A night at the Candacraig
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