A London publisher who had read The Glass Palace Chronicle wanted to meet me, for reasons that were never very clear. She had already made up her mind.
“In fact,” she said disdainfully, “what you’ve written is a South-East Asian road novel?”
“I suppose it is,” I admitted. Wrong answer.
“There’s no market for that,” she said, “in the current climate.”
After a detour via the Internet, The Glass Palace Chronicle was picked up by another print publisher a year or two later, and twenty years later, back in digital form, it continues to sell. Amazon reviews are still positive, readers still send me e-mails.
The actual road trip took place in 1993. My husband and I had been to Burma before, in July 1988, slipping in and out between two political upheavals, more by good luck than good planning. We toured the country at breakneck speed on a one-week visa. Our trip was blighted by monsoon, curfew, and Tourist Burma. We spent most of our time organizing onward travel, and the rest selling off our possessions for local currency (the exchange rate was ruinous). It didn’t leave much time for sightseeing. We were hungry for more.
Trading on his travel agent credentials, and scraping an acquaintance with someone who knew the French Ambassador to Burma, my husband managed to return in 1991. At that point, no tourist visas were being delivered. It was another two years before we went back together.
January 1993. Arriving in Rangoon in the early afternoon, we take a taxi into town. The monsoon is over, and the air is warm and damp. The taxi is a blue pick-up truck with wooden bench seats. The driver stops twice to put water in the radiator and re-tie his longgyi. Everyone wears longgyis in Burma (it’s a kind of sarong). Ladies have little tops to go with them; gents wear Western shirts. Chic young men favour baseball caps to complete their look. Chic older ones wear short collarless jackets (very elegant). Everyone ties and re-ties all day long.
Burma is currently governed by a military junta called SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), which has changed the country’s name to Myanmar, refused to hand over power to the democratic winners of free elections, and placed the Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. A civil war is under way against ethnic minorities who want more independence from the dominant Burmans.
Riding into Rangoon we see no overt signs of repression apart from a large sign by the side of the road, white lettering on a dark red background, that says TATMADAW SHALL NEVER BETRAY THE NATIONAL CAUSE. Tatmadaw is the army; the national cause is unity, and what this means is that the insurgents are not going to get the federation they are demanding.
The taxi takes us to the Hotel Kandawgi, which was once the premises of the Orient Boat Club. Enormous philodendrons curve down into the water, and it has a creaking colonial charm. The receptionist claims the hotel is full, but my husband met the French Ambassador on his previous trip, and has kept in contact with Christine, the Ambassador’s secretary. Christine plays the diplomatic card to get us a bungalow with a verandah overlooking the lake. Inside, the paint is peeling and there are large damp patches on the walls.
The Kandawgi is a favoured venue for official meetings and social receptions. In the lobby, we encounter Aude, a doctor who has been sent by the French Foreign Ministry to liaise on AIDS. In the lakeside restaurant, we watch as Western businessmen in shirtsleeves negotiate with Burmese officials in longgyis. One morning, we catch a glimpse of a society wedding: bride in pink with a train, groom in Western suit, ladies in shimmering longgyis of a quality you don’t see at street markets, teenage girls wearing longgyis at an interesting mid-calf length. Most of the men wear trousers. Money leaks from every pore, and there are a lot of photographers present. Footwear consists mostly of flip-flops.
Rangoon has broad colonial avenues with stately buildings and it must once have been impressive. Despite the potholes and rats and open drains, it doesn’t look too bad in the dark. The street signs are still in English, and the Post Office still has red postboxes for Inland and Foreign Mail. The Strand Hotel, once the best hotel in Asia, is swathed in scaffolding. It’s under renovation by an Australian firm. We spent a night in the Strand in 1988, snapping up the last free room available just before curfew. We enjoyed the faded splendour, but not the cockroaches.
We eat dinner squatting on stools at a pavement tea house near the Sule Pagoda. Fine dining is at a premium in central Rangoon. The tea house is dirty, and we can’t make ourselves understood. Five years ago everyone spoke tourist English, but not any more. Since 1988 the number of foreign visitors has plummeted. Eventually someone proposes “Dinner?” and we are given fried eggs, bread and Burmese tea. Passers-by stare at us, and smile, and say hello. Aude, who has come along for the ride, looks perturbed but does not protest.
