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Postcard from Our Traveler: The Reluctant Traveler in Burma by S. Jay Keyser

September 24, 2010

The author on one of his many reluctantly taken journeys, with his wife and friends.

The Train from Maymyo, Burma

George Orwell spent a year in Mandalay as a police officer, including time in Maymyo (42 miles east of Mandalay) where he trained with the Burmese army. Even today a large military presence permeates the town thanks to its being the home of the Defense Services Academy. Oddly, Orwell’s Burmese Days doesn’t mention Maymyo, although the town appears briefly in Homage to Catalonia:

Mentally you are still in Mandalay when the train stops at Maymyo, four thousand feet above sea level. But in stepping out of the carriage you step into a different hemisphere. Suddenly you are breathing cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir-trees, and hill-women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries.

Maymyo was to be the British home away from home. You can see this when you visit the Maymyo Botanical Garden. It is both lovely and pathetic.   It is beautifully laid out and is surely a pleasant promenade on Sunday afternoons. The pathos lies in its having been created on the advice of a Kew Gardens landscaper brought over for the express purpose of making Maymyo more like England. It never quite works, of course; hence, the overwhelming sense of loss that hangs over the garden. It must have been like spending holidays in a waxwork museum.

There is a train that travels northeast from Maymyo to Naung Hkio. It is a ride worth taking. If you stay on it long enough, you cross a 109-year-old bridge, the so-called Gokteik Viaduct, just outside of Naung Hkio. When it was completed in 1901, the bridge was the largest of its kind. Sir Arthur Rendel, an engineer with the Burma Railway Company, supervised the construction. The Pennsylvania Steel Company manufactured the parts. The point of the train ride is to cross this ancient trestle—all 2,260 feet long and 1,200 feet high of it. When the train reaches the bridge, you can stand at the end of the car and with the outer doors open look down into the gorge. You could never do that on an American train. This is the train that Paul Theroux writes about in The Great Railway Bazaar. Composed of fifty-year-old Japanese rolling stock, its appointments are old, worn out and for the most part no longer working.

At every stop vendors walk up and down selling things to eat and drink; noodles, bananas, sweet cakes, even cups of water. Over the years the window ledges have become encrusted with the detritus of these transactions. This has its attractions for, for example, a mouse that scampered up and down the carriage like a cartoon conductor.  It stopped every so often, looked around as if it wanted to gather an audience, then scurried on. He reminded me of Mr. Jingles in the Stephen King novel, The Green Mile.

Someone asked if it was a trained mouse.

“Well, of course, it is,” I said. “After all, we’re not riding on a bus.”

Since retiring from his prestigious post at MIT, Dr. Keyser has been following his wife around the world and documenting his experiences on his blog, The Reluctant Traveler. As he says: “The blog came about when I realized that I was married to an inveterate traveler and that I, an inveterate risk avoider, was psychologically unable to let her travel without me.”

An excerpt from his travel journals appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, May, 2000 under the title “Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness.”  His latest travel book, I Married a Travel Junkie (2010), is available online at the Harvard Book Store or at Amazon.com as a Kindle book. We’ve read this book—and his witty commentary has sent a round of chuckles through the office.

We’ve had the honor of arranging travel for Dr. Keyser and his wife to Burma, Laos, Thailand, Australia, Bhutan, and Burma, and hope to have them travel with us again soon!

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