Trip to Burma 1988 at the beginning of the first uprising

Burma 1988

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In my first University holiday I went alone to Burma. 

I travelled via Bangkok and spent a week fighting to get a visa. I was allowed two weeks there and had to comply with an official exchange rate of about 200 times the normal. On advice from a lady in the embassy waiting room, I took whisky to exchange instead.

It was a really difficult country to travel around on your own, especially if you hadn’t really travelled solo before – there weren’t many hotels and those few were very difficult to find.  There weren’t tourist sights/bus rides/other tourists! Luckily I met first a couple of Scottish girls at the airport and then a taxi driver who spoke a little English and agreed to take us around the country for about $500 and two bottles of whisky. I climbed in to the back of his open-backed van and we set off up the main trunk road to Mandalay. It was a beautiful country, but everything happened behind closed doors.  It was my first contact with a repressive regime. Many people wouldn’t meet your eyes; there was nothing you could do in the open. We had to negotiate secretly to get food. There were very few public restaurants. The driver managed to find friends or relatives in nearly every village or town we stopped at to give us a bed or something to eat, but people were always tense and uncomfortable around us. I had never experienced anything like it. The trip itself was magical though, despite the serious discomfort of being jolted around in the thick dust that settled on us in the back of the van.

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We wandered around Mandalay, the golden palaces, the soft air, the young monks peering out at us. We ducked away from monkeys and smelt the frangipane. We were popular as Brits. I got secretly taken around people’s houses and shown framed photos of the Queen and English signs that people had saved from the street or from restaurants. The last day we visited a temple and climbed up towards the stupa. There was a wonderful view out over the plains of Mandalay, the sun setting over the Irrawaddy. Below us in the courtyard, craftsmen sat working away at jade animals, painting gold leaf on to small statues of the Buddha, each man sitting cross-legged, intent upon his work. Small children stared up at us, waiting for us to descend before they crowded in on us, looking for handouts or just the fun of hassling us. The gold leaf and jewels on every temple and statue of Buddha testified to a glorious past, but the people worshipping there now were as shadows, living in tiny, mean shacks around the base.

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We went to Maymo. Maymo was a favoured city of the colonial settlers in the hills above Mandalay. It was cooler than the plains and they had built a fantasy of a Victorian hill settlement there. It was an eccentric mix of the Wild West, London and the exotic Orient. There were small stagecoaches in the streets, the type that cowboys used to shoot at, teashops with the crown on boards outside advertising ‘tiffin’ and bizarre red-brick/timbered houses. We stayed in the Old Teak Company headquarters. A Victorian building, the wood stained red, to look like brick. It was timbered inside and out with a rose garden and tennis courts. The foyer had a glass-fronted display unit with objects from the Empire left behind by old guests. There were pearl-buttoned gloves and a yellowed copy of the Times. Above the formal wooden staircase was a stuffed moose head. We stayed in large rooms with iron bedsteads and proper flushing toilets. At sundown we would go down to the veranda and have rum and lime and strange 1930’s cocktails, which made my head spin.

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During the day we wandered through the tiny streets looking at the daytime local disco and the markets full of pink saronged nuns with stalls of homemade soap and pins. A slight boy dressed in jeans, befriended us. Everyone else was in sarongs. He led me to his friend’s shop who was a gem merchant. Round the back of the shop, in a small shed, he poured a great heap of gems on a table and then went through them with me. Small blue sapphires, garnets, emeralds, pale red rubies scattered through his fingers. I bought three small rubies (one of which turned out to be genuine, the others were garnets) and two small sapphires. I exchanged two bottles of shampoo, a bottle of mascara and $30 for them. I later made them into rings and gave one to my sister when she got married. I went back to the hotel after for a meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the gems tucked neatly into my wallet.

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We went next to Pagan. The road there was empty; we passed cows and women carrying water and not much else, although it took us two days. It is hard to describe Pagan because it was such a shock for me. I remember feeling like one of the Famous Five. A slightly hilarious ‘gosh, gee whiz’, response to everything and as we were given old 1950 Raleigh bicycles to ride around on, we probably looked like the Famous Five too. Pagan is a large plain in the North of the country, a delta area of the Irrawaddy. Over centuries, from the 5th to the 15th successive kings built their temples and palaces there. The other buildings and structures that there must have been in the Delta have disappeared and there are only temples left. It was almost completely deserted; it was like entering the Valley of the Kings, this feeling of mystery and of some great culture and energy. The temples stretched for miles in every direction to the banks of the Irrawaddy and then onwards over the dry, dusty plain to the mountains in the distance.  We stayed in the only hotel there, finding the room ourselves and checking us in – leaving our details on the bar near the empty office.

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We got up very early to explore through the dust-heat shimmer. We mounted our ancient bicycles and went to the top of the small hill that led down to the plain. Most of the temples were in a great state of repair and covered in very elaborate carvings of gods and people I had no understanding of. Tiers and tiers of carved stone; misshapen pyramids and bizarre stupas, each one more elaborate and surreal than the last. There were no restrictions on entry, nothing from the 20th Century, no sign of life at all except for the insects and the monkeys and a very occasional small boy sitting quietly on one of the stones. We could walk in under massive entryways and climb up the pyramid/temple to look out over the hundreds of others and wonder what they all were and what it all meant. It was a brilliantly Indiana Jones time.

