up paying 10,000 Kyats ($7). 

In the course of the translated conversation, the locals there in Mawlaik were really against the idea of me going to my next destination, 75 miles up the Chindwin River to the town of Pyaungbin. No, they said, Pyaungbin is controlled by drug traffickers and rebels. You shouldn’t go there. It’s not safe!
Ha. Telling me I shouldn’t do something is a surefire way to get me to do it. 

After a white-knuckle crossing of the river (I was so freaked out by the boat trip! I really felt like I was gonna end up in the drink!), I headed up the road north towards Pyaungbin. After about 10 miles, the road conditions got so bad that I had to stop and think about what I was doing. It had been raining recently, and much of the road was mud. Now, the CRF250 motorcycle I was on had no problem getting through the mud, but I didn’t enjoy it. Too many bad memories of motorcycle journeys being thwarted by muddy roads. Heck with it.

My plan for the next day was to take a road that only appeared on some maps. Guaranteed to be a torturous miasma of muddy roads. So, I turned around.
I wasn’t getting back on that boat, and the next accommodation was some 250 km away, almost all the way back to Mandalay. I got a flat tire along the way.  It was already dark when I rolled into Ye-U.    


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...