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Orwell and Myanmar

Besides the people and landscapes, the reason I want to go to Myanmar is George Orwell, who arrived in formerly-known Burma in November 1922 as a youthful member of the Indian Imperial Police. Sent first to Mandalay, he also spent time in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Mawlamyine, where his mother grew up, before being posted to the distant Katha.

Orwell’s experience in Burma convinced him of the wrongs of imperialism and he gained a reputation as an outsider more interested in spending time with the Burmese than in more appropriate pursuits for a British officer. In this he resembled Flory, the protagonist of his first novel Burmese Days, which was set in a thinly disguised Katha. Orwell also wrote about Burma in his essays A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant.

There’s a long-standing joke that Orwell actually wrote three books about Burma, including his denunciations of totalitarianism Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Unlike the anti-imperialist Burmese Days, until recently both of the later works were banned by the regime. All three books are on my re-read list, and I will read them before I leave for Myanmar in January.


imageThis is why I posted any book review this month. I’ve been perusing everything about Myanmar–travel books, history, tips on independent travel. I’m going for two weeks in January on my own before heading home for a visit in Hong Kong. Myanmar is now open to foreigners but a single-entry visa good for a month is mandatory of all visitors arriving in Yangon and Mandalay by air. I have to arrange hotels, transports, and coordinate with a mixture of domestic flights, trains, and a cruise on the Irrawaddy River.

Some preliminary thoughts:

1. Shoes must be off in all monasteries and temples. This means Myanmar trip will be a flop-flop one. I need to bring at least two pairs.
2. The country is caught between the desire to grow and in the rusty old colonial facade. It’s growing in a speed that even guide books cannot keep up. It’s high time to go as international chain like Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the country.
3. Horse carriages will be used for seeing the thousands of pagodas that flank all over Bagan. Temple ruins are the prime reason why I’m going.
4. Hotel/guesthouses rooms can be scarce during high seasons. Reservations a must.
5. Mystery. It’s the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia due to its prolonged closure. I want to see Myanmar’s truest forms before it becomes “assimilated.”

December Reading

The clock is ticking away for 2015. It’s December—the time of the year for holidays, gatherings, food, celebrations, and for some, distraction from readings. I usually like to sit by the fire place with my punkins and read mysteries. On the eve of my annual trip home in Asia, December also sees many travel/history/historical fiction crammed into my readings. This year Myanmar is put on the spotlight.

Since the country has opened up to tourism, development of infrastructure has gone on a break-neck speed, and so are the prices which has more than doubled compared to 2011. It’s the perfect time to go or it will become another Angkor Wat (Cambodia), heavily tread by package tours.

Before traveling to Myanmar, an excellent historical novel to read is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I have read years ago. To refresh and to gain relevance of the upcoming trip, I’ll reread. The book enables reader to appreciate the days before the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the years under the British rule, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.

Other books on the “read-dar” include the mandatory Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, and Burmese Days by George Orwell. I usually would read up on the travel guide while flying over the Pacific. That said, for the first time ever, I’m ditching Lonely Planet for the more updated Rough Guide on Myanmar. A two-year-old guidebook is too dated, at least for the prices on accommodations and transportations, for a country that is growing with an lightning speed.

[656] Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin


” He said that Nineteen Eigty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. ‘Why do they need to read it?’ he said. ‘They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives. ” (1: Mandalay, p.11)

In the 1920s George Orwell (then Eric Blair) spent years working in Burma as an imperial policeman at various posts, including Mandalay and Rangoon. He has formed strong opinions against colonialism and taken rather jaundiced view of the colonial society that would endure throughout the rest of his life. In 2002, traveling under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, the author, an American journalist, followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma, where visitors were allowed to explore the country only on its terms, to recreate his experience. Finding George Orwell in Burma, employing Orwell’s sojourn and experiences as a template, is part memoir, part biography, part social history and part travelogue. Larkin reveals the cultural and political landscape of a country, one of the most mysterious in Southeast Asia, where a military regime has been in place for over 40 years, sealing off Burma from the outside world.

