Burmese Days – Introduction

Bog yoke Aung San Market in Yangon

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon

Chinthe at entrance to ShwedagonExactly a year ago (December 2014), I was in Myanmar, the Burma I heard about in my childhood. It was not for the first time. Burma, as it was then, entered my imagination during my childhood listening to my father (who was a Commando in Italy during World War II), talk about Wingate’s Chindits. The Chindits were a special force that marched through a thousand miles of jungle to counter the Japanese invasion of Burma. Later I would learn that their unusual name was an Anglicized version of chinthe or chinthay, a mythical lion, often with a human face, that is the guardian of the pagodas or payas (temples) in Myanmar.

In the early eighties, I was in Bangkok for a teacher education conference and heard a lot about Burma in the Thai news. Most of Burma was closed to foreigners but some lucky ones got a seven-day visa. I decided there and then that as soon as Burma opened up, I would visit.

Twenty Eight Street in Yangon


I went first in 1999 with my friend Enerys and again in 2004 on my own. They were both fantastic trips in a magical land, still almost medieval in terms of development. I went again last December, wondering what changes I would see after a ten-year absence and also hankering to visit places off the typical tourist route – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan.


Of course, I started out in Yangon. I wanted to arrange a trip to Mrauk U, an ancient capital, situated in the Rakhine state, close to the Bangladeshi border. I also wanted to photograph some of the old buildings in Yangon before they were replaced with bright and shiny steel and concrete structures.

Tenements in Yangon


Alas, the ones that shimmered in my memory – tall dilapidated Victorian tenements across from Scott market, pastel paint peeling – had already disappeared.


Scott market built in 1926 and named for a British civilian, is now called Bogyoke Aung San market, in memory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father who negotiated Burma’s independence from the British in 1947, was assassinated later that year, and is revered as the father of modern Myanmar.

Shwedagon face lift


Even the magnificent Shwedagon was under bamboo wraps for a facelift. No cheap plastic surgery for this most sublime of pagodas – only the best gold plating will do!


Yes, if you want to see Yangon before the gentrification really takes hold, or for that matter the Burma of George Orwell, you’d better put it on your bucket list and go quickly.

More chinthe

Chinthe - half lion, half humanChinthe and hti (spire)Chinthe on a small shrine


Inspiration for travel

In Patagonia bookFor Bruce Chatwin, inspiration for travel to Patagonia was the bit of flotsam that showed up in his grandmother’s china cabinet, a piece of a brontosaurus rescued from a glacier by a restless family member who had taken to the high seas in a merchant ship and washed up at the end of the world. That small piece of skin, leathery with tuffs of reddish hair, reverberated throughout his childhood. The hairy scrap drew him like a magnet to Lost Hope Sound in Chilean Patagonia in search of the remains of the brontosaurus and the story of the wayward family member who had found it. The adult Bruce learned that the scrap came not from a brontosaurus but from a mylodon or giant sloth.

The magnet that drew me to Patagonia was the tale, probably apocryphal, of Chatwin’s telegram to his boss; in the rendition that entered my imagination it was a telegram and not a note left on a desk. ‘Gone to Patagonia. Back in six months’. Now, I was hardly wet behind the ears when I read this but it seemed to me, harried with a career, child-raising and housework, quintessentially romantic and carefree, with just a touch of a vagabond, devil-may-care attitude. Just to pack a bag, to pull up sticks, to send the boss a note – Back in six months – was too out-of-character for my more sedate disposition so I dutifully soldiered on, cleaned the house, raised the child, made pies for the husband and continued on my career path.

I did cross paths with Bruce and Patagonia, in a manner of speaking, many years later. The child was grown, the husband departed for greener pastures (England) and my career took a turn sideways; I ended up travelling for fifteen winters in Southeast Asia. It was a time before Kindles, Nooks and iPads when stumbling across an English language bookstore in foreign parts was like walking into Aladdin’s cave. There, in a little shop on Khao San Road in Bangkok, with books lining shelves in haphazard and dusty splendor from floor to ceiling and perched perilously on piles that swayed as you tried to swerve around them, I found a copy of ‘In Patagonia’. Of course, I bought it, took it on my travels and eventually brought it home to sit on a shelf on one of my bookcases with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and a motely assortment of other travel writers.


Books and booze on Khao San Road in Bangkok

Eventually I retired from a career that had kept me very busy and which was eminently satisfying.

The phone rang.

“Do you fancy Patagonia?” asked my friend Enerys, Celtic by birth, with Welsh her mother tongue but living in self-chosen exile in Calgary. “I want to visit where the Welsh settled in Patagonia in the 1880s”.  Her inspiration for travel to Patagonia hinged on the language and culture of her countrymen.

