Burma Days: In the footsteps of George Orwell

21st August 2014
As I stood at the rail of the RV Pandaw IV looking towards Katha in Burma, I wondered how George Orwell must have felt as he arrived at this remote Upper Irrawaddy river port, which has changed very little. We had been on the Pandaw IV for several days, and I was looking forward to seeing the home in which George Orwell had lived in 1926-27.

George – his real name was Eric Blair – had been posted to Katha while a colonial police officer, and the town had become the scene of his first book, “Burma Days”. It must have been a lonely life, and George clearly drew the short straw for he could have been sent to thriving and bustling Mandalay – even today a far livelier place!

My wife had purchased a pirated copy of “Burma Days” at the Bagan airport, where we had landed from Rangoon.

“Careful,” I grinned, recalling a similar episode when I had bought a Lonely Planet Guide some years earlier in Hanoi, “You are likely to find pages missing or out of sequence.”

Now, as the Pandaw crew tied up at the mooring, I had vision of George’s former home sitting grandly amid tropical gardens as something of a large museum piece for visiting Orwell addicts.

Such was not to be the case.

The 26 passengers plus my wife and I piled into about a dozen horse drawn carts, and rumbled through the streets of Katha, past the old British Club, with its overgrown tennis court, referred to in “Burma Days” - and came to a grinding halt at ‘the spot’.

We climbed from the carts, eagerly walked to the entrance to George’s property and stared up a long pathway that led some 50 metres to a two-storey ramshackle home that was overgrown with vines and greenery.

“This where George Orwell wrote book,” said our guide solemnly. “Can’t go closer. House lived in by old woman.”

But the guide was wrong. “Burmese Days” was actually written over a period of six years – after George had contracted Dengue Fever and left Burma in 1927. Katha certainly provide the scene for the book, but not the plot.

So we all stood and gaped at the rundown house, with most of us – including myself – taking several photographs. The mansion must have been grand during the 1920’s when George stayed there. But these days it looks like so many of Burma’s old and historic houses and buildings. In its heyday the home must have been splendid, and one could imagine George Orwell sitting in a manicured garden under a tree sipping gin and tonics.

And my wife, by this time, was also finding the “Burmese Days” somewhat disappointing for, true to my prophecy, various pages were missing from the clearly photostatted book!

Picturesque Katha was also the final resting place of the old Irrawaddy flotilla when over a hundred ships were scuppered in 1942 to prevent them from falling into the hands of the invading Japanese. The town still has a surprising number of now derelict colonial-style homes, all overgrown by jungle, yet provide a wonderful legacy of the Imperial colonial days.

We should not have been surprised. Burma is poverty stricken country ruled by a despotic military junta, and has been for some 40 years. Even in Rangoon – now called Yangon – many of the colonial buildings are crumbling and mouldy. Most have grass growing on their roofs and from cracks in their walls. A great number have sprouted small trees.

But Burma – I refuse to call it Myanmar – is a country of great character populated by the most hospitable and friendly people.

We had boarded the 55-metre Pandaw IV in Bagan after taking a bus tour past the hundreds of temples that rise from the surrounding plains. Many are in a dilapidated condition, but during the early morning, when the light is at its best, they present a memorable and magnificent sight.

As each day of the 10-night cruise melted into each other, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the year was 2008, because little has changed along the Upper Irrawaddy. Remove the electricity and motorbikes and the few cars, and the year could easily have been in the 1920s.

Each morning and afternoon there were outstandingly interesting onshore excursions lasting between 90 minutes and two hours.

In Mandalay we saw gold leaf being made, toured silver and marble carving workshops and marvelled at the largest pagoda in Burma.

At Mingun we saw the world’s largest working bell and a 50-metre high unfinished pagoda that is the world’s largest single mass of brick building.

We explored river villages where Europeans are a novelty and generally only seen once or twice a year when a Pandaw vessel stops. On one island we visited a local school, providing it with gifts of notebooks, pencils, erasers, sharpeners and colouring books. In return, the children sang for us.

Our voyage passed through the Upper Irrawaddy’s first and second defiles – where the river narrows and is bounded by towering jungle covered cliffs – but we were denied entry to the third and final defile just before our final destination – Bhamo, near the Burmese-China border. The military had decreed that, because our arrival was around the time of the first anniversary of the Yellow Rebellion, we could not enter this ancient and remote town. This rebellion related to the uprising by Buddhist monks.

After exiting the second defile, and within an hour’s cruising time of Bhamo, we turned and headed back to Mandalay. A highlight on arrival in the city was a visit to the 1.2km teak footbridge, which spans Lake Taungthaman. The Pandaw’ IV’s purser, Win, surprised us as we sat in small rowing boats on the water by producing an esky, wine glasses, and copious quantities of a delicious cocktail. He proceeded to hand a glass of chilled cocktail to everyone as the rowers propelled the boats past his!

On our final night – in Mandalay - the entire crew was presented to us all prior to enjoying farewell cocktails and nibbles followed by the evening meal.

Then it was on a plane from Mandalay back to Rangoon, where we spent several days at a marvellous boutique hotel called the Savoy, where a highlight are the hotel’s three pet ducks, wonderful food, and club sandwiches and beer by the pool.

Our only black spot had been on the first night out of Bagan, when a freak hurricane forced us to abandon ship for about 90 minutes and stand in ankle deep mud until the storm passed over. The experience – the first time in some 15 years it has occurred and which is unlikely to happen again – was memorable and bonded the passengers for the remainder of the cruise. Sitting on an Irrawaddy Island in deck chairs drinking wine from bottles that are being passed around, tends to do that!

The Pandaw fleet of four vessels are operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, and are replicas built by Scotsman Paul Strachan, with the name harking back to the late 1800s and 1900s when river traffic in Burma was the only realistic way to travel. The fleet also operates along the Mekong (Vietnam and Cambodia), the Rajang (Borneo) and later this year will start operating along the Hoogli and the Ganges (india).

All are well equipped with up to 28 double cabins, an excellent dining room with expansive views, forward saloon and a magnificent panoramic sundeck equipped with teak lounges and rattan furniture and tables.

Meals are excellent. Breakfasts are buffet style and include any choice of eggs (cooked while you wait), bacon, sausages, tomatoes, cereals, fruit and cheeses, plus several Asian dishes. Lunch is also buffet style, and very extensive with marvellous salads, hot and cold dishes, and fresh fruit.

The evening meal, slightly more formal, is always three courses – with the main generally being Asian dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Burma or Cambodia.

The cruise has a number of inclusions such as local soft drink, beer, tea and coffee, and wine, plus delicious cakes and biscuits that are baked each day by the chefs.

Onboard entertainment several nights included superb puppet shows and Burmese ballet and fold dancing.

Water is bottled, although the vessel also has an onboard UV and osmosis treatment system.

Burma is a magnificent country and – sadly because of the military regime – few people visit. Those willing to do so reap a wealth of memorable moments and discover that the Burmese are splendid people with a wonderful outlook on life, despite the despotic military government.

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