It says tourist



I could hear the sound of traffic, but I couldn't see it. Somewhere down the hill, hiding behind a canopy of palm leaves, was the city where George Orwell worked as an assistant superintendent for the British Imperial Police. By the old pagoda where I was standing, Rudyard Kipling stole glances at Burmese women and collected impressions for his incongruously entitled poem Mandalay. Who cares about details, such as the actual name of a place, when you're somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst?

Despite its importance for British literature, Mawlamyine, or Moulmein as it used to be called, is blissfully devoid of tourists. Most visitors to Myanmar concentrate on the big four: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. But if you'd like to wander through a more dreamlike, less convenient Asia, this crumbling town by the Andaman Sea isn't to be missed.

Chelsea wins

So how do you get there? Well I'm not a travel agent, so I'll just tell you how we got there. One beautiful November afternoon, two rather toothless gentlemen transported us by taxi bike to the sprawling Mandalay bus station, where we boarded a coach to Bago, a town a couple of hours north of Yangon.

Exiting said vehicle at 3 AM in the deserted streets of what we could only hope was Bago, we were once again reminded that transport in Myanmar isn't exactly a costumer-centric experience. Luckily, we found a tea shop on the main drag, where we devoured some steamed buns and watched a Premier League match on Sky sports. Even in Myanmar, Chelsea wins.

Soon we were joined by a talkative local fellow, who wanted to know what our plans were. Foolishly, we admitted that we would only be staying in Bago for one day, then head to the Southeast.
'Why not go now?', our table companion demanded. 'There's a pick-up truck leaving for Mawlamyine in a quarter of an hour. I'll make you a good price.'

So, instead of checking into a guest house, we set off on another seven-hour trip, this time in the back of an Isuzu. The fact that we were already quite drowsy at this point actually worked in our favour. As most university students know, you can only endure sitting on a wooden bench for long stretches of time if you're either drunk or tired or both.

While we rushed through the starless night, blowing our horn at every settlement along the road, Hannelore reclined against the frame of the car and I gestured my way through a conversation with the driver's sons, who happened to be expert baggage handlers and gifted mimes. Home, I was happy to realize, felt very far away.

Two girls, one cup 

Long after our legs had surrendered their last remnants of feeling, we crossed the bridge over the Thanlwin river and came to a halt in the sweltering midday sun. Our first impressions of Mawlamyine weren't too favorable. To our delicate olfactory nerves the city's commercial center reeked of heat, sewage and fish. While I generally like the smell of fish markets, this particular melange, piled on top of the tiredness from the long drive, struck me like the 'Two girls, one cup' video struck those unsuspecting marines. It was time for a nap.

When I regained consciousness I was in a room without any windows. To my right was a pile of limbs that might or might not have been my girlfriend. To avoid any criminal charges, I decided it was best to leave the building at once and go for a stroll. Outside, the working day was winding down. Our guest house was only one broad street removed from the sea and the sea only one broad sweep removed from the sun. In Yangon the magic hour signaled the arrival of food stalls and sightless musicians. Here, the streets were almost empty.

Reluctant to make any definite plans for the evening, I sauntered off in the direction of a hill I thought I'd seen on the drive into town. The slums at the foot of the hill had an air of permanency over them, while a deserted mansion a bit further up the road with several willow trees stooping in its courtyard seemed ready to collapse.

Soon I entered a narrow passage flanked by monastery halls. A sole monk was sweeping the floor, which to my eye was clean to begin with. Somewhere to the right, a couple of voices were chasing a mantra. A bell rang, a dog barked, but that was it. A carefully executed audio play.

Looking back, I realize that Mawlamyine was the place I really wanted to visit when we left for Asia. It wasn't premeditated. It wasn't even in our guidebook. But it was the timeless Asia I had dreamt of. The boats, the people, even the trucks and scooters, everything was slow like the kinetics of a dream.

So what did we do? A lot and nothing much. We visited a nearby island (where horse-drawn carriages were still very much à la mode) and a gigantic reclining Buddha statue inhabited by a sickly monk and his collection of x-rated statues depicting the life of Buddha. We ate a fantastic fish-and-lemon dish and pomelo with a salt and pepper mix. Hannelore discovered Spy, a brand of red sparkling wine from Thailand, and vowed not to drink anything else ever again. Everrrrr.

And eventually we stepped on a boat and – very slowly – saw Mawlamyine disappear from view. No Burma girls to send us off, though. Still waiting for Rudyard, I guess.


