On Bogyoke Aung San Street (formerly Montgomery) the Central Jail is being pulled down. The workmen were surprised to get a visitor and willingly showed me around the six enormous cell blocks which radiate in clumsy spokes from a central courtyard and administration building. They pointed out scratchings on the cell floors made in the teak planks by bored prisoners, the Burmese equivalent of tic-tac-toe. One man told me the place was one hundred seven years old—the seven gave the date a certain credibility; in fact, I couldn't imagine the Burmese pulling down a building less than a hundred years old. The only market in Mandalay is the Zegyo Bazaar, designed and built in 1903 by an Italian, Count Caldrari (who was also the first secretary of the Mandalay Municipality). I stole a small sign from over a cell door in the Central Jail. It reads: 56' BY 26½' BY 12'—CUBICAL CONTENTS 17967—ACCOMMODATION FOR 28. It is only a short hop from the Central Jail to the Pegu Club, now an Officers' Mess of the Burmese Army. The Pegu Club was to Rangoon what the Selangor Club was to Kuala Lumpur and the Tanglin Club to Singapore (but these two are still going strong). The sentry said that he would have let me look around, but as it happened, a senior officer (the sentry bulged his eyes to illustrate how senior) had just arrived and was inside.

"What is your country?" is a question the stranger will ask as you pass him on the street (also: "Change money—good price?" and "Want girl? Chinese, Burmese, Indian, anything?"). To frustrate Omega-hunters and those (many it seemed) who desired to buy my trousers when I refused to sell my watch, I said that I came from Singapore. They know that Singapore is mostly Chinese, and the Burmese have opinions about the Chinese. "Chinese, let me tell you about the Chinese," said a Burman whose name was U Georgie. "They save a lot of money, a lot of money." He made a wrapping motion with his hands and then threw the invisible wrapped thing away. "Then they throw it away. Gambling." He looked at me. "How do the Chinese make money? Easy. A Chinaman wants a cheroot. He sees a broken one in a monsoon drain. He picks it up and wipes it off. He smokes it. He saves a few pyas. Easy. And Indians. Do you know what the Indians do with their women ...?"

All the Burmese have racial opinions, but this is not unusual in a country with such a mixed population and with cities yet divided into ethnic districts: Chinatown in Rangoon; a walled-in Gujarati community in Mandalay announcing its vegetarianism with a sign BE KIND TO ANIMALS BY NOT EATING THEM; Tamil and European districts, the most elegant being the American compound for Embassy personnel. (There is an American Club and a private American commissary which stocks peanut butter and cornflakes. The lowliest person at the American Embassy has a car and a driver—officially, Rangoon is "a hardship post.") Whole towns in Upper Burma are populated with Nepalese—the remnants, children and grandchildren, of demobbed colonial soldiers.

A very large number of Burmese speak English. I met several enterprising fellows who had started English Institutes (they were civil servants; their "Institutes" started classes at six in the evening). In Nyaungu, signs in English announce a literacy campaign; the English is for the many tourists who visit Nyaungu's ruins. (It is expensive to be literate in Burma—a cheap Burmese paperback costs at least one U.S. dollar.) I complimented one pavement bookseller on his English; pleased with the compliment he recited this sentence: "I am enduring exposure ... to the sun's powerful rays ... before I reach my destination." He removed his spectacles and repeated it, looking at the sky.

Much of their English may be learned from British and American films. On the train to Mandalay I met the manager of a Bhamo cinema. "Cowboy films are very popular," he said. An Anthony Quinn Western ran eighteen days, four shows a day, in his cinema. "Maybe the Burmese like Anthony Quinn," I said. No, said the manager: The Visit (Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman) ran only two days. He was returning to Bhamo after a week of film-going in Rangoon and was anxious to discuss the films he had just seen: What A Way to Go (an all-star cast, including Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum); Our Man Flint ("America's Playboy Hero!"); The Adventurers (Alain Delon, from the book of the same name by Harold Robbins); King Kong Escapes (directed by Ishiro Honda); Five for Hell, Cosa Nostra, An Arch Enemy of the FBI ("The Untold Story of the FBI's Crackdown on the Kings of Crime ..."). There are many Indian and Burmese films, and there is a fairly large Burmese film industry (the pictures of film stars adorn the temples they have visited), but all Burmese films have to include at least 60 percent socialism (a Burman's statistic: I didn't question it).