We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut. We are scared. As Burmese people, we are not free to talk about what we want. We are not free to walk where we want. We are not even free t die: we must die according to their wishes. (5: Katha, p.256)

Government surveillance is in fact responsible for the society’s “normal” façade. Events taking place inside Burma are carefully controlled and orchestrated. people are conditioned to obey and to submit to government’s measures. Indeed this fear of the authorities is a constant refrain from the people Larkin spoke to in Burma, including students, drivers, tour guides, policemen, dissidents and historians. They are cowed into submission because they know the reprisal is high for the only one real crime, and that is to act against the government or in defiance of its interests.

The Burmese landscape, both mental and physical, has long been loaded with prophecies, and Orwell’s trilogy is only one among many texts in which you can read the future or the past in Burma. (5: Katha, p.261)

Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (now I regretted reading too young to even understand their implication) reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression. She believes Orwell was witness to many oppression, even in the colonial age, along with his work as an imperial policeman had greatly contributed to his ability to write about oppression in a chilling dystopian land. The book is a plainsong to Burma; it’s a tribute to Orwell; and it’s a rare piece of journalism. In pursuing the young Orwell’s life, she has reimagined his experiences that help shape his political outlook. Finding George Orwell in Burma is a mournful, meditative, idiosyncratic and contemplative book.

294 pp. Penguin Books. Paper (2004) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Orwell. Myanmar.

Orwell. Myanmar.

A reader’s interest keeps him occupied at all time. One book always leads into another, desperate to satisfy a craving. My interest in traveling to Myanmar has manifested into a reading frenzy of anything about and on Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Emma Larkin’s book is a part biography, part social history, part travelogue. The book is a product of her trip that followed George Orwell’s footstep to the then-British colony in the 1920s. Yet the Myanmar that she reveals is one that has been ruined by military totalitarian regime since 1962, when the country was cut off from the world and in which the people live in constant fear of the authorities. So it’s a particularly uncanny twist of fate that three novels of George Orwell, all written before the horrifying regime, effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history. The trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. It’s time to reread all of them.

Myanmar Craze


The best way to know a country is to know its people. Talk to the locals, observe them, follow cultural practices, and taste their food. Until it was open to travelers in mid 2011, Myanmar (Burma) has remained the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. “This is Burma”, wrote Rudyard Kipling. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” How right he was: more than a century later Myanmar remains a world apart. While I can’t immerse the travel experience until I’m physically there, on my own preferably, to break new cultural connection, I can read up on the country, its people, the literature, and history. Until I make the trip in January 2015, these books would contribute to a great introduction to the country—surreal and traditional Myanmar. I want to know the basic history and facts behind the sights, not just treating it another Kodak moment.

To Myanmar, With Love


On the flight home from Asia after a 5.5-week trip, I decided Myanmar would be my next destination.

Other than what George Orwell wrote, I knew nothing about Burma, now called Myanmar. Things are changing in Myanmar. Perceptions outside are changing as well. Salvaged by war and reigned under militarism, Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society, is working through its “democratic transition”. To me Myanmar is the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. For the past two decades western writers and readers have focused their minds on the brutality and cronyism of the dictatorship.

My trip in Bangkok sparked my interest in Myanmar. I brought home some books that chart the tumultuous history of the country.

Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis. Account of his visit in the 1950s. It is a bittersweet portrait of the then-optimistic, now-lost land – before communist incursions and tribal insurrection shattered the dream.

The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir George Scott. Scott served as frontier officer for three decades at the end of the 19th century, but his enduring legacy is as collector and sympathetic chronicler of the old ways in a country “where people are small and ghosts are big”.

‘A Hanging’ by George Orwell. It’s actually a short story but more moving than Burmese Days. Orwell marks the preciousness of human life and the heartlessness of power.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. Thwe is a native of Shan State. His mesmerising biography stretches from his grandmother’s creation stories to civil war and a chance conversation about James Joyce that leads to a new life in Britain.

Freedom from Fear and Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s no longer a banned book. Few women in public life have suffered more for their beliefs than Aung San Suu Kyi, and inspired so many people by their example. “Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power,” she once wrote.

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U. Another ex banned book. For 200 years, Thant Myint-U’s forefathers served Burma’s royalty. His grandfather rose to become UN secretary-general. This remarkable family story is woven into Burma’s history in a work that is moving, lyrical, shocking – and essential for anyone wishing to understand the country emerging today.

Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma by Rory MacLean. It looks like a good read which provides an inside to Burma’s culture, people, landscape and daily lifestyle including its Golden Land’s history told in a beautiful story.

Myanmar, hope to see you soon.