Friday, 3 January 2014

Burmese Days


When I am on a journey, all ties suddenly fall away. I feel myself quite unburdened, disconnected, free - There is something in it marvellously
uplifting and invigorating. Whole past epochs suddenly return: nothing is lost, everything still full of inception, enticement. Stefan Zweig, Journeys

I liked Rangoon a lot especially the lack of sights. Then the most incredibly boneshaking train journey - like being bounced all night in an amusement arcade ride called the Train of
Death, has brought me to the absolutely wonderful Bagan/Pagan. The hotel had not got a room for me but are giving me someone else's. I suspect everything in Burma is a bit like this.

There are over two thousand pagodas built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Bagan. They look at first sight like Victorian municipal buildings in England. I still cannot decide if they are beautiful, but they are very striking and romantic. They do not seem spiritual at all, unlike any architecturally undistinguished Balkan monastery. My guide Yan yesterday explained that this is because Buddhism is very down to earth.

How poor everyone is in Burma. My Jewish-Romanian Princess friend loves the obsequiousness of Asiatics and I know what she means. It's the pleasantly feudal atmosphere that Prof. Lord Pinkrose enjoyed about Romania in Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy.

I came to Burma not from interest in the place but to find somewhere not yet spoilt by tourism and economic growth. To some extent I am just about in time but the world and his wife are in Bagan for the Christmas season.  Though it will be much worse next year and the year after.

How repellent, physically and morally, tourists in their 50s and 60s are. One shies away from them but I attract them since I am now 52. They have the impertinence to think I am one of them. I remember a beautiful, bitchy friend of mine, Clare, whom I met again at the age of 35 after our not being on speakers for five years, said to me, 
'How awful everyone looks at our age!'
What does she think now, I wonder? I know exactly what she thinks, of course. 

And people in their 50s are so unexciting, so - well, frankly, vulgar. There are a few exceptions of course, such as my friends - and people in their 20s admittedly are dull, except for intelligent and decorative girls. But it is the moral shortcomings of people in their 50s that sadden me most. I see beautiful energetic people in their 20s turn into Romanian simulacra of bankers in their 30s and oh the dullness. Older people lack moral seriousness, are materialistic and boring - in most cases.

One can never have too many old churches but one can have too many old pagodas, I discovered today. Am off for some more of the most wonderful lassee I ever drank - discovered today at a Burmese restaurant kept by a Frenchwoman. At lunch there another Frenchwoman told me that Buddhism explains Burma's lack of spirituality. We talk about Mircea Eliade, whom she loves, and agree that we travel to explore our subconscious minds. She is reading, and recommends, Stefan Zweig's Journeys.

She visited India twenty years ago and has been spending two holidays a year there ever since. Though in the last five years India has changed in ways she does not like which is why she came here but Burma does not have any of the appeal for her of India. 

I admired her for finding somewhere she truly loved and then remembered that this is exactly how I felt about Romania when I first visited in 1990 and now I have lived there for fifteen years. She imagined there could be no places more different than Burma and Romania but this is far from true. Both countries were socialist dictatorships cut off from the world and economic disasters. Both are rural and, despite the left-wing regimes or in fact because of the economic stagnation that left-wing economics causes, both are profoundly old-fashioned and very poor, though Romania is vastly richer than Burma. One of the differences is that Burma does not have manufacturing industry or pollution.

By a pagoda a British couple in their 60s told me Buddha told his disciples to ignore reincarnation and concentrate on this life. He was no more a Buddhist than Marx was a Marxist or Jesus a Christian - in fact much less so. Before statues of the Buddha Burmese pray but to whom are they praying? He is dead and did not think there was any reason to believe in God.

Dr. Johnson said that outside the Christian and Mahometan worlds all was barbarism. Whether or not this is true - it's probably not - I do not really dig Asia, except for the Muslim parts and no doubt the Christian parts. I don't know why. Perhaps it is just not intelligible to me. Islam is intelligible - it is a sort of distorted Christianity.

Actually, I suddenly think I understand. It is probably not about religion, or if it is only indirectly. The East to me is not romantic. Zanzibar and the Island of Mozambique are. Ethiopia, on the horizon of the Ancient World, is. The Middle East of course is, except for the oil-rich parts. Burma is not. Nor is the Far East. But why not, I wonder. Why are the mysterious pagodas and temples of Bagan not exactly romantic, when the temples of Ancient Egypt are? In fact I have just pushed the question further back without answering it at all.


  1. Well in what way was Jesus not a Christian?

  2. There is a pecking order of hideousness of tourists which is almost exactly the opposite of how they are at home:-
    1) Americans, often obese and woefully ignorant,
    2) English, either drunken or patronising, always badly dressed,
    3) Germans, far too tall, handsome and arrogant,
    4) Russians, vulgar.
    I feel I have insulted and generalised about enough of the world's population for today.