In search of history - Mawlamyine

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November 26th 2017
Published: March 19th 2018
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Rudyard Kipling spent only a few unscheduled hours in Moulmein (now Mawlamyine), by then the former capital of British Burma, on his way home – via America – from India in 1889, but it nevertheless managed to inspire the opening line of one of his most memorable poems, “Mandalay”. Having first encountered the poem only just before I left the UK, I found it getting under my skin as I travelled around Myanmar almost 130 years’ after Kipling’s visit.

“But that’s all shove be’ind me - long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ’busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I'm learnin’ ’ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you've ’eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.””

It felt so resonant for me, as I combine my first love, travelling, with working to raise funds to do so in London (Kipling’s “the Bank” being the Bank of England), that, now I was here, I decided to go in search of the inspiration for the opening line, “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea…”.

My journey to Mawlamyine began eight hours to the south, at Dawei bus station. I sat at the edge of a nearby café, enjoying yet another of the ubiquitous 3-in-1 coffee sachets diluted in too little water. (For a country that grows its own coffee, there’s an extraordinary reliance on the pre-packaged instant version, and it wasn’t until Mawlamyine itself that I found decent “kick-ass” home-grown coffee.) In the waiting room, on the other side of a metal-grilled window, a screechy TV show seemed to be hypnotising, or perhaps merely deafening, the room’s contents. I was looking out for a coach-style bus – one nearby was branded so thoroughly with Manchester United, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the team itself was in town – but instead a couple of people-carriers drew up, attracting would-be passengers and their leaving parties like moths to a flame. “Mawlamyine?” I asked of several of those around me, and received distracted nods in reply. The two drivers were engrossed with the disproportionate amount of luggage that had materialised, scrambling up on top of the vehicles with precariously packaged bundles. One people-carrier was almost full, so I turned to its neighbour. Yes, the prevailing opinion was that both would be going in the same direction, and, having checked and rechecked that my holdall was safely stowed under the backseat of the same vehicle I was about to board, I took up initially solo occupation of the seat immediately behind the driver and awaited my fellow passengers. Not quite the glamour of Kipling’s approach to the town, by ship from Calcutta and Rangoon, before continuing on to Hong Kong and Japan. There was a moment or two of anxiety as my passport walked out of the bus station to an office across the road and out of sight, but I left no-one in any doubt that I was going nowhere without it, and it was handed back to me at the bus station gates with a smile that broadened into a grin at the relief and gratitude writ large on my face. In the meantime, the driver was bent forward over his steering wheel, hands folded, eyes tight shut. “Oh great,” I thought to myself, “HE’S praying?!”

Whether the result of successful intercessions with the Almighty, the driver’s skill, or pure luck, we made it up the road in one piece and in remarkably good time. After the seemingly endless journey to Mrauk U, it was encouraging to discover the official scheduling had overestimated this particular trip, despite our pause for lunch and time picking up and setting down a dozen or more green-uniformed school teachers en route, the driver doing his indirect bit for the country’s education. We only had one papers-checking point, this time on the Tanintharyi/Mon state border. For once, I had to accompany my passport to the office, rather than it being whisked away by the driver or his sidekick. I’d noticed that the wrong Myanmar visa had been photocopied at the Dawei bus station, but that didn’t seem to bother the official here who ignored the photocopy I gave him, tracked down the right visa and scribbled its details onto the copy of my passport, before handing it back to me with a smile. (I remain convinced that I must have done something illicit in scampering down to Singapore for a weekend purely to apply for a new Myanmar visa, given the time limit of 28 days on tourist visas, no matter how often I point out to myself that, by applying such a short time limit, the government is, of course, extracting another US$50 from me for the privilege of spending longer in its country.)

At what passed for Mawlamyine’s bus station, a bumper-cars mess of vehicles down a side street, we were surrounded by taxi-touts before the vehicle even came to a stop. I was swept up a keen moto-taxi driver, confident that he could manage me on the back of his steed with my bag tucked between his legs, and, price agreed, we set off up the road. (The next day I was to find myself attempting to ride side-saddle on a moto-taxi for the first time. I’d scrubbed up as far as a dress to meet friends down from Yangon for the weekend, and didn’t want to scare the locals by hitching it up to ride astride. Of course, this would be the time that I had a chatty driver, keen to practise his English, so, with knuckles whitening on the bar behind me, I lent forward to talk to him, while maintaining both my balance and my decency; no mean achievement, I thought proudly.)

The next day I set off to explore the town. Mawlamyine itself is a tranquil, slightly sad, backwater, its colonial architecture scattered and crumbling, although, with clear blue sky and bright sunshine, it had a vibrant colour that Yangon and Mandalay had lacked when I was there. St Patrick’s Cathedral has been quaintly Burma-ified, with hti-like gold filigree and extra colour added to the otherwise simple Christian spire, and its pretty wooded graveyard is still littered with Victorian casualties of the brutal tropical climate. Only at the northern end of Lower Main Road, with its chaos of open-air and covered markets, is there a frenetic buzz of activity, motorbikes winding their way between customers to deliver high-piled goods.

But my main aim was to track down the view from “the old Moulmein Pagoda”. This is Myanmar; there’s more than one temple in town, but Kipling’s is widely believed to be the ridge-top Kyaikthanlan Paya. Certainly this would be the best possibility in town of seeing the sea, but was Kipling right, or simply indulging in artistic licence?

Mawlamyine is on the Thanlwin River (formerly known as the Salween), inland from the Andaman Sea. The river splits in two just north of Mawlamyine, creating a wide messy delta, semi-stoppered, immediately to the west of the town, by the large island of Bilugyun. Roughly the size of Singapore, it is largely undeveloped and agricultural. I was sceptical that Kipling really could have looked “lazy at the sea”, even from the Paya’s dramatic location.

The covered walkways up to the Paya were empty of the usual panoply of stalls that decorate key Buddhist temples elsewhere in the country, leaving me ascending the steps in unexpected tranquillity. At the top, as I paused to get my bearings, I found myself assaulted by a barrage of teenage girls, smartphones to the ready, keen to photograph and be photographed with a hot and sweaty foreigner in sunglasses and a bush hat. I couldn’t see the attraction myself, but smilingly gave in, until it seemed to be getting a little out of hand and I gently drew the line. If this was a hint of what the paparazzi do to celebrities, give me oblivion. I parted from the giggles and phones, and wandered off to find Kipling’s view.

Kipling’s grip of geography was clearly affected by his newly-discovered and oft-mentioned infatuation for Burmese women. The first verse of “Mandalay” ends wonderfully poetically, but cringingly inaccurately: “An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay”. China is, in fact, more than 500 miles north of Mawlamyine and the other side of several mountain ranges. Sunset over India might have been a better option. With my back to the dazzling gold of the central stupa and its acolytes and to the sound of Kipling’s “tinkly temple-bells”, I looked across the lush land below me, red tin roofs punctuating the tropical greens, towards the mishmash of waterways to the west. With the help of Google Maps and the zoom function of my camera, I worked out that one of the mishmash of waterways in front of me probably was the sea, and decided to give Kipling the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this one he had got right.

Ironically, Kipling never made it to Mandalay, several days’ journey up the Irrawaddy, but to adapt the old African adage, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good bit of poetry”.

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