Christine lives in a square white house next to the Yugoslav Embassy with two large dogs and one small cat. Her house is furnished with things she picked up on her travels: Vietnamese lacquer chests, Moroccan brass trays. Christine has spent her life in the diplomatic service. We swim in her pool and then, in the late afternoon, we make for the Shwedagon, the pagoda whose great golden dome dominates the city. Leaving our shoes at the door, we climb the steps to the terrace. There’s a cheerful family atmosphere; people come and go. Last time we were here, it was monsoon, the terrace was swept by rain, and there was no one around. Today it’s completely different. Children hide under a bell, people eat meals in tucked-away corners. A monk asks us “What nationality?” and taps on his bell when we answer. I cannot remember ever being in a place where there was such a sense of peace.
Peace is in short supply at the airport next morning. It’s five a.m. and the terminal is in chaos. Passengers heave sacks around, officials fill in forms. Waiting for the flight to Pagan on hard wooden benches in the departure lounge, we buy cake off a roaming vendor, eat what we can, and offer the rest to the orange-robed monk sitting opposite. Someone dumps a pile of plastic bags on the seat next to me. They have a picture of a bird on them, and they’re still warm. On the plane they give us breakfast: two samosas, a cup of sweet milky tea, a face flannel and two boiled sweets. The flannels come in handy for cleaning hotel rooms.
Pagan is magic. Once it was the capital of Burma, and over two thousand temples were built here. LOVE YOUR MOTHERLAND, OBEY THE LAW, says the sign at the entrance to the village. Everywhere you look there is a temple, and they stretch for miles across the plain. We rent bicycles and ride along the Irrawaddy River to the next village, Nyaung U. It’s livelier than Pagan, with bicycles, bullock carts, and shops with dark interiors selling God knows what. Children in green school longgyis shout hello. An older lady with a basket on her head invites us into her home for tea, tells us how hard times are, and asks for a present. At lunch in the Nation Restaurant in Pagan, the waitress says that she is studying physics at Mandalay University, but that when she graduates she will return to Pagan to work with the tourists because it’s the best way to earn a living. Lunch consists of Burmese Dish, a kind of all-purpose curried stew.
There’s a festival in progress at the Ananda temple. Attractions include a soccer match, a bullock competition, and a beer tent. After a courtesy visit, we steer clear. We spend the next three days idling along dusty roads from one silent, abandoned temple to the next. Occasionally an ox-cart trundles past. No one has set foot in some of the smaller temples for years. The trace of a snake can sometimes be seen in the dust.
My husband has developed an interest in lacquerware, and we stop to drink tea with shopkeepers and negotiate a price. They’ve been making lacquer in Pagan since the eleventh century. The best lacquer has twelve coats, and can take up to a year to make. We’re becoming experts at telling the good stuff from the poorer quality, which contains clay, weighs more, and has only three coats of lacquer.
One of the best-known temples is the Dhammayangyi, a square red-brick pyramid rising above the plain. Visiting the temple five years earlier, we were shown round by a bright and beautiful eleven-year-old girl speaking excellent English. We took a photo of her with her little sister, and gave her an emery board as a token of our appreciation (it was the end of the trip and stocks were running low). We’re startled to find the same girl in the same temple, still showing tourists around. She’s sixteen now. Her older brother is married and his fifteen-year-old wife has just had a baby, but she says she would rather earn money to buy a school uniform for her sister. We give her badges and key-rings that she can trade, and she gives us two small lacquer bowls.
Returning to Nyaung U to buy bus tickets for Lake Inle, we stop a man by the side of the road to ask our way, and he takes us to a pagoda on the edge of the river. Bells are tinkling, and the monks give us Chinese tea. When we give our guide ten kyats, he isn’t pleased. “It’s too less for me,” he says. So we add on a baseball cap, which goes down much better. “I very thank you,” he says.
The bus to Lake Inle leaves at four, with a breakfast stop at five thirty. The bus is open to the elements. Until the sun comes up it’s freezing. We drape ourselves in sweaters and towels to keep out the wind. Most of the passengers are Burmese, except for four English students. When it gets warm enough to talk, I swap travel experiences with the girl sitting next to me, and she passes on a couple of slogans for my collection.
