Memories of an Indulgent Burma

I am probably one of the few persons to have been tipped by a taxi driver, instead of the normal reverse transaction being the case. It was a small matter, yet provided an unforgettable moment of illumination of a cultural and spiritual divide between the East, as represented by Burma, and the West. The Driver, affectionately known locally as Oh-oh, charged reasonable sums for ferrying Burmese passengers in his canary-coloured taxi about the southern town of Moulmein, but offered his services free to foreigners deposited there for a day or two when the ship from Rangoon put into port. Most of these fares, Oh-oh had heard, were enjoying a temporary escape from the capital, where visits into the surrounding countryside were not permitted. Like so many of his countrymen he was constantly on the alert for an opportunity to acquire merit, and being kind to foreigners came under the heading of meritorious actions. Where the Menam tied up, the yellow jeep would be seen waiting on the quay, with Oh-oh offering a free ride to the new arrivals to any part of the town, plus a visit to the pagoda at Mudon, a few miles away, if the road happened to be clear of insurgents.

At the end of such trips passengers received a small present in the form of an ornament cut from mother-of-pearl. In my case the gift was a superior-quality bird’s nest. We had visited the caves where the earliest of the season’s nests were being collected, and this was the first ‘number one’ of the day. It had probably been finished only the day before, and was therefore spotlessly clean—a tiny amber saucer constructed from collector gained merit, too, by giving it away, and we shook hands and he congratulated me with a wide smile when Oh-oh passed it over.

Oh-oh now proposed that we should take breakfast—it was by this time midday—by joining a party given by a local family to celebrate the entry of their son into the Buddhist novitiate. We found ourselves in a large hall in which we joined about 200 people seated upon mats on a polished floor. Oh-oh assured me that our host had collected many of the guests at radom off the streets. Girls dressed in old-style finery were going round distributing snacks pickled tea-leaves, salted ginger and shredded prawns. Once again merit-gain was what mattered, and it was an occasion for the family to give a substantial portion of their possessions away. It might take them tow years, Oh-oh thought, to settle the debts incurred by this entertainment.

It was Oh-oh who warned me, when I told him of my hope to travel in the interior of the country, that I should do something to modify the extreme pallor of my skin. “They will not stare because they are polite,” he said, “but the young people in the villages have never seen an Englishman before and they will believe you are Japanese. We are entertained by bad memories of these people.”

“What can I do about it?”

“You can make your face darker by keeping it as much as you can in the sun.”

I this warning seriously, and after three days’ exposure as suggested on the deck of the Menam, my skin was the colour of freshly cut mahogany, except for white circles left by the sunglasses round the eyes. This caused some amusement among the European passengers, but evoked the sympathetic concern of the Burmese, one of whom being the assistant purser, who confided in me his belief that I was the victim of witchcraft.

There was no outright prohibition on foreigners travelling in the interior of Burma at this time, six years after the conclusion of the Second World War, but those who arrived in Rangoon found that such were the obstacles encountered in their efforts to do so that they soon gave up. When I presented my letter of the introduction to U. Thant, head of the Ministry of Information, he saw no reason why I should not go where I wished. Later he admitted that, this being his first experience of a request to travel in the country, he was not sure of the office procedure to be followed. Later still I was to be informed that the US Military Attache had fared no better and that a team sent by Life magazine to do a picture reportage had left after two uninteresting weeks spent in the Strand Hotel, Rangoon.

The days slipped away while I was passed from office to office, handled always with wonderful courtesy, encouraged in my hopes and commiserated with upon my many frustrations. Escape was by the greatest of flukes. Someone told me that a certain powerful general was the only person who could do anything for me. I was admitted to his office to be received by a man overflowing with charm. My face was by this time covered in blisters, but whatever surprise he may have felt at this spectacle, nothing of it showed. The fluke consisted in his occupation at the moment of my arrival with the translation of a recently issued British military manual into Burmese, and this difficulties he had run into, for although he had been at Sandhurst, certain terms employed had since been changed.

“Happen to know anything about this kind of thing?” he asked, and amazingly enough I did. One hour later I left his presence with the pass in my pocket that was open-sesame to any part of Burma. “Damn interesting trip, I should imagine,” he said. “Won’t find it too comfortable, I think, but have a great time.”

