Books to read before travelling to Myanmar

To learn a bit more about Myanmar (complicated) history, I really enjoyed reading these few books before starting the trip. Once there, it helped me understand the somewhat tensed climate in some part of the country – and the presence of local armed soldiers in some villages.

Soon after my trip, the country fully opened its door to tourists – and the political situation seems quite different now – even if new challenges have arisen since…

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her. The struggles that have made Burma, India, and Malaya the places they are today are illuminated in this wonderful novel by the writer Chitra Divakaruni calls “a master storyteller.”Amazon link

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe

The astonishing story of a young man’s upbringing in a remote tribal village in Burma and his journey from his strife-torn country to the tranquil quads of Cambridge. In lyrical prose, Pascal Khoo Thwe describes his childhood as a member of the Padaung hill tribe, where ancestor worship and communion with spirits blended with the tribe’s recent conversion to Christianity. In the 1930s, Pascal’s grandfather captured an Italian Jesuit, mistaking him for a giant or a wild beast; the Jesuit in turn converted the tribe. (The Padaung are famous for their ‘giraffe women’ — so-called because their necks are ritually elongated with ornamental copper rings. Pascal’s grandmother had been exhibited in a touring circus in England as a ‘freak’.) Pascal developed a love of the English language through listening to the BBC World Service, and it was while working as a waiter in Mandalay to pay for his studies that he met the Cambridge don John Casey, who was to prove his saviour. The brutal military regime of Ne Win cracked down on ‘dissidents’ in the late 1980s. Pascal’s girlfriend was raped and murdered by soldiers, and Pascal took to the jungle with a guerrilla army. How he was eventually rescued with Casey’s help is a dramatic story, which ends with his admission to Cambridge to study his great love, English literature . Amazon link

Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

For the last decade of Burma’s traumatic history, Aung San Suu Kyi – winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize – has been the inspirational leader of attempts to restore democracy to her country. In these fifty-two pieces, originally written for a Japanese newspaper and begun soon after her release from house arrest, she paints a vivid, poignant yet fundamentally optimistic picture of her native land. She evokes the country’s seasons and scenery, customs and festivities, and describes an inspirational pilgrimage to the Buddhist abbot of Thamanya. She celebrates the courageous army officers, academics and actors who have supported the National League for Democracy, often at great personal risk, and she sets out a comprehensive programme for economic reform. A passionate advocate of better health care and education, and the need for ethical foreign investment in Burma’s future, Aung San Suu Kyi reveals an acute insight into the impact of political decisions on ordinary people’s lives. She examines the terrible traumas inflicted on children of imprisoned dissidents – children allowed to see their parents for fifteen minutes every fortnight – the effect of inflation on the national diet and of state repression on traditions of hospitality. Amazon link

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Re-tracing Orwell’s own steps and making many of her own through modern-day Myanmar/Burma, Emma Larkin writes a convincing case that both 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell’s most well-known works, are inspired by the paranoia and fear-mongering of the Burmese police state. Orwell spent approximately five years in Burma as a British imperial policeman in the 1920s, and traveled widely around the country. Many of his experiences in the country led to his work Burmese Days, and his experiences there undoubtedly influenced his later work, as well as his philosophies on colonialism, politics, and the future of society.

The book is part biography of George Orwell, and part modern-day travelogue and reporting in Myanmar/Burma. Larkin was watched closely as she traveled and researched for her book. The name “Emma Larkin” is actually a pseudonym, to ensure the safety of her many sources, the people she met everyday in her travels. Amazon Link



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