Arriving at Shwenyaung around half-past three, we leave the bus and complete our journey to Lake Inle by horse-drawn cab. The road goes through a marshy landscape, past bamboo houses perched on stilts. Lake Inle is populated by a tribe called the Inthas, who live in houses built over the lake, and cultivate vegetable fields that float on the water. They get round in long narrow boats that they row with their legs.
In Yaunghwe, the town on the edge of the lake, there is only one hotel for foreigners. We’re given a room with bamboo walls in the courtyard. Each bed has one skimpy blanket, and it’s very cold. The next night we’re upgraded to a room in the main building, but there’s a draught down the chimney and the window has no glass. For the rest of our stay at the lake, we sleep with all our clothes on.
After a breakfast of fried eggs, we take the bus back to Shwenyaung en route to Heho market. Passing a pagoda, the bus slows so that passengers can make contributions. One-kyat notes are flung out into the road. At Shwenyaung, we change into an open truck, which is already full. My husband gets on to the running board and holds on to the rail. I prepare to do the same, then realize I’ll fall off at the first bump. The truck is about to start moving. I fling myself forward and land on a group of Burmese who move up to make room for me on the floor.
The shoppers at Heho Market belong to the hill tribes. They have darker skins than the people in central Burma; they wear brightly coloured headdresses and black knee-length tunics. CRUSH ALL DESTRUCTIVE ELEMENTS says the red and white sign. The market sells blankets, bales of material, and longgyis. Ladies with sewing machines make your clothes up as you wait. We wander past knives, salt, flowers, vegetables, chilis, chives, dried fish, and a strange white root vegetable that they chew in the bus on the way home. There is no meat or poultry in sight. My husband is disappointed to find no lacquerware.
We have lunch in the local café: a large square gloomy dirty room. The walls are unpainted, the floor is bare earth, the tables and chairs are made of solid teak. All the cafés in Burma look the same. All of them play what one of our rickshaw drivers describes as “Burmese modern music.” This consists of Western pop music with Burmanized lyrics. Particularly popular are the Bee Gees, ABBA and Rod Stewart. I am sailing, I am sailing. In the classier places, they wipe the table between clients. You can drink tea made with tinned milk, coffee ditto, Pepsi-Cola, or bright yellow soda. Free Chinese tea comes automatically in handle-less cups. Toilet paper, Lux soap and tinned fish are on offer in glass-fronted display cases.
Back at the hotel there’s a Shan evening for the tourists. We sit cross-legged on the polished teak floor to eat a typical Shan dinner and watch a puppet show. The food is a lot better than Burmese Dish, but there’s something very ferocious about Shan puppets. The other guests are Germans, Americans, Canadians, Australians. Tourist conversations run along well-oiled tracks: where have you come from, how did you get here, where are you going next, how will you get there?
We all meet up again the following day when the hotel organizes an excursion to the Floating Market. This takes place twice a week on the lake between a couple of shops on stilts and a ruined pagoda. Boats slide alongside each other, moving forward, apparently without direction. No money changes hands, it’s all done by barter. The locals exchange firewood for vegetables. The tourists exchange watches for lacquerwork and calculators for antiques. When it becomes known that my husband is interested in small lacquer boxes, small lacquer boxes start to pour in from all directions, passed across the boats from hand to hand. A large sign in the pagoda says Ladies Prohibited.
No more buses for us: we take the plane to Mandalay. The inside of the terminal is like a cattle shed. Vendors sell crisps and oranges, and giggling girls cheerfully spit the pips out. LOVE AND CHERISH YOUR MOTHERLAND says the sign by the door.
What I remember best from our previous trip is driving past the walls of Mandalay Fort at dusk in a horse-drawn carriage. The light was fading, the walls were endless. There was no one around. The only sound was the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves. It felt as though we had fallen out of time.
Since then Mandalay has changed. The walls of the Fort have been repainted in an un-poetic shade of blood red. The horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by motorized pick-ups. Bicycle rickshaws have been banished to the side streets, and the centre hums with reconditioned Japanese cars. The twentieth century is on its way. The town bustles with shops and stalls. Mandalay is famous for its craftsmanship, and there’s a whole street of chair-makers where youths squat in the dust plaiting wickerwork backs and seats for wooden chairs.
