Delight’s guaranteed when I get to travel with any one of my daughter quartet. A couple of months back in Myanmar I scored a double - Dale and Alice joined me, as well as Ben, Alice’s boyfriend.
Our touring options were limited by the monsoon season and compounded by a dearth of planning. Dale wanted beaches, Ben the Himalayas and I, the Irrawaddy. We did none of these. Alice didn’t want collision course road-trips in clapped-out cars, night buses and hiking. We did all of those.
One reason I’d suggested we meet up in Burma was because it was one of the few places my maternal grandfather Jimmy had visited that I had not already, albeit inadvertently, visited too.
It was only recently that I re-read the letters he wrote home to Glasgow from a round-the-world trip in 1907 and realised how many times our footsteps had crossed. I thought it would be a great deal of fun to make them a connection point and continue to put my feet in his shoes, observing the then and now, associating events, paralleling and distinguishing experiences. It has led to a great deal of conversation with the dead man… which is rather nice, as I never got to know him when he was alive.
His father’s firm in Glasgow made bronze and brass marine and engine fittings for customers all over the British Empire and beyond. When Jimmy visited Rangoon all he wrote was that he bumped into an old acquaintance in the lobby of his hotel and that there were "any amount of pagodas..." One was so large that, "covered from top to bottom with gold it can be seen from a great distance sparkling in the sun."
We only had one full day in Rangoon which the military junta renamed Yangon. I continue to call it Rangoon as do many Burmese as a way of thumbing their noses at the Generals and it sounds more musical to my ear.
Rangoon in a monsoon - slippery pavements, downpours sheeting off conical bamboo hats, the scattered petals of rain-smashed flowers and business as usual. Every day rain drums on tin roofs, puddles on the top of plastic shelters and washes across the streets, heaping debris into low barricades and gurgling down the gutters.
We walked the streets lined with crumbling colonial-era buildings. (I have to admit to being as fascinated as I am embarrassed by the remains of Empire.)
Jimmy's visit coincided with the city's colonial heyday when its infrastructure and public services were every bit as good as in his Scottish home town.
Hundreds of buildings from that era survive near the river downtown. Survive is the operative word; many are abandoned and while the roots of the banyans smooch the sidewalks, disrupting paving stones and dismantling drains, above their branches curl up the once-stately buildings, creep through ruined window frames and finger crumbling balconies. Spongy emerald moss sneaks up another brick in the wall each day of the monsoon hosting the creeping decay.
We’d barely reached halfway on our colonial walk when the rain came sweeping in, swerving off the Bodi trees to pour its libation over the streetwalks. The locals have their umbrellas primed on a hair-trigger and, with an ageless hitch to their longyis, can, in a flash, flap open plastic tarps with a rewarding crack and drop them expertly over their market wares.
We made a mad dash for shelter and found ourselves under the portico of the Strand Hotel.
First opened in 1901, like Raffles in Singapore and The Peninsula in Hong Kong, it was dubbed the finest hostelry east of the Suez. Jimmy? There’s little doubt that’s where he stayed – it was where every well-heeled business traveller headed.
The Strand Hotel
The iconic Strand Hotel has recently been renovated in a classic colonial style with an acquired panache which outstrips historic reality. Yet there is enough heritage to fool the gullible creative like me. I loved the black rattan chairs and striped upholstery, the white marble flooring, ceiling fans and chandeliers. I asked the concierge in the Grand Lobby if the hotel had records going back to 1907 but of course they didn’t. Nothing much survived the WWII Japanese occupation and neglect thereafter.
We were all jet-lagged and outside it still poured. So we repaired to the hotel’s legendary Sarkies Bar where adventurers and explorers have hung out for over a century. There we sank into comfortable chairs and took delight in our own company amid the carefully crafted teak-edged opulence.
“A toast to Jimmy is required.” I said.
“Cocktails,” said Alice.
We spent a decadent afternoon working our way through the Strand’s Cocktail menu: Negroni, Margarita, Russians various and Ben’s tipple, Espresso Martini.
Next day we just got wet feet
It continued to pour when we visited the Shwedagon Paya – the pagoda that Jimmy mentioned that dominates the city. It is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites and, legend says, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It has survived divine and human insult, although the earthquakes and invaders took a toll. The British dug down attempting to turn it into a gunpowder magazine. Then they made it a military HQ for almost a century. And when they allowed the Burmese to return to their iconic site, European visitors and the British troops posted at the pagoda refused to accede to removing their shoes. What were the British thinking? I cringed and hoped Jimmy had removed his brogues.
The rain lashed the marble terraces and we squelched the circuit around the golden stupa on soggy foam mats spread over white marble slabs. It was hard to be reflective, with the paper pages of the tourist map disintegrating in our hands and creepy chewing-gum green sponge beneath our bare feet – but we stuck pretty closely to the route as going off-piste was fraught with danger for the wet marble was like a skating rink!
We did not see the Shwedagon Paya sparkling in the sun as my grandfather encountered it, nevertheless, when we looked up the mist gave the gold a soft luster and it glowed softly biding its time yet again until the monsoon was over.
And from there we went to catch our train to Mandalay... a tale for another day.
Photo Credits: Thanks Dale, Ben and Alice for sharing photos!