Not surprisingly, the cinema manager had an American accent. He was on his way back to Bhamo to screen That Darn Cat, which he had picked up from the Film Distribution Board of the Revolutionary Government. We were having a lively talk about films, and I was marveling at his knowledge of directors and actors. The train had just stopped at Toungoo, where we had each picked up a supply of cold Mandalay Pale Ale which we were drinking (he through a straw) in the Buffet Car of the train. Our talk was interrupted by the train guard, who told the manager to take his beer elsewhere: it was forbidden to drink beer in the Buffet Car. The reprimand was in Burmese, but the tone was unmistakable and I started to creep out with my bottles. Both train guard and manager were deeply hurt; both motioned me to my seat and urged me to drink. And the manager said, "You are an exceptional case."

"See Burma"

Tourists are welcome, treated with enormous courtesy, invited to Burmese homes, photographed, and squired around and given special privileges. I was told that I needn't worry about getting a seat on the plane from Mandalay to Nyaungu because if the plane was full I would be given the seat of a Burmese who would be ordered out and requested to wait for the next plane. This sounds much worse than it works out in practice: on the Fokker Friendship from Mandalay to Nyaungu I was the only passenger. The pretty stewardess spent the trip eating her lunch (which she invited me to share) from a palm leaf. I asked her how she liked her work. "Sometimes," she said, "I get fed up."

Package tours fly in daily from Bangkok, and the tourists are whisked by plane from town to town where waiting Japanese buses take them from sight to sight; then lunch from a hamper packed in Rangoon; then a hotel (average price about $13 a night, with breakfast). "See Burma in Four Days," is the boast of one travel agency in Bangkok.

"Wake up, Father, here's the plane," I heard an elderly lady say to her sleeping husband at the airport in Nyaungu. The man was curled up on the bench next to her. One sees the package tourists in most of the large towns; they have an exhausted cheated look in their eyes, and many seem beyond caring what Burma has to offer. It was fun to watch the American man, sixty-five if he was a day, playing solitaire with his back to the blood-red sun spectacularly dissolving into the Irrawaddy at Pagan. But not all the tourists come in packages, and most of Burma's visitors fit V. S. Naipaul's description, in An Area of Darkness, of the "new type of American whose privilege it was to go slumming about the world and sometimes scrounging, exacting a personal repayment for a national generosity."

I witnessed an American girl being asked by two Burmese whether they could buy a piece of batik cloth from her. Their price seemed fair; she was burdened by a bulging rucksack; but she was unreasonably indignant. I asked her why she didn't sell. "When I go to a place," she said, "I don't expect to give people things. I'm a guest—I expect them to give me things." Her next stop was to be Calcutta.

In Pagan I spent some hours with an American hippie. Here was no scrounger; he had just come from New Zealand and Australia, where he had been, he said, "dealing" (selling drugs). He showed me a wad of money and a sheaf of air tickets. One ticket was for Switzerland, "where we have a villa." He wore only a pair of shorts, and his hair was fixed with what my mother used to call bobby pins. I learned a little bit about current LSD prices from him after he pointed to my head and said, "You got this temple here ... you should find out what's inside it...." I noted his figures: a dealer gets one ounce of acid; this costs $2000 but is good for making 4000 tablets ("tabs," "hits") which can be sold for five to seven dollars apiece. He was thoroughly contented with his lot; his grievance was with Asians, whom he had come to dislike. He explained this to a Burmese architect who was in Pagan to supervise the building of a luxury hotel: "I used to think you Asians knew where it was at ... and now I been all over Asia and, like, now I can see you're all f----- in the head."

The architect became attentive.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In