After a night in the Mandalay Hotel, Tourist Burma’s Chinese-built flagship overlooking the Fort, we repair to a hotel recommended by Christine, which opened in 1990, does not figure in tourist guides, and has mainly Burmese clients. We are lodged in a wooden bungalow that houses four separate guest rooms. A verandah with table and chairs overlooks a dusty lawn. A young man in jeans and Converse saunters past. We are back in the heart of affluent, official, Westernized Burma. These are the people who get married in the Kandawgi. The car park is full of chauffeurs washing cars. Our neighbours are golden youths with a ghetto blaster. Can you hear the drums, Fernando? They turn off the music about nine in the evening, but it goes back on at six a.m. They sing along to the music, and take all the hot water.
Mandalay is a centre of Buddhist learning, the town is full of monasteries, and SLORC is doing its best to drum up sympathy among the monks. BE KIND TO ANIMALS BY NOT EATING THEM says the dark red street sign.
Mandalay Hill, the town’s main monument, has been a sacred place for thousands of years. The covered stairway leading to the top of the Hill is lined with astrologers, photographers, souvenir peddlers, and stalls selling flowers, cold drinks, and brightly-coloured sweets. It looks like Lourdes-on-the-Irrawaddy — but the view is amazing. As we climb the 1729 steps, Mandalay spreads out beneath us. First the golden dome of the Kuthudaw Pagoda, then the white dome next to it, then the military compound that now occupies the Fort, then the golf course, and then at last the wide grey flow of the Irrawaddy. “What country?” hisses a monk walking past us down the steps.
Christine has given us an introduction to an artist and tapestry-maker named U Sein Myint. We visit his house in one of the quiet residential streets near the Fort. Tapestry looms are set out in the garden, and his employees are hard at work. Burmese tapestries have a distinctive black background, lots of sequins and spangles, and figures stuffed with rags to make them stand out. Sein Myint has made tapestries for French diplomats, and designed a card for UNICEF. He talks a lot about himself. He shows us his museum of Burmese antiquities and his private shrine and his water colours. He tells us that he once worked as a smuggler, and says he used to have two shops in Zegyo Market (the main market in Mandalay), but that he ceded them to his siblings to devote himself to his Art. No two of his tapestries are the same, he claims, because he has to follow his Creative Impulses. My husband mentions that I am a writer and a fellow Creator: he looks at me in perplexity, and informs us that he has written five newspaper articles. We order a couple of tapestries, to be delivered via Christine at the Embassy. He takes us to a tea room, and then drives us home. The golden youths are listening to the Bee Gees, the lights are going down in Massachusetts, and there is no hot water.
Sitting on my bed, writing up my notes, thinking about Sein Myint and his tapestries, the idea for The Glass Palace Chronicle takes shape, and the events of our journey start to acquire the malleability of fiction.
Sagaing is a mystical town of pagodas and monasteries where no one speaks English. It’s quieter and more devout than Mandalay. In the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, a monk shows round a couple who might be his parents. We eat our picnic in a vast white empty courtyard. In the field outside, two men are grooming a cow. The Irrawaddy gleams faintly in the distance.
Back at the Innwa Inn, we find the dining room occupied by a large group of plumpish men who have obviously been drinking all afternoon. The tables are covered with empty soda bottles. Despite the lack of alcohol, they look very pleased with themselves, and they all have the used-car salesman air peculiar to dignitaries in authoritarian states. The waiter offers us a choice of European dinner or Chinese dinner. No Burmese Dish here.
Returning to Rangoon by train, we find the station seething with hysteria. The platform is sealed off with wire netting, and only travellers are allowed to pass. A family of emigré Burmese in fussy Western clothes wail tearful goodbyes to their Mandalay relatives as the train pulls out.
We are travelling in style in Upper Class, which has reclining seats equipped with footrests and cupholders. Vendors patrol the car, selling fruit, sweets, nuts, and cigarettes. When it starts to get dark, the serious food appears: small roast chicken pieces and rice with nuts. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had in Burma. Then the vendors disappear, and people settle down for the night. We get out the striped blankets we bought in Zegyo Market that morning.
The train gets into Rangoon at six a.m. Arriving at the Kandawgi is like coming home. The night clerk gives us a “suite” with a fridge freezer and four fake leather armchairs grouped round a coffee table. A lizard runs down the wall.
Our fellow dinner guests at Christine’s that evening are archeologists working on the ruins at Pagan. By now everyone I meet has become grist to the mill of The Glass Palace Chronicle, and they will all end up in travestied form in the South-East Asian road novel.