Keith Lyons reviews a book that offers insights into a Myanmar beyond the tourist gaze.
Any endeavour to capture Burma or Myanmar in a book will draw comparisons with Rory MacLean’s Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma, published a dozen years ago, which recounts the author’s 1998 visit to Burma. It amounts to a tragic portrayal of a dark, repressed, and brutal Burma where there existed only faint rays of hope. James Fable’s book, In Search of Myanmar: Travels through a Changing Land, published late-2019, after the emergence of at least a semblance of democratic freedom— and the fall from grace of new leader Aung San Suu Kyi from peace icon to genocide denier— is more low-key and less dramatic.
There are three unique factors which give fresh insights into the enigma that is Burma/Myanmar: Fable’s new book goes beyond the standard “Myanmar-for-beginners,” and provides a mix of awe and fascination with a narrative of the nation’s attractions, traditions and idiosyncrasies. Weaving together a series of personal journeys with scenes, backstories and reflection, Fable seeks to discover on-the-ground realities— less as a gawking on-looker, and more like an insider.
Fable initially went to Myanmar to teach, but after one year at an international school in Yangon, he switched to freelance writing and travel. To give his readers a wider context for his snapshots of travel over the two years, the start of the book provides notes on language and names, and a timeline of Myanmar history since 1945, while at the back, lists of terms and abbreviations aid comprehension.
The first point of difference that makes Fable’s travelogue more a deep dive than a superficial travelogue is the places he visits. Going beyond the Big Four tourist hotspots (Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay) and even the second-tier destinations, the intrepid writer starts the first of the book’s four long journeys in ‘Off the Banana Pancake Trail,’ going to Tharrawaddy and Gyobingauk, in the hope of exploring destinations not listed in travel guidebooks being “as rewarding as the notion is romantic.” Some of his trips are on the margins of Myanmar where conflicts still simmer, such as in Nagaland, Chin, and Kachin State’s Indawgyi lake, while other journeys— such as one that heads upriver to George Orwell’s Katha and onto Bhamo, or by motorbike to the beaches beyond Dawei in the south— show the breadth of his travels.
Throughout, Fable displays a sense of self which acknowledges his position, perspective and limitations as a Western tourist. “How could I judge foreign cultures and peoples using my Western logic?” At one point, the author reflects: “Suddenly all the travel articles I had ever written appeared nothing better than 21st-century colonialism, British impositions; and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking of myself as an ignorant outsider with no right to an opinion.”
The second factor which elevates the book and makes it more accessible to the armchair traveller is the human-centric orientation. Fable’s book focuses on interactions with ordinary people, revealing different, and sometimes unexpected, opinions or contrary views. The author approaches Myanmar with an open mind, keen to listen to people’s stories and connect at a grassroots level. “There used to be lots of tigers here (in Thandaunggyi),” a 96-year old matriarch of a guesthouse tells Fable. “They came right into town and preyed on the cattle. Sometimes, we watched them from our classroom as they ate calves in the street.”
The third difference of In Search of Myanmar is that the author has a significant advantage in connecting with the diverse range of people he meets. That advantage comes from being one of the few foreigners who can speak the Myanmar language (formerly known as Burmese). His language skills open doors— though sometimes the doors that are swung open aren’t the ones Fable necessarily wanted to go through. For example, after his first long train journey, he is befriended by a punk and his brother, and ends up being dragged (against his will) to drink whisky and sing at a karaoke bar. But overall, the author’s language smarts, his choice to fraternise with ordinary folk, and his far-and-wide travel brief set up a book that goes beyond surface-level travel books on Myanmar.
Underpinning the journeys is Fable’s quest to learn more about Myanmar— from its borderland fringes, less-visited hinterlands and ethnically-diverse hills. Despite the external image of Myanmar as a troubled and fractured country, he discovers more optimism than pessimism. His presence in non-touristy places and ability to speak Burmese was taken by some as a sign that the days of brutal military rule were over and that the newly-democratic nation was opening up. The book is also propelled by the author’s vulnerability and self-revelation disclosures, which reveal more about his fears, homesickness, depression and failures. He frets about breaking a tennis court net in Orwell’s Katha in Chapter 18, while his fleeting love incidents have a Kipling Moulmein quality to them.
As for conclusions about Myanmar’s changes, Fable is cautiously optimistic, with some caveats. The author is quick to admit that his Myanmar travels and travails weren’t dramatically life-changing and transformative, but he did learn about coping with unpredictability and imperfection. People would always interest him more than places, he concludes, and “sometimes the most meaningful and enriching relationships can be those you form with people fundamentally different to yourself.”
The author’s fascination for and engagement with Myanmar ‘warts and all,’ along with the ability to accept that you can hold two opposing views, makes this book a recommendation not just for prospective travellers to Myanmar, or expats living in-country, but also lovers of Myanmar. I can also see In Search of Myanmar holding up a mirror for Myanmar nationals who read English.
Keith Lyons is an award-winning writer, and founder of boutique agency Slow Burma Travel. He was editor and co-author of ‘Opening up Hidden Burma: Journeys with – and without – author Dr Bob Percival’, contributed to ‘The Best of Myanmar’ coffee-table book, and is currently working on a travel guide for the new UNESCO World Heritage site of Bagan, and a travel book on the Mergui Archipelago.