Books and Media on Myanmar (Burma)

Perhaps the most well known writing on Myanmar is Kipling's Mandalay written in March or April 1890, when the British poet was 24 years old and then appearing set to music in a collection of ballads published in 1892 (a little known fact is Kipling never actually visited Mandalay). An abridged version became widely known when turned into a song during the 1950s sung by Frank Sinatra, On The Road to Mandalay.


by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, On the road to Mandalay

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’mud –
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd –
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

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.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be –
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Burmese Days

"U Po Kyin, Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada, in Upper Burma, was sitting in his veranda. It was only half past eight, but the month was April, and there was a closeness in the air, a threat of the long, stifling midday hours. Occasional faint breaths of wind, seeming cool by contrast, stirred the newly drenched orchids that hung from the eaves. Beyond the orchids one could see the dusty, curved trunk of a palm tree, and then the blazing ultramarine sky. Up in the zenith, so high that it dazzled one to look at them, a few vultures circled without the quiver of a wing." The classic colonial-era novel by George Orwell. "The Quiet American" for Myanmar, a historical drama about the British colonial period. "Imagine crossing E.M. Forster with Jane Austen. Stir in a bit of socialist doctrine, a sprig of satire, strong Indian curry, and a Burmese Days, George Orwellcouple quarts of good English gin and you get something close to the flavor of George Orwell's intensely readable and deftly plotted Burmese Days. In 1930, Kyauktada, Upper Burma, is one of the least auspicious postings in the ailing British Empire--and then the order comes that the European Club, previously for whites only, must elect one token native member. This edict brings out the worst in this woefully enclosed society, not to mention among the natives who would become the One.

Orwell mines his own Anglo-Indian background to evoke both the suffocating heat and the stifling pettiness that are the central facts of colonial life: "Mr. MacGregor told his anecdote about Prome, which could be produced in almost any context. And then the conversation veered back to the old, never-palling subject--the insolence of the natives, the supineness of the Government, the dear dead days when the British Raj was the Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. The topic was never let alone for long, partly because of Ellis's obsession. Besides, you could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the temper of a saint."

Indochina Travel comments: "Were occupying British administrators really that uptight and patronizing? Evidently, for Orwell served for five years in Myanmar as a police officer and lived it firsthand. Only his very first novel and yet a classic. An excellent historical backdrop of the country’s colonial period from the one of the strongest critics of Britain’s colonial past. This fictional story reads very much as if they were Orwell's personal experiences during his five years in the country" —Patrick Morris

[Amazon Link]

The River of Lost Footsteps

The River of Lost Footsteps By Thant Myint-UBy Thant Myint-U (grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant) . "In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, in part through a telling of his own family’s history, in an interwoven narrative that  is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and appalling. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from being the schoolmaster of a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the UN secretary-general in the 1960s. And on his father’s side, the author is descended from a long line of courtiers who served at Burma’s Court of Ava for nearly two centuries.

Through their stories and others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today and is the longest-running war anywhere in the world."

Indochina Travel Comments: "An ideal introduction to the country. I met Thant at a book reading in San Francisco and was immediately taken by his story. Exceptionally well written, scholarly while entertaining. The most recent and complete history of Myanmar, and the region, set against Thant's own family history. " —Patrick Morris

[Amazon Link]

The Glass Palace

Rising Indian writer Ghosh's epic novel of Burma and Malaya over a span of 115 years is the kind of "sweep of history" that readers can appreciate, even love, despite its The Glass Palace by Aitay Ghoshdemands. There is almost too much here for one book, as over the years the lives and deaths of principal characters go flying by. Yet Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome; Shadow Lines) is a beguiling and endlessly resourceful storyteller, and he boasts one of the most arresting openings in recent fiction: in the marketplace of Mandalay, only the 11-year-old Indian boy Rajkumar recognizes the booming sounds beyond the curve of the river as English cannon fire.

The year is 1885, and the British have used a trade dispute to justify the invasion and seizure of Burma's capital. As a crowd of looters pours into the fabled Glass Palace, the dazzling throne room of the nine-roofed golden spire that was the great hit of Burma's kings, Rajkumar catches sight of Dolly, then only 10, nursemaid to the Second Princess. Rajkumar carries the memory of their brief meeting through the years to come, while he rises to fame and riches in the teak trade and Dolly travels into exile to India with King Thebaw, Burma's last king; Queen Supayalat; and their three daughters.

The story of the exiled king and his family in Ratnagiri, a sleepy port town south of Bombay, is worth a novel in itself, and the first two of the story's seven parts, which relate that history and Rajkumar's rise to wealth in Burma's teak forests, are marvelously told. Inspired by tales handed down to him by his father and uncle, Ghosh vividly brings to life the history of Burma and Malaya over a century of momentous change in this teeming, multi-generational saga."

Indochina Travel comments: "My favorite read on Myanmar." —Mark Tuschman

[Amazon Link]

The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner By Daniel MasonBy Daniel Mason. "In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner named Edgar Drake receives an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon who has proven mysteriously indispensable to the imperial design. From this irresistible beginning,

The Piano Tuner launches its protagonist into a world of seductive loveliness and nightmarish intrigue. And as he follows Drake's journey, Mason dazzles readers with his erudition, moves them with his vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in the unbreakable spell of his storytelling."

