Thursday, November 20, 2008

Walking softly on the road to MANDALAY

A Land Like None You Know
Patrick Forsyth describes a journey through Burma, a country that won his heart in an instant

BURMA (now called Myanmar) tends to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. People know of its ruthless junta, and about Cyclone Nargis, which wrought such damage and human suffering as it trampled the delta of the Irrawaddy River in May 2008. But this has always been a beguiling and beautiful country, and one I visited largely by chance.

Some months just before the dreadful cyclone wreaked its havoc, I was huddled in a corner with my headphones, praying for the music channel to drown out a noisy neighbour as I flew to Singapore on business, when the song “The Road to Mandalay” by Robbie Williams came on. In my sleepy state I had been thinking about going somewhere I have never been before, if only to get away from the likes of my selfish fellow traveller who snorted and elbowed me every so often, and Mandalay suddenly seemed ideal. I discovered that a major slice of the country could be visited by travelling along the Ayeyarwady River, and once back home from my business I set about planning the trip.

Although I discovered that there are campaigns aiming to persuade travellers not to visit the country because doing so would put money in government coffers, I felt I should see this for myself. This is a vexed area: there is a good case for not supporting the junta, but everyone I met on my journey expressed delight that I was there, and urged me to prompt other people to come too. Many people owe their livelihood to those visitors that do come. In addition to the physical damage Cyclone Nargis did, it also—as any natural disaster does—reduced the number of visitors and this could not have helped locals whose wages depended on tourism.

During my visit, I flew to Yangon, visited Bagan and took a river cruiser, Road to Mandalay, on a journey to Mandalay, the city immortalised in both song and Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem: “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea.” The poem echoes the voice of a soldier who has served and suffered in the Burmese wars.

My book, A Land Like None You Know (Bangkok Books, 2008), describes my journey through Burma, the land where time stands still. It is light-hearted, but with the sincere intention of giving a clear view of this beautiful and indeed magical country and its people.

I saw taxis pulled by oxen, learnt how to wear the local skirt-like longyi, discovered the difference between a stupa and a pagoda, and watched the best sunset I have ever seen on the plain of Bagan as the light reflected from the towers of countless ruined pagodas, stretching to the horizon in all directions. These are sights and things that will always remain untouched by any natural disasters that threaten to cast a shadow over them.

When I left, I left in love with this beautiful place and its gentle people, though sad about the signs of repression sometimes glimpsed below the surface. I once read of a Portuguese man describing his country in halting English as “very small, but very much.” Well said; I feel the same, Burma is very much—very, very much.

Patrick Forsyth has visited Southeast Asia over many years for both business and pleasure. The author of many nonfiction books, he has recently added travel writing to his portfolio. He has had two lighthearted travellogues published: First Class At Last! (Marshall Cavendish, 2007) describes a journey on the Eastern & Oriental train running between Singapore and Bangkok, and, just recently, A Land Like None You Know (Bangkok Books, 2008), documenting a journey in the troubled but beguiling country that is Burma.


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