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We left Pagan to travel down by the river. The Irrawaddy was very full. Islands in the middle of the river were in danger of being submerged. Small communities on either side had water lapping up to their door sills despite the high stilts that most of their houses sat on. We had a bridge to cross, which took a bit of doing. The bridge stretched the entire width of the river, over a mile and was rickety and full of holes. On one side was a temple with a beautiful Buddha. I sat and watched the monks clean it for a while. They used long brushes with feather duster ends to clean up inside the Buddha’s nostrils and around his neck. We crossed the river to look at the palaces on the other side. There were only a few left, the jungle was deep and impenetrable and I got separated from my friends almost immediately. I found a collection of strange abandoned structures, an enormous bell (I was later told it was one of the largest free-standing bells in the world), an enormous dock, great ceremonial, white steps leading up to a vaulting gate-way that led to nothing and something that looked uncannily like a park bandstand, but giant. Our driver told us that they were the remnants of an attempt to spread Pagan over the river. He told us that each king had built something even more spectacular than the last, so the largest dock, the largest bell etc. but they were never really used. I also came across an enormous pig, wallowing in the mud somewhere round the back of the giant bandstand, it had stopped being Famous Five and was now something from Alice in Wonderland.

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On the way back over the bridge, trying not to fall through the holes, I was stopped and asked if I’d like to fish, so there I sat for the afternoon, in the middle of the Irrawaddy, hanging over the edge of a very fragile bridge trying to catch something. It was very peaceful and very wonderful.

The journey home was difficult. Unknown to us there was the beginning of an uprising; people travelling to Rangoon to demonstrate against the government. Hundreds of smaller protests were being staged in villages across the country. There had been atrocities, young men shot, but we were kept in the dark. Our driver hurried us back towards the capital. No one was on the road. We stopped once to let some army trucks pass. In retrospect it was a chilling sight, but at that time, they seemed very friendly, honking their horns, the soldiers waving and shouting at us from inside. I took a picture of them, nothing but smiley faces. We got to Rangoon and went to the Strand Palace Hotel to stay. There was a wedding party, but no other guests. We sat in regal, Empire style chairs eating lobster and drinking champagne with the wedding guests, waited on in impeccable style by waiters in white and black. Outside, people were rioting and fighting and there was not a hint of it inside. We sat there like Marie Antoinette.

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I wanted to see the national museum. When I went along, I found it closed, so I knocked on the door and by being persistent and annoying I was allowed in. A proper treasure chamber. There was a golden dragon chair, which had been given to Mountbatten, there was a table encrusted with diamonds and there were heaps, literally, of gems and jewelled swords and helmets and crowns.  Occasionally things were placed in cabinets with labels, but only the rocks, the gold was just lying about. I’m still curious about this place. Everything was dusty. It looked like it’d been closed for years. They couldn’t have allowed people in; it would have been so easy just to put something in your pocket. I left, locking the door behind me and set out to meet the others at the Shwedagon Pagoda. There is supposed to be more gold on the Pagoda, than in the whole of England. This is very believable when you stand in front of it, dazzled in the sunlight. It is nearly 100 meters high and is tipped with a great cluster of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. In the heart of the tip is an enormous emerald, angled to catch the first and last rays of the sun. It is surrounded by smaller pagodas and stupas and jewelled umbrellas and a whole complex of temple buildings. We walked around with our mouths open. It was a while before we realised that we were the only visitors there. There were only a few guards and increasingly soldiers. As we stood by the gateway, we noticed groups of soldiers wandering around or sitting on the bell-like bottom of the Pagoda, propping their feet up. This didn’t seem right. The Burmese are extremely respectful of their religious sites. We left and walked back towards the centre of town and the hotel. The streets were normally crowded and noisy, but nobody was about.

We hurried back and found our driver anxiously waiting for us. “There is trouble here,” he told us, “We need to leave now.” Over our protests, he made us pack and drove at full speed towards the airport. We didn’t get far, almost immediately we ran into an enormous traffic jam. People had stopped their cars and got out to look at the march in front of us. Our driver somehow managed to squeeze past the other cars, pushing and honking and displaying us as if proving that he should have right of access.  The people in the procession seemed mainly to be young men and woman in white shirts and longhis. They were marching along chattering to each other, holding up banners and boards. They were quiet and well behaved. We saw a lot of monks and nuns as well. I learnt later that the police carved their way through this crowd with live bullets.

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We somehow got to the airport, still unsure about what was happening. It was difficult to get through customs. I had done some stupid things, which at the time seemed quite romantic, but as the police went through our luggage carefully, I began to regret trying to hide my tiny gemstones and Burmese baht in the lining of my trousers. Luckily they didn’t find anything, although they took the film out of my camera and we were allowed on board the plane.

The plane was almost empty when it took off, which was astonishing considering the number of people in the airport trying to leave. We were met at the airport in Bangkok by the Associated Press and I was interviewed about what I had seen. I told the reporter about the troops we had seen coming into the city and about the monks and nuns in the march. The interview was part of the headline article in the Bangkok Post the next morning. And the borders closed the next day.

Written for a local newspaper when I was 20

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