She didn’t need to tell me for I already knew that those Victorian Joneses, Morgans and Lewises left their green valleys in order to find a place far enough away from the Anglo-Saxons in England where they could preserve the Welsh language and culture.



‘About time’, I thought. ‘The gods of travel move in mysterious ways’. It was time for Patagonia to come calling again.   By a strange coincidence, the impetus for this trip came from a friend who was wont to appear at airports with hair the colour of the sun setting along the Ayeyarwady.

Sunset in Myanmar

Belisha beacon‘Look for a Belisha, Beacon’ (those flashing yellow lollipops with black and white stripped poles that mark pedestrian crossings in Britain, Lord Hore-Belisha’s legacy in 1934 to a nation traumatized by would-be Toads of Toad Hall charging down British main streets in recently purchased motor vehicles with no speed limit and without thought of life or limb of pedestrians), was her response to my request about where we would connect in Vancouver Airport on our very first trip together to Myanmar and Vietnam.

I gasped when I saw her, flashing amidst the crowds at the airport.

“Why did you pick such a flaming red?” I laughed.

“It was on special and cheap.”

Enerys’ views on colour extend beyond her hair and might be christened ‘Bohemian flamboyance’ so I have no doubt that should a bottle not be on ‘special’ at her local drug store, I will  find her easily courtesy of her unique sartorial spendour.

Enerys at Bean North Cafe in  the Yukon


But I am sure that this time, when I meet her in Calgary airport in January 2016, ticket for Patagonia clutched in my hand, she will smile sweetly, nod the flaming red head and I will remember Bruce’s brontosaurus.

I no longer have a boss so there’s no need to send a telegram.



What is old?


This was written on the last day of my 2014 -15 trip (March 26, 2015) in the paradise called Ubud in Bali where I had been watching the rice grow in the newly planted fields.


I am off to Bangkok tomorrow and then to England to visit my mother who is ninety-three. Ninety-three, you say. Yes, and very much compos mentis although she doesn’t get around as well as she used to. Long gone are the days when she left hospital at the ripe old age of eighty-two after a second quadruple by-pass in time to be home to cook the Christmas dinner. My sister remonstrated but Mama would brook no interference. The meal, as usual, was excellent.


Diana AthillI’ll turn seventy-one in a few weeks. Needless to say, age has been somewhat on my mind, heightened by a couple of books I’ve read recently, all by relatively ancient female British writers. Diana Athill’s book, Somewhere towards the end, published when she was ninety, made me sit up and take note. She claimed that seventy marks the beginnings of advanced old age. I read this a few weeks before I hit the biblical norm plus one and was not ready to accept that I had already crossed the threshold into ‘advanced old age’. For those who do not know Diana Athill (and I didn’t until I heard the CBC podcast), she worked for the publisher Andre Deutsch and edited many of the famous writers of the twentieth century.


P.D. JamesI also read Time to be in Ernest by P.D. James, the queen of mystery writing. It’s a sort of memoir of her activities between the ages of 87 and 88. The dizzying pace of her life exhausted me. How she kept up with lunch dates, book launches etc. is a mystery. She used these daily events to look back over what had happened on those dates earlier in her life. Seems to me she might just have become more ‘creative’ and ‘productive’ after seventy than before. What a woman! I might just have to venture into a genre foreign to me – mystery novels – to see how she spent her time.


Writers and CoI didn’t go looking for ancient British women writers. In a way, they found me, courtesy of a Writers and Company podcast produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) hosted by Eleanor Watchel. Watchel’s great gift, apart from picking very interesting writers who also speak well, is to ask an open-ended question that invites the author to talk. Then, Eleanor sits back and lets the author riff. The best go off on a verbal ramble of uncommon insights, interesting anecdotes and penetrating asides. This program is always interesting, even when the writers aren’t ancient British women whose imagination and creativity belie the fact that they are ‘somewhere towards the end’.

And no, I don’t think I am somewhere towards the end. In fact, this year marks a beginning for me. I have finally decided (reluctantly) to give up my consulting work with international schools and to focus on the other things I want to do – writing and photography. (If you are interested in what I did professionally, you can look at I suppose realistically seventy-one is closer to the end than the beginning but I suspect I have a lot of life left in me. I anticipate that people look at my silver hair and my well-padded frame and conclude that I’m a little old lady. (This reminds me of one of my favourite short stories by Carol Shields called Mrs. Turner cutting the grass – about how outward appearances can be so deceptive.)

But I’m still seventeen (inside) with a whole world to explore. Eventually, the dark night summons all of us but I intend to depart with a bang and not a whimper. I am anticipating many more years of travelling and I’m bound for Patagonia in January 2016 with a friend who is four years older than me. I’m counting on genes being on my side: after all, my mother in her tranquil village in Dorset is only ninety-three.