A night at the Can­dacraig

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Auke Hulst

We turn into a drive­way and sud­denly it's like be­ing in the Eng­land of yore. With my iPod on I've been trans­ported to the world of George Or­well, the writer who served as a Bri­tish colo­nial of­fi­cer in nearby Man­dalay. At the time Burma's sec­ond largest city held an almost mag­i­cal prom­ise, even though it was a filthy place, hot as hell. To­day the Chi­nese are run­ning the show. They're in­vest­ing vast sums in high-rise of­fices, drive mod­ern cars and start busi­nesses, mostly in elec­tron­ics. Long-haul trucks filled with mass-pro­duced mer­chan­dise are com­ing in from the Chi­nese bor­der. Through the moun­tains, where Mamyo, a for­mer Bri­tish hill sta­tion now known as Pyin Oo Lwin, is tak­ing a last stand against the tides of mod­erni­sa­tion.

To get there you have to take a steep and wind­ing road. It rises up from the scorch­ing heat, into a world of fresh air, flow­ers and fruit, most no­tably straw­ber­ries. In a mist-cov­ered for­est a mar­ket is in progress, along­side the road there are stands filled with vegetables, wine and honey. Even­tu­ally you'll see old colo­nial build­ings ahead, con­nected by leafy lanes. Horse drawn car­riages seem to wait for gen­tle­men that have long since left.

The Can­dacraig, the old­est ho­tel in up­per Myan­mar, is sur­rounded by rustling trees. Driver Myo would rather take us some­where else – deals have been made that carry the prom­ise of a kick­back. In a for­mer life Myo was a lab­o­ra­tory as­sis­tant at the Univer­sity of Ran­goon. Now he's in his fifties and a “stead­fast friend” to Western ad­ven­tur­ers and incog­nito jour­nal­ists. The Can­dacraig, he says, is a gov­ern­ment ho­tel. Ev­ery dol­lar spend goes straight into the pock­ets of the gen­er­als.

“Just one night,” I say. “Prom­ise.” Myo nods, and pulls the rick­ety Nis­san up to an en­trance that hasn't changed since 1903.

I have no idea what “any­body there?” is in Burmese. Myo just calls out “min­gal­aba”, hello, his san­dals flip-flop­ping un­der­neath his skirt-like longyi. Win­dows are opened wide, ivy cov­er­ing the fa­cade of the build­ing. There's no valet, no bell­boy to carry our bags. On a teak desk rests a Bake­lite tele­phone that has gone silent in­definitly. There's a break­fast hall with empty ta­bles, and a de­serted ve­randa. The Can­dacraig has the feel of a haunted house, and my heart races from ex­cite­ment and un­easi­ness. In the cor­ner of the foyer a small tele­vi­sion-set is mum­bling unto it­self. Through a ve­neer of white noise one can make out the con­tours of Myan­mar pro­pa­ganda.

The house­mas­ter, a tall In­dian, presently emerges from the laun­dry room. He seems sur­prised any­one would want to visit his ho­tel. “This is not the sea­son for tourists,” he says. Myo ne­go­taties a price that ap­pears to be quite steep. The driver and a Myan­mar friend who is the fourth mem­ber of our party can spend the night for hardly any pay­ment at all. A jus­ti­fi­able in­jus­tice.

Now the ho­tel slowly but surely springs to life. The maid is sum­moned and an el­derly gar­dener comes to check out the hub­bub. My hik­ing boots echo through the hall, hard and hol­low. Here are gi­ants who've come to wake up his­tory.

Via a pol­ished stair­case and a wooden land­ing I'm taken to a room as big as an av­er­age New York apart­ment. It's one of seven rooms in to­tal, and even the smaller ones are over­sized. A ta­ble, two beds, a bath, a fire­place, all of qual­ity stock. Still, the damp at­mos­phere – though less un­re­lent­ing than in Man­dalay or Yan­gon – can­not be held at bay. Fungi creep up the walls, and ants march in through the plumb­ing.

Don­w­stairs I try to strike up a con­ver­sa­tion about Or­well, whose real name was Eric Blair. Oh yes, the house­mas­ter has heard of the writer. Wasn't his de­but novel Burmese Days based on his ex­pe­ri­ences in the re­gion? I men­tion that I've read that some Burmese call him a prophet, a vi­sion­ary. The house­mas­ter smiles an emo­tion­less smile. I sense I may be giv­ing away my in­cli­na­tion to­wards sub­ver­sive­ness, pos­si­bly re­sult­ing in a tele­phone call to the se­cret po­lice. I nod, say goodbye and saunter back to my room.

In the evening an almost hyp­notic tran­quil­ity en­velops Pyin Oo Lwin. Rain is tap­ping its polyrhythm­s on the roof­ing of the ve­randa. I've bought a bot­tle of dam­son wine and Aung Khin is help­ing me emp­ty­ing it. By pro­fes­sion Aung Khin spec­u­lates on the price of gold.

As he sips his wine, he smiles mis­chie­vously. A Bud­dhist is not al­lowed to drink, but to Aung Khin try­ing to be a Westerner is more of a re­li­gion than re­li­gion is. Once I in­tro­duced him to the marvels of a gin-tonic, and for days it was all he talked about.

Aung Khin doesn't wear a longyi, he wears jeans. At times his copy-cat be­hav­iour is touch­ing, but it can also be

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