February 11th 2017
No one symbol confirms the absolute futility of Colonialism than the Hill Town. Desperate to escape the unwelcome heat of the sweltering plains, the British headed for the hills to fashion fake Tudor bungalows and teak paneled panels bars into a mirage of Croydon or Slough. It has been my life’s ambition to find one intact, and I have not yet succeeded. Inevitably at the very moment the Raj dissolves the populace swarms back, armed with fairy lights and the unfortunate paint color du jour, locks the regimental cemetery and throws away the key. Pyin U Lin does not disappoint. The Cotswolds have been cheerfully repurposed as bad Thai restaurants and the only remnant of the Burmese Raj is a peculiar version of Victorian municipal landscaping. I am unable to find the floral clock, but it surely exists.
This backdrop invites the full spectrum of foreign tourists. In our demographic, apprehensive Germans and Dutch, firmly tethered to their Burmese guides are being herded into the bad Thai restaurants and forbidden to go into the market. Timid Brits, though usually not in tour groups, travel in pairs tethered to each other and never seem to talk in public. The French are either in loudly discordant groups arguing about which of the 2 versions of Burmese red will go best with the Thai chicken they don’t yet realize is unbearably bland, or in couples where le homme affects a no-nonsense bandana and unnecessarily complex backpack, and la femme is impeccably turned out in an insouciantly couture longyi. They have many conceptions (both pre- and mis-) and debate them endlessly. There are no shopping opportunities in Pyin U Lin, so all the Chinese are at the Botanical gardens taking selfies and ignoring the no photographs sign in the world class butterfly museum. There are no Americans.
Most of us Europeans are not here to reflect on the death of the Raj but to experience its most enduring relic – the half hour train ride across the Gokteik viaduct, engineered and constructed by the British, and since they disappeared lackadaisically maintained by the Burmese.
As Paul Theroux writes “A monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rocks and jungle…its presence there was bizarre, this man-made thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seemingly more grand than its surroundings which were hardly negligible – the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of the trees, the flight of birds through the swirling clouds and the blackness of the tunnels beyond the viaduct.”
It should be pointed out the reason Burmese train travel resembles a horse ride is the disconnect between the gauge of the tracks (British) and the current trains (ancient Chinese, no doubt bought cheap). Managing this disconnect is no more crucial than 1000 feet above the rushing river below, and doing so requires the train travel so much slower than walking speed, so we have plenty of time to reflect whether guard rails didn’t make it into the maintenance budget, or the British already realized they would be futile, or it is irrelevant to the Buddhist Burmese whether life ends because of a gust of wind. Most tourists can recover as they continue onward to points north, but I must leap off the train at the first stop and join the returning train to Pyin U Lin. Seated once more in Ordinary Class, I realize the Burmese deal with near-death experiences by eating lunch and watching videos on their iphones.