Norman Lewis is one of the preeminent travel writers of the 20th Century. I had previously read the excellent A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam concerning his travels in Indochina in the early `50's, during the war for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule. I've had a deep and abiding interest in Burma, alas sometimes known as Myanmar, visiting the country four times in the `80's. When I discovered that Lewis had written a travel book on the country, based on his travels in the early `50's, I considered it an essential read.
Although the central authorities were discouraging, they did not give an absolute "no," so Lewis was able to travel throughout most of the country, when there was considerable fighting due to separatist groups, a condition that exists today. He took a boat from Rangoon to the "deep south," Mergui, via Moulmein (of Kipling fame). He describes his departure thus: "There was a lassitude in the air propitious to the embarkation upon a voyage to decaying southern ports." He manages to return to Rangoon by air, and then on to Mandalay (whose only "romantic" part is its name.) From there he travels by jeep to the former British hill station at Maymyo (I probably took the same WW II jeep as he, some 30 years later). Perhaps half the book is centered on his experiences in the northern Shan States, between Lashio and Bhamo, including the market held every five days at Nam Hkam. He manages to reach the far northern town of Myitkyina, famous for the jade found nearby. He returns to Mandalay by boat on the Irrawaddy, and on to Rangoon by train, despite the fact that the middle section has been destroyed by rebels.
He writes with immense descriptive power, knowing the names of the birds and flora. He is also insightful into the human condition, with meaningful descriptions of the personalities that he encounters. And he studied his Burmese history before arriving, describing aspects of rule of various Burmese emperors, such as Bodawpaya (the Burmese Ivan the Terrible) dealing with such paradoxical issues that in a country where the killing of many animals and noxious pests is frown upon, or outright forbidden, the Emperors would bury people alive to protect bridges and palaces. Some of his trenchant political observations: "The difference between common piracy and empire-building is a matter of scale and success." And one that resonated with my own experiences: "Although the classic English traveler is spurred on in almost all cases by nothing more sinister than an extravagant curiosity, it has been hard at the best of times for others to believe that he is not an agent of the Intelligence Service..." His conclusions also resonate, at least for that period, if not for today: "I state here my sincere belief that the average Burmese peasant working his own land, lives a fuller and happier life, and is a more successful human being than the average Western factory hand or office worker."
But I had several problems with the book. Save for one powerful passage on the attempt of 20,000 to flee into India ahead of the Japanese in WW II, he mentions the impact of the war on the country minimally, and it was a devastating event for them. Likewise, he was light on the actual impact of British colonial rule, discussing in greater detail the invasions by the Mongols, and the Chinese. He never mentions the experience, and book written by a former British colonial officer in the `30's, George Orwell. Emma Larkin did justice to Orwell by writing a book on the places he lived. Finally, and most stunningly, he never mentions Pagan! The ultimate tourist destination for any Burmese visitor.
Fortunately I was able to visit Pagan thrice; Lewis however had the time, and "guts" (or stupidity) to risk traveling in unsafe areas, and seeing so much more of the country that was "off-limits" in the `80's. Overall, a very good book for any traveler. Sadly the conditions he describes in the 50's are largely still true today, unlike the ones described in "A Dragon Apparent." Burma remains an enormous, open-air, history museum.
Finally, Eland Publishers deserves much credit for keeping this book, as well as numerous other travel books in print.