Indochina Travel Comments: "Made into film as well. An extravagant if not contrived story of rescuing a piano in inner Burma during the British colonial period. Engaging with vivid descriptions. Trivia note: Mason was in medical school when he wrote this." —Patrick Morris

[Amazon Link]

The Stone of Heaven

"Levy and Scott-Clark are excellent story tellers, and do they ever have a story to tell. The Stone of Heaven by Adrian Levy and Scott-ClarkTracing the history of imperial green jade, or jadeite, they begin in the late 18th century with Chinese emperor Qianlong and 400 riveting pages later end in present day Myanmar. Along the way the reader is exposed to the unrestrained profligacy of the Chinese emperors and the equally unrestrained ignorance and arrogance of the British colonialists. There is scheming and plots within plots as players in the Chinese dynasties kill their own progeny to ensure a malleable emperor will succeed.

The plundering by the British of the old Imperial summer palace is shocking, and the primitive warfare of the Kachin in Burma is horrifying. Levy and Scott-Clark's descriptions put the reader right into the midst of the action: the writing is so effective that you can feel the clinging humidity of the Burmese jungle as 19th century British explorers plod along in search for the mines from whence the jadeite is extracted."

Indochina Travel Comments: "A semi-fictional story about Chinese emperors and the jade mines in Myanmar. Action adventure, but in-depth historical content and descriptions of the country. Muddled and trivial in some parts, nonetheless a rare chronicle of China and Myanmar's history in such detail." —Tree Tam

[Amazon Link]

Golden Earth By Norman Lewis

Golden Earth

By Norman Lewis
Like most travelers in Burma, Norman Lewis fell in love with the land and its people. Although much of the countryside was under the control of insurgent armies (the book was originally published in 1952) he managed, by steamboat, decrepit lorry, and dacoit-besieged train, to travel almost everywhere he wanted.

This perseverance enabled him to see brilliant spectacles that are still out of our reach, and to meet all types of Burmese, from District officers to the inmates of Rangoon's jail.

All the color, gaiety, and charm of the East spring to life with this master storyteller.

[Amazon Link]

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe (autobiography). The incredible and unlikely From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

A Burmese Odysey by Pascal Khoo Thwetale of a Padaung hilltribe boy who went on to become a rebel and eventually make his way to England to attend college. "In 1988 Dr John Casey, a Cambridge don visiting Burma, was told of a waiter in Mandalay with a passion for the works of James Joyce. Intrigued by this unlikely story, he visited the restaurant, where he met Pascal Khoo Thwe. The encounter was to change both their lives.

Pascal grew up as a member of the tiny, remote Kayan Padaung tribe, famous for their 'giraffenecked' women. The Padaung practiced a combination of ancient animist and Buddhist customs mixed with the Catholicism introduced by Italian missionaries. Theirs was a dream culture, a world in which ancestors were worshipped and ghosts were a constant presence. Pascal was the first member of his community ever to study English at university. But in Burma, English books were rare, and independent thought was discouraged. Photocopies of the few approved texts would be passed from student to student, while tuition consisted of lecturers reciting essays that the students learned by rote."

Indochina Travel Comments: "My favorite book on Myanmar. Wonderful descriptions of rural life in and around Inle Lake and the Shan State and struggle of the people during a time of revolution and upheaval. Trivia note: Pascal is from the famous Palaung tribe (long-necks)." —Patrick Morris

[Amazon Link]

Burma : Rivers of Flavor

By Naomi Duguid.

Burma : Rivers of Flavor By Naomi Duguid. Interspersed throughout the book's 125 recipes are intriguing tales from the author's many trips to this fascinating but little-known land. One such captivating essay shows how Burmese women adorn themselves with thanaka, a white paste used to protect and decorate the skin. Buddhism is a central fact of Burmese life: we meet barefoot monks on their morning quest for alms, as well as nuns with shaved heads; and Duguid takes us on tours of Shwedagon, the amazingly grand temple complex on a hill in Rangoon, the former capital.

Naomi takes boats up Burma's huge rivers, highways to places inaccessible by road; spends time in village markets and home kitchens; and takes us to the farthest reaches of the country, along the way introducing us to the fascinating people she encounters on her travels. "The definitive book on Burmese cuisine" —Tree Tam


The Lady (Film)

A poorly-received movie about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi— The New York Times notes "Tears are shed, but no inkling of doubt or tension is allowed to penetrate the aura of idealistic selflessness that shrouds Suu and Michael. And somehow the audience is never permitted to appreciate the depth and profundity of their shared commitment to Myanmar."

"Similarly, while the movie shows the brutal treatment of Suu's colleagues in the human rights movement, it does not explore the struggle, discipline and internal friction that are essential to successful political resistance. One result is a film that is programmatically inspirational but not quite as inspiring as it should be."

Still, as we say about the Dr. Siri novels set within Laos, with very limited media, it's the best of nothing.


The Wise Washerman: A Folktale from Burma

By Deborah Froese. Ages 5 and up.

"Centering on the universal tendency to overlook the obvious in search of the extraordinary, this sublime retelling of a Burmese folktale combines myth and legend into an inspiring tale for our time. With a harmonious blend of motion and color, detailed paintings underscore the story's transcendent theme. Full color."

[Amazon Link]

Late for Nowhere (blog)

By Myanmar Times Editor Douglas Long

Longtime ex-pat based in Yangon, Long's personal blog covers a diversity of unique topics from Burmese ghost stories to coverage of the Myanmar national BMX team. []

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