Mandalay and Bagan, Myanmar
May 28 – 31, 2018
I learned the word Burman from Rudyard Kipling. In his letters and stories, he used the word to refer to the people of Myanmar, then named Burma by the British Empire. Whether it was a blanket term for all tribes in Burma or meant specifically for the Burmese tribe, I didn’t know. What I did know was that he regarded the Burman fondly, a sentiment that I shared when I visited their country. In the words of Kipling himself, “Personally I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression.”
The vast plains of Bagan dotted with ancient pagodas, relentlessly sun-baked at mid-day, was farthest from a child’s playground than I could imagine. Thus, I was caught by surprise when a boy, no more than 10 years old, appeared out of nowhere, literally. He approached me with a hand held out. Panhandling in this virtual desert, I wondered incredulously. It turned out he was asking for foreign currency to add to his collection. He showed off banknotes from countries as diverse as Mongolia and Argentina. I was only too happy to contribute Philippine peso to his wad of bills.
Such endearing innocence was not only laid bare under the beating sun; it was disarming in rainy weather. Under the drizzle in Mandalay a few days prior, the taxi driver handed me an umbrella he had retrieved from the trunk. It was more of a parasol than for rain, so fancy for its neon green fabric and floral design. He was witness to selfies I had liberally taken with it that, at the end of the tour, he thrust the umbrella back to me. I couldn’t carry it with me on the plane, I reasoned. Take it anyway, he insisted. I laughed, he laughed. And as Kipling wrote, “and we all laughed together, because that seemed to be the custom of the country.” It was my first day in Myanmar, and that gave me my first Kiplingesque impression of the Burman.
However, the Burmese sincerity that Kipling raved about – “She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship…” – had been tarnished by his own kind – “…and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.” Perhaps it was the other way around; foreign influence had chipped away at traditional virtues that so enchanted him.
I may have eluded any dacoit that Kipling mentioned in his letters, but I was certainly spotted and stalked by relentless touts working in and around Bagan ancient temples. A teenage boy artist posed as a guide only to sell his sand paintings. A girl offered to take my photos only to follow me around thrusting her hand-painted jewelry boxes into my clenched fist. “Under no circumstances will the Burman exert himself in the paths of honest industry,” Kipling wrote, rather unfairly. Capitalism in tourism was inevitable.
I had come a tad too long after the military rule that insulated Myanmar for decades. My brush with its people was not all that innocent. That young currency collector eventually sold me a pack of postcards. That congenial taxi driver who parted with his parasol asked for a thumbs-up review at TripAdvisor in return. I promised to put his name and number here:
Ko Kyaw, Mandalay taxi service (09777222590 or 09258599313)
Still, I willingly bought into the charm of that boy and that man with eyes wide open. Eventually, I was jaded and put off by the teenage touts who were no different from others the world over. The interactions – favorable or otherwise – came with a price, monetary or even disenchantment. This was Myanmar at the cusp of the uniquely old and the globalized new.
In the words of Tennyson as quoted by Kipling in his travel memoirs:
I am a part of all that I have met,
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.