A new day in Myan­mar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GILDA COW­ELL

As we know, there’s been a demo­cratic elec­tion in Myan­mar. But when we went there in 2008, the only travel ma­te­rial I could lo­cate was a dog-eared guide from the lo­cal li­brary, much of which was given over to an earnest de­bate on the eth­i­cal is­sue of whether or not to visit

Our de­ci­sion to go was really a fore­gone con­clu­sion. When war ceme­ter­ies were cre­ated at the end of World War II, it must have seemed log­i­cal to put one at ei­ther end of the in­fa­mous Burma-Thai Rail­way. But af­ter pol­i­tics closed down Burma, only a trickle of the very de­ter­mined made it through to the heart­break­ingly iso­lated Than­byuza­yat War Ceme­tery. It took al­most 70 years be­fore the first fam­ily and friends stood at the gravesite of the Aus­tralian sol­dier for whom my hus­band is named, his fa­ther’s boy­hood mate who didn’t make it home.

In his­tor­i­cal con­text it wasn’t that long ago that we went. The Strand Ho­tel in Yan­gon had been re­stored to its full colo­nial grandeur and there weren’t the rats run­ning along the bar that one ear­lier trav­eller had noted. But at night there was prac­ti­cally no elec­tric light; the city was all black vel­vet with pin­pricks of il­lu­mi­na­tion. Postage stamps came with­out ad­he­sive and trans­port was war-era Bed­ford trucks. We’d been warned not to take in any news jour­nals or to talk with any of the lo­cals about any­thing po­lit­i­cal; we would leave the coun­try un­scathed but they could end up in a prison work camp. I’d planned a naive ges­ture of sup­port for Aung San Suu Kyi: I’d throw a gar­land of flow­ers over the wall of her gar­den. Sol­diers blocked en­try to her street, how­ever.

Dur­ing our stay, Cy­clone Nar­gis swept across the flat rice bowl of the Aye­yarwady delta lands, caus­ing un­counted deaths and dev­as­ta­tion; it ripped apart build­ings in Yan­gon. Next day I no­ticed that the gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda bill­board spell­ing out the “Peo­ple’s De­sire’’ — to op­pose and crush all in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal de­struc­tive el­e­ments — had been shat­tered by the gusts. I don’t imag­ine it has been re-erected in mod­ern Myan­mar. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a copy of Flavours of Queens­land (Smudge Pub­lish­ing, $80), an il­lus­trated vol­ume of restau­rants, bars, cafes and farm­ers’ mar­kets from across the state, com­plete with recipes. More: smudgeeats.com.au.

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