Today my thoughts are very far away.
Once again Bangladesh and Myanmar are being impacted by a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.
Without the problem of weather, the refugee situation in Bangladesh is a human tragedy.
Where do the residents of a tent city go to seek safety from a dangerous storm?
When my parents left Asia in 1962, I was not able to go back for a visit until 1970 and then it was only a couple of nights in Bangkok.
Things had changed a little in the interim but the age of technology was only just arriving.
The Boeing 747 was just starting out.
Mass travel was only begining.
In some places, change was more gradual than others.
While living in SE Asia, we had only ever gone through Rangoon in transit. Strangely I had acquired a visa for Burma (as it was then still called) in 1962. Cambodia, where I was at boarding school had broken off diplomatic relations with Thailand, where my parents were. This meant that I could not obtain a Thai visa. My passport was with my “handler” in Phnom Penh. When it was presented to me for my departure, I was told “show them the Burmese visa”. The official in Bangkok raised an eyebrow but did not arrest me or make a fuss which was a relief. I had once had similar problems in Vietnam to the great inconvenience of the Air France representative.
Anyway, I had always looked at that Burmese visa wistfully. I longed to go.
And in 1982 I finally got there, arriving rather eccentrically by sea.
My friend Tim was the fixer-upper of travels.
He had organised us a trip to Antarctica in 1981 and we had fallen in love with the World Discoverer.
The Singapore-Rangoon sector was never going to sell, so space was available and we were delighted to go back aboard.
In those days, Burmese visitor’s visas were only granted for one week which was not nearly enough.
We had been allowed to join the wealthy folk on their brief excursion to Pagan which involved a flight up and a couple of hours of rushing about the sights, before the inevitable lunch followed by further rushing about and the return flight to Rangoon.
It was HOT.
The wealthy folk staggered off the bus dockside and repaired to their cabins for showers and a cool libation before a barbecue on the aft deck.
We, on the other hand, had to grab our baggage, convince the officials to allow us to land and then traipse across the road to the Strand Hotel which was at the time one of the better hotels but very, very far from what it would become.
Tim and Joe went into the bar gasping “Beer!” only to be told “No beer.”
Two more downcast lads there never were.
Then we went to wave goodbye to the clean, cool, refreshed folk as they set sail for some other exotic destination.
Who cared. We were staying in Burma!
It turned out you could have beer from room service and if you wished you could bring your beer to the restaurant.
You just couldn’t have a drink in the bar.
There were many such peculiarities. The British Embassy was adjacent and their opening hour was 0853. Or something equally odd.
The Home for Aged Cattle was actually outside Mandalay which is where Tim and I went the following year with other friends.
We arrived on the heels of a cyclone.
Mandalay, located in a hot, dry zone, was knee-deep in mud. And people were wearing sweaters.
It was no joke for local residents.
Particularly not for the water buffalo.
They enjoy a wallow in mud but these poor creatures were not given much opportunity for relaxing.
It was tough-going down by the river.
Elsewhere, life went on as normal.
For once, I had taken the initiative, organising a tour. With so little time available, we didn’t want to mess about. We had a guide who arranged everything and was perfectly charming.
We took a ferry up the Irrawaddy to Mingun where it was a little drier.
At Mingun, the Hsinbyume Pagoda, dedicated to Princess Hsinbyume, the Lady of the White Elephant, who died in childbirth in 1814.
Additionally, the Mingun Pahtodawgyri Pagoda.
Commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790, it remained unfinished after an astrologer predicted the King’s death and the downfall of the kingdom upon completion.
The earthquake damage is from 1839.
The Mingun Bell, housed here is the largest uncracked (ie. ring-able) bell in the world.
It weighs 90 tons, so don’t strain yourself.
South of Mandalay, opposite the town of Amarapura, the plain is dotted with pagodas, reminiscent of Pagan (now Bagan) but where Pagan is deserted, these pagodas are still active.
The largest: Mya Thein Tan Pagoda.
Everywhere we went, there were children.
Should they have been at school? Was it a holiday? They all seemed very cheerful.
Someone had taught them how to say “peace” and how to make a V sign.
It seemed unimaginable that these sweet, seemingly gentle, Buddhist people could see their country torn apart by strife.
Yet, the year before we had encountered a young man who was Karen, a Christian. He was engaged to an American woman. There were complications with his visa application and communication being erratic, it was arranged that his fiance would telephone through to Tim’s room at an arranged time.
We went for dinner and when we returned Ronnie received a message that his mother had been in an accident. He had to rush off and we heard no more.
We left the next day and weeks later Tim learned that Ronnie’s visa had been denied.
Whatever happened to that charming, lovely young man? I have often thought of him over the years. And so many more like him.
The pictures are old and faded.
But the memories are fresh.
7 thoughts on “Cyclones”
Thank you, Carolyn, for the moving memories.
It is impossible to imagine the desperation of people who have now lost what very little they had, and have no idea how they can even survive.
It is just horrible. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be born into such a situation. Should we not all pull together to find solutions for displaced people?
We should, but we don’t!
Oh, I so enjoyed browsing through your memories Carolyn! I try to imagine what it must have been like to travel in those years … but can only imagine that it must have been an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing these photos 🌸.
Burma has long fascinated me. My Uncle Harry was captured there, fighting the Japanese in WW2. He had a terrible time in a POW camp, that he rarely talked about. But it left him with a lifelong and fierce hatred of the Japanese, and a life marred by excessive drinking. In the 1970s, he was arrested in Surrey for vandalising Datsun cars on a dealer’s forecourt.
I used to be convinced that if he had encountered a Japanese person near his home in Reigate, he might well have killed them.
Those Japanese soldiers seriously affected his mind, and gave him a hatred for the jungles in Burma. I always had a dream of going there, to see where it all happened. But I never made it.
Best wishes, Pete.
The husband of a woman who worked with my father died on the Burma Road. I myself had a colleague at BA who had been in one of the camps in Sumatra and she too hated the Japanese, railing against a Japanese American doctor. I don’t think there is any way to purge those memories. How do human beings turn into such vicious monsters?