PILGRIMAGE TO BURMA
By Leon Isard - Age 13 (Grandson of COFEPOW Member Jeanne Kelly)
11th - 21st March 2002
DAY ONE - Monday 11th March 2002
We set off on Flight TG911 from Heathrow at 11.50 am - flight on time. After a very long journey we reached Bangkok shortly after 6 am on Tuesday.
DAY TWO - Tuesday 12th March
At 8.40 am departed from Bangkok en route to Rangoon TG303 - also on time! We arrived at Inya Lake Hotel around 10.00 am. Didn't fancy any lunch, had coke and biscuits and lazed all afternoon in the swimming pool. There was a trip to the Pagoda at 4.30 pm where we watched the sunset. It was very hot, almost 100 degrees, and we had to take our socks and shoes off - it was like walking on hot coals.
We had supper in the hotel and went to bed early to catch up on some sleep.
DAY THREE - Wednesday 13th March
Free day with no fixed itinerary. We hired a taxi to Rangoon at 10.30 am and walked along the streets with the local people and spent some time in the markets buying presents to take home. Gave some little children some money and afterwards had hundreds more surrounding me so made a note not to do that again. They seemed to think I had a kind face! It was very hot and our shirts were sticking to our backs. We bought some water and finally stopped at a Chinese Restaurant just to get out of the sun. Had coke and bananas - the staff thought we were mad British. The taxi collected us at 3 pm and I spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool.
Had supper in the hotel again and got packed and ready for the 5 am start next day.
DAY FOUR - Thursday 14th March
Very quick breakfast and on the road by 6.30 am. Nine hour coach drive ahead. Stopped for a drink at typical Burmese café - the owner thought we were German but he apologised and told us he knew all about the UK - Queen Elizabeth, Charles and Diana and Manchester United! The village children came around selling local delicacies which they carried in baskets on their heads - but barbecued locusts didn't appeal to me. I did venture outside to the toilet but words cannot describe it. The lunch stop was supposed to be a first class restaurant but the air conditioning (two young lads with fans) wasn't too good so there were a lot of flies around. I managed the quail egg soup, some rice and sweet and sour pork but thinking about those locusts spoilt my appetite.
Finally we arrived at NgweMoe Hotel for a short rest and shower before dinner at 7.30 pm.
DAY FIVE - Friday 15th March
Set off after breakfast at 7.30 am to visit Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery. Stopped at a little village market to buy fresh flowers. The people were not used to seeing many white tourists and we became the centre of attention. Shortly afterwards the coach broke down and we completed the trip in pick-up trucks. I wanted to hang off the back like the local people do but wasn't allowed in case I fell off. Apparently the insurance doesn't cover for this type of travel.
At the cemetery it was very serious at first - there was a short service of remembrance complete with Burmese clergymen and soldiers to play the last post on a bugle. After that everyone went to look for the family graves of relatives who died whilst prisoners of war building the Burma/Thai Railway for the Japanese. We soon found my Great Granddad's grave and placed the flowers + poppy wreaths on his plaque. Although we didn't really want the British Legion standard bearer and regimental looking photographs we were persuaded to change our minds and also another of the group took a video of us but afterwards we had our quiet moments and took our own personal photos.
The coach still wasn't fixed so we continued in the pick-up trucks to Setse Beach where we had another Chinese meal followed by a paddle in the sea!
We returned to the village where the coach was parked and just had time for a cold drink before they told us it was fixed and ready to roll!! We watched the sun set from the top of a hill where there were several pagodas and temples - it is quite famous for its connection with Rudyard Kipling and one of the pagodas was built in honour of him.
Back to the hotel for supper and bed.
DAY SIX - Saturday 16th March
We set off at 7.30 am for the long journey back to Rangoon. First stop was at a traditional Korean-style village where the students were celebrating end-of-College term and their exam results. We met some of the local people whose lifestyles were little changed to that of their great grandparents from way back. The coach managed to get us back to the lunch stop of the previous day and then broke down again. We then had to transfer to a series of local buses, vans and as usual, pick-up trucks whilst our guide tried to locate another roadworthy coach to take us back to Rangoon.
We stopped again at the site of the original Sittang River Bridge where Bill, one of the two veterans of the Burma Campaign, told us of his experiences there and how he and his comrades assisted many of the Allied forces to swim across the river to safety. He then threw crosses and poppies into the river in remembrance of those who died there. I felt really sorry for him as he was crying while remembering all his lost colleagues. There were more local villagers here who turned out to watch us. This village is in the heart of the jungle country and white visitors are somewhat rare! Back to the pick-up trucks - one of which ran out of petrol and created more havoc. They had to locate a mobile filling station (a large tree, where a man waits with cans of petrol stacked in the shade and the driver stores a can under the seat until away from prying eyes and then fills up). They are really supposed to fill up at the government garages but there are always long queues of lorries and it can take all day!