The question was where and how to travel at a time when the Burmese army was at grips with give different brands of insurgents in the provinces, and the small town of Syriam, just across the river from Rangoon, was under attack by dacoits. The disruptions of war had left a gap of a dozen miles in the main line connecting Rangoon with the old capital, Mandalay, and steamers using the Irrawaddy to carry goods and passengers up-country were sometimes cannonaded. Travelling rough could still be undertaken on the lorries of traders generally supposed to have come to an arrangement with insurgents bands, but there was nowhere in the interior to stay, not even a single hotel, and the dak bungalows providing rough accommodation in the past were closed or had been destroyed.

Happily Mandalay could still be reached by plane, and two days later I landed there, to be met by Mr Tok Gale of the British Information Service, who told me that he had arranged for me to sleep in the projection room of the town’s only cinema, and would do his best to find a seat for me on a lorry going north. I was astounded to hear that he lived in what was officially described as the town’s dacoit zone, two miles away. Tok Gale instructed me in the protocol of travel by Burmese lorry. Drivers, present them with small gifts, and he suggested that I should carry such items as key-rings and plastic combs. Postcards of the coronation of George VI were also these. “You will be seated next to the driver,” he said. “Please take trouble to compliment him on his driving warning. “Beware in conversation of disparaging dacoits. These persons may be respectable dressed and mingling unobserved with lawful passengers.”

The night of my arrival in Mandaly, while walking in the deserted main street, I was attacked by a pariah dog, which bit me calmly and quietly in the calf before strolling away. Fortunately the only place of business open was a bar, where I bought a bottle of Fire Tank Brand Mandalay Whisky to disinfect the wound. I increased my popularity on the next legs of the trip by sharing the remainder of this with such of my companions who were not subject to a religious fast. From this experience I learned the usefulness of religious fasts when rejecting unappetising food, such as the lizards in black sauce served in the north of Burma in roadside stalls.

The first stretch of the journey was to Myitkyina, where the road came to an end in the north, followed by a route virtually encircling the north-east, through Bhamo, Wanting—almost within sight of China—and Lashio, then weeks later back to Mandalay. At Bhamo, in jade country, you could pick up beautiful pieces of jade for next to nothing, and to my huge delight a circuit house for travelling officials (although there were none) was actually open, run by a butler straight out of the Victorian epoch, who addressed me as ‘honoured sir’, instantly provided tea with eggs lightly boiled, and later a bed with sheets.

A final adventure was protective custody, into which I was taken in the small town of Mu-Se. Once again I slept contentedly, this time in a police station, and by day was accompanied by a heavily armed policemen, who was as much interested as I in wildlife and natural history, on pleasant country walks.

Thereafter all was plain sailing. Children had long since ceased to be alarmed by my ravaged features, and pariah dogs were no longer perturbed by an alien smell. At Bhamo again, I took the river steamer down the Irrawaddy to Mandalay—a pleasure-making excursion, as the man who sold the tickets described it, and he was absolutely right. For three days we chugged softly through delectable riverine scenes. We were entertained by a professional story- teller, musicians strummed on archaic instruments, and once in a while the girls put on old-fashioned costumes to perform a spirited dance. There was a single moment of drama that was more theatrical than alarming. Insurgents hidden in the dense underbrush at the water’s edge fired a few shots. Those on deck took momentary refuge behind the bales of malodorous fish piled there. No one was hurt and by the time I arrived on the scene from below, our military escort, who had blasted away at nothing in particularly, had put down their guns and gone back to their gambling.

Next day Tok Gale welcomed me back in Mandalay.

“No complications with journey, I am hoping? No bad effects from meeting with dog?”

“None at all. Everything went off perfectly. Couldn’t have been better.”

“I am relieved. Well at least something will be done now about all those dogs on our streets.”

“So, you’re actually getting rid of them then?”

“For a while, yes. Abbot U Thein San is taking all these animals into his pagoda compound for feeding and smarten-up. The will be released in a better grame of mind. It is belief that they will give no more trouble. In Mandalay we are used to seeing them. We should be regretful to miss their presence.”

“It’s sto be understood,” I said.

“So how are you planning return to Rangoon?” he asked.

“I’m taking the train.”

Tok Gale seemed doubtful about this. “For train travel they are saying that things are worse than they were. “Rangoon train never arrives at destination.”

“I’ve been hearing that, so I took the precaution of having a horoscope done at the stupa of King Pyu Sawhti.”

“Ah yes. This is famous monarch hatched from egg. And was result satisfactory?”

“Entirely so. The ponggi told me I was good for another thirty years.”

“Well, that is splendid omen,” Tok Gale said. “So 6.15 to Rangoon is holding few terrors for you?”

“How can it after a horoscope like that?”

Tok Gale laughed and shook his head in mock reproach. “Now I must tell you something, Mr Lewis. You are falling into our ways.”