The great railway bazaar - Hsipaw to Mandalay

The train from Hsipaw to Mandalay shook like a tambourine in a 60s revival band. Its passengers, unwilling participants in a real life game of Pong, slid from side to side on the wooden benches, clutching their possesions to keep them from going airborne. Very slowly the train made its way through upper Myanmar down a narrow corridor cut from the surrounding vegetation, while flowered branches slapped the side of the car and infused it with a heavy fragrance.

For the first two hours of the trip, apart from an occasional flicker of rural landscape, these green drapes were all the windows had to offer. From time to time, we'd stop in a small town along the way. As soon as the train halted, women carrying fruit and dried goods on their heads would circle it, hoping for a quick sell. Each time we stopped, it took the machinists longer to get the thing going again. I was starting to think we'd never arrive at our destination.

Of the many foreigners who traveled this railway line, the American Paul Theroux probably contributed the most to its legendary status. For his travelogue The great railway bazaar, Theroux made the journey from Maymyo to Naung-Peng and back, crossing the Gokteik gorge along the way. The viaduct across the gorge, completed by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1901, is the main reason many travelers prefer the train over the more comfortable (and privately owned) bus service to and from Mandalay. 320 feet high and 2250 feet long, it still is one of the largest traditional steel trestles in the world.

Here's Theroux crossing the viaduct:
“The train wheels banged on the steel spans and the plunging water roared the birds out of their nests a thousand feet down. The long delay in the cold had depressed me, and the journey had been unremarkable, but this lifted my spirits, crossing the bridge in the rain, from one steep hill to another, over a jungly deepness, bursting with a river to which the monsoon had given a hectoring voice, and the engine whistling again and again, the echo carrying down the gorge to China.”

Louder and sadder

Hannelore and I traveled during the dry season, so we weren't rewarded with bursting rivers, but the crossing - about four hours into the journey - proved to be an unforgettable sight, worth every bounce and jostle along the way. After we passed the gorge, the hedges besides the tracks opened up more regularly and we could see villages strewn across a countryside that might have been conceived by a gang of gallivanting French impressionist painters.

Bare-shouldered women froze in their crouching poses as we waggled along, faraway temples drew the last sunlight of the day into their bell-shaped stupa's, the sounds of the train became louder and sadder. And then … And then …

If I can give one tip to other travelers who want to make this journey: book a room in Mandalay before you leave. We hadn't, and when the train finally arrived, three to four hours behind schedule, it proved almost impossible to find a room in the city. Eventually we had to settle for a hotel above our budget, with air-conditioning and a private bathroom. What are we, tourists?


Trek from Namshan to Hsipaw

“Bomber terrorist's elevator plan backfires, so he rigs a bomb to a LA city bus. The stipulation is: once armed, the bus must stay above 50 mph to keep from exploding. Also if LAPD Officer tries to unload any passengers off, bomber will detonate it.” Source: IMDb.

Even when presented in its simplest form, the plot for the movie Speed has blockbuster written all over it. It reads like a syllogism: A causes B, B causes C, C equals kickass. The producers were so convinced of the script's genius that they didn't bother to cast an actor for the leading role. Instead, they chose Keanu Reeves.  

Compared to other Hollywood action flicks, the basic premise of Speed isn't that far-fetched. In a city like Los Angeles, if you have a hunky police officer by your side, you could probably drive a city bus for an hour or so at a speed above 50 mph and live to tell the tale. The cast's survival chance would be much slimmer in a country like Myanmar, where roads are muddy patches that keep potholes together. If a Burmese director were to do a remake, that bus would explode before the charismatic terrorist (since Dennis Hopper is dead, the role would probably go to Liev Schreiber) has a chance to make his first jeering phone call.




There's a classroom across the street from Mr. Charles' guesthouse. Every morning at six o' clock we are awoken by the sound of many children's voices repeating the same three phrases over and over again. Since the lungs of a pint-sized human can only hold so much oxygen, the chorus usually  falters in the middle of the third sentence. The last couple of syllables make a mad dash for the finish line, after which there's a collective gasp for air and a fresh start from the top.



If the non-fiction section of your local bookshop is anything to go by, you should definitely start worrying about the end of human civilization. Publishers are churning out studies in cultural pessimism like cookbooks nowadays.

One of my favourites in this genre is The world without us, a popular science title in which journalist Alan Weisman imagines Earth sans homo sapiens. Gathering evidence from places that are already devoid of human interference, like the Korean DMZ or Chernobyl, Weisman reveals that the rest of the planet would get over mankind pretty quickly.