Finally, another coach was located and we were able to continue our journey. We actually arrived back at the hotel in Rangoon 13 hours after our set-off time - this can only happen in Burma. We only had time to clean up and get a quick bite to eat before going to bed as we had another early 4.00 am call next day.
DAY SEVEN - Sunday 17th March
After a very hasty breakfast we set off for the airport en route to Mandalay. This is the second largest city in Burma after Rangoon. It is much prettier with more countryside and open spaces. We were met at the airport by another guide, Chow, and taken for a tour of the city. Another pagoda, where there was also an indoor and outdoor market. Some of the other men and me bought longis. This is the national costume of the country - a skirt worn by men and women alike.
We went on to view another religious building which houses the longest book in the World and is frequented by the monks in particular as a reference library. Then off to lunch at the Golden Duck Chinese Restaurant. Then more sightseeing, finally finishing at Mandalay Hill to watch another sunset. This hill is steep and winding and the coach was unable to drive up - so back to the pick-up trucks - going down was like a helter-skelter!
The hotel in Mandalay was really top class, complete with swimming pool and jacuzzi - I wished we could have stayed here longer.
DAY EIGHT - Monday 18th March
In the morning more sightseeing. Marble factory and Gold-leaf factory where the men usually have to retire at around 35 years with spinal problems. They beat the gold-leaf to paper-thin sheets for hours on end with heavy mallets. Generally they work on shifts, three men hammering whilst their colleagues rest, then they change over for the next shift.
Next we stopped at the Monastery where the monks gather for lunch at around 11.30 am, this is their main meal of the day. They wait patiently in long queues, I felt very sorry for the young novices at the back of the line!
Most of the gold-leaf and marble figures are for the pagodas and temples but some are also exported to China and other parts of the world. Several of the group were feeling ill but we were still obliged to vacate the hotel at noon, not many people had lunch that day.
I felt ill on the flight back to Rangoon and so did my Gran. We didn't bother with much supper that night - roll and butter, malaria pills and bed!
DAY NINE - Tuesday 19th March
We still felt unwell but took some more pills and decided to go out anyway. Visited two war cemeteries in Rangoon where other members of the group had personal visits. Felt very sorry for Bill as he was in tears again as he visited several graves of the men who had died at Sittang Bridge.
Our next stop was at the Cathedral in the market place. We looked at all the colours and logos for all the regiments that had taken part in the campaign. Next was high tea at the Strand Hotel. It is the oldest colonial hotel in Burma and was bombed during World War II but has been rebuilt almost to its former glory. It was very Victorian and rather too up-market for us!
In the evening we were invited to a drinks reception at the British Ambassador's residence. It was very formal and I had to borrow a tie. I met lots of very important and wealthy people and spent quite a while talking with an oil millionaire. I enjoyed the evening very much.
Went straight to bed when we got back to the hotel as was still suffering with the 'Rangoon bug'.
DAY TEN - Wednesday 20th March
Felt a little sad at breakfast as this was our last morning. We had intended to visit the market again but in the end spent the day at the hotel. Had several games of pool and then went swimming.
Did our packing and had a very light lunch before we all met up for a group chat about the trip and possible get-together later in the year. Left the hotel at about 5.00 pm for the trip to Rangoon Airport. I said goodbye to Lyne and flew back to Bangkok. We had a few hours to wait before the flight to Heathrow so did some last minute shopping for duty free gifts.
DAY ELEVEN - Thursday 21st March
Arrived home at Heathrow at about 7.00 am.
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT BURMA
It is not called Burma any more, the correct name is Myanmar and Rangoon has been re-named Yangon.
All pagodas have eight corners, one for every day of the week, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They use the Lunar Calendar and have ten months of 28 days, every fourth (leap) year there are two extra months.
There are four seasons - hot, hotter, hottest and monsoon.
Most towns and villages only have eight hours electricity each day although Rangoon and Mandalay seem to have longer and most of the hotels had their own generators.
Buses built to carry 13 passengers seem to take on board any number of people up to 50. The people who hang on the back or sit on the roof pay extra in case the driver has to pay a fine for overloading.
Most cars are right-hand drive and they drive on the right-hand side also - lorries and large vans have a passenger to assist the driver so he can pass other vehicles on the blind side. Not that it matters too much, as they all drive in the centre of the road and the vehicle with the loudest horn has right of way!
All males have to spend at least two fortnights in the monastery - once as boys and again when adult. Most of the people are Buddhists.
Our guide, Lyne, wanted us to make it known that Myanmar is not such a bad place as the media would have us believe. The Generals who control the Military Regime are all of the older generation and won't live for ever. The younger element of the country are not so tolerant and it is hoped that the country will be a proper democracy before too long.
I WOULD LIKE TO GO BACK.
4th April 2002