Today heralds the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The last couple of weeks leading up to this seasonal turning point have been characterised, in eastern England at least, by unseasonally sunny skies and sunsets so magnificent they seem to be defying the script that dictates that late December should be grim, grey and gloomy. These are short days, certainly, but days that have been beautifully illuminated by a cool, low-slung orange sun. Oddly enough, this has put me in mind of another orange sun in an altogether more exotic place.
U Bein’s Bridge at Amarapura near Mandalay in Myanmar/Burma is a well-known tourist hotspot in that country. The 1300m-long footbridge is thought to be the longest teak bridge in the world but that is not really the reason why visitors flock here. The truth is: this particular bridge is so photogenic that if you have ever perused the glossy travel literature offered by tour operators that deal with Myanmar the chances are you will have already seen it. Tour companies tend to know what tourists want and U Bein’s Bridge is a prime example of how the iconic and visually appealing has been successfully commodified. If aesthethic capital were on par with economic capital then Myanmar would be a wealthy country.
Tour leaders tend to make sure that their foreign clients arrive here just before sunset – just enough time for a short boat excursion on Lake Taungthaman to get the best shots. While the sight of the bridge silhouetted by the setting sun is undeniably lovely, the experience can seem somewhat surreal as hordes of freshly arrived westerners eagerly snap the scene from gently bobbing boats rowed by local fishermen. The impoverished fishermen, who have never owned even the most rudimentary camera in their lives, are sufficiently familiar with the ritual to know exactly what to do and where to go. Meanwhile, the monks and villagers who obligingly cross the bridge and unwittingly silhouette themselves for the benefit of the foreign photographers seem oblivious of their walk-on role in this unfolding daily drama.
I will let the pictures do most of the talking in this post.
Buddhist nuns in Myanmar always dress in a fetching pink colour. A nun’s life is tough but they seem cheerful enough, collecting alms in the market, studying Pali sutras or sorting out clothes at the nunnery. The commitment is actually finite, as most Burmese girls only join the nunnery for a period of a few weeks at a time.
As with Burmese boys, time spent in monasteries is viewed as a right of passage and it is considered an honour for the family to have their child wear robes for even a short period. Naturally, it brings good karma too.
Young nuns at Mingun nunnery and at Amarapura market, Myanmar
The character below is actually a boy, despite the makeup and pink get-up. He is on his way to a monastery to become a monk for a few weeks. The boy is accompanied by villagers who sing stirring valedictory songs to him as he rides along on his pony. Most of the village seems to go along for the ride – it is a party atmosphere and drink (palm toddy perhaps) has certainly been taken by some of the happy entourage. Remarkable as it may seem, this is the sort of chance event that you stumble upon every day of the week in Myanmar.
Young novice processing to Buddhist monastery near Hpa-an, Myanmar
‘By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’ and I know she thinks o’ me’
These words by Rudyard Kipling form the opening lines of the Road to Mandalay, an evocative poem that manages to capture the mysterious spirit of the East as seen through Western eyes. The work holds such an important place in the colonial canon that it comes as a surprise to discover that Kipling only spent a total of three days in Burma (now known as Myanmar). What is more, he never actually set foot in Mandalay itself. He did, however, briefly visit the southern coastal city of Moulmein (now known as Mawlamyine or Mawlamyaing) and it was the sight of a beautiful Burmese girl climbing the hill on her way to the city’s Kyaikthanlan Paya pagoda that inspired Kipling’s muse in this instance.
Kyaikthanlan Paya is the most prominent of a number of glistening Buddhist stupas that line the high ridge bisecting the city. Having arrived in Moulmein by means of a nine-hour train journey from Yangon in which the buckled rails made us bounce in our seats like cantering equestrians, a leg stretch seemed in order and there was just enough time to pay a visit to the pagoda before darkness fell. As things turned out I did not walk all the way up to the top as halfway up to the temple complex an elderly gentleman stopped to offer me a pillion ride on his motorbike. Such events are not out of the ordinary in Myanmar; after just a couple of days in the country I was already aware that thoughtful yet undemonstrative gestures like this were commonplace.
Watching the sun set over the sea from the viewpoint beneath the temple I met another old man who seemed delighted when I told him I was English. I am not sure if this was because he simply approved of my nationality or whether he was just pleased to have the opportunity to use the English he had learned long ago in school. Either way, the warmth seemed entirely genuine. ”It is a pleasure to see you here. I do hope we can meet here again”. (We did, the following day).
As previously mentioned, Kipling did not spend long in Moulmein – just enough time to pen his famous poem and take a fancy to a local beauty. The novelist George Orwell, on the other hand, had a far stronger relationship with the city. Orwell’s mother’s family came from Moulmein and it was also here that he underwent training with the Burma Police Force. This and subsequent Burmese experience would provide raw material for Burmese Days, his first novel and a damning account of British colonial life in which most of the colonial characters seems to be alcoholic, racist or both.
Moulmein also provides the background for Orwell’s 1936 memoir Shooting an Elephant, a work that opens with the arresting line:
‘In Moulmein, in Lower Burma I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.’