Travels with my great-aunt in Burma

...from The Times of London February 18 2006...

...Tina Gaudoin joins an aristocratic relative on a
journey through Burma in search of family ghosts



The Princess and I: hard at work sight-seeing in Burma

My great-aunt (Burmese and a Shan princess to boot, but more of that later) was planning to visit Burma again. This aunt, Elaine Quinn, hadn’t been since the early Nineties; in the late Sixties she had fled the country, leaving all her worldly possessions behind to begin a new life with her beloved husband Frank and her children in England. “Dahling,” she said in one of her lengthy and marvellous telephone calls, “why don’t you come, it will be such fun.” “Come?” I said, “I was just there.” “But that was two years ago,” she rejoined. “Now you can see it through the eyes of the Burmese.”

Mandalay is a great jumping-off point for visiting the parts of northern Burma that you are allowed to see. Though you won’t feel government pressure as a visitor on the traditional tourist trail — Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake — you certainly would were you to attempt to deviate. There are plenty of military checkpoints where young, nervous-looking “immigration officers” study you, your compatriots, your mode of transport and your driver ’s papers extremely carefully. I say driver because it’s often more efficient to travel by car; it’s cheap if there is a group of you and you get to see the real Burma.

The hill station of Maymyo is nominally “home” for the Gaudoin family in Burma. My great-grandfather scandalously had two families, one of eight children, which included my grandfather, and a second after marrying the daughter of a Shan Sawbwa or ruler, which contained my aunt. The second family lived in Maymyo, though my grandfather and father both spent time there. We — a party of family and friends assembled from England — travelled to Maymyo first.

Maymyo is perched high up in the hills of the Shan state, modelled on an English town and named after a Colonel May who was stationed there, and it is a respite from the heat of Mandalay. English flowers tumble from walls and through ageing picket fences, and neat bourgeois bungalows with wide verandas lead on to neat lawns. The town is principally inhabited by the Burmese military top brass and Maymyo is now home to the elite military training school.

We visit Roseacre, the old family home, currently lived in by a Chinese family. My aunt says it is almost as she remembers but she misses the paya (pagoda) built in the garden by my great-grandfather for his Buddhist Shan wife. The next-door neighbours are still doctors, two generations on. “We have heard all about the Gaudoins,” says the father with a grin. He tells us that tourists to Maymyo used to come in search of the house with the paya or stupa that the Anglo-Indian built for his Burmese princess.

My great-uncle travels four hours from his home in Lashio to meet his sister, my great-aunt. It is implicit that this may be the last meeting of a brother and sister who grew up in another age. A statuesque Burmese accompanies the great-uncle. “Who’s that?” I ask my aunt. “The last concubine of my father, darling. She was the only good one.”

The rest of us (we are eight counting cousins, friends and a priest) leave them to reminisce in Maymyo while we make our way to Inle Lake. My aunt insists that we see it: “It is so beautiful, you will always remember it.” As a child she visited in the Royal Barge, with all the attendant pomp and ceremony. We will not get the same treatment. We’re on day four of our trip and the more Burmese among us are becoming reacquainted both with the language and an immunity to the spicy food. Those of us with greater Anglo persuasions are still struggling. Having my cousins Patrick and Bryan discuss their childhood predilection for deep-fried sparrows, a Burmese delicacy, doesn’t help.

It’s possible to fly to Inle Lake, and those not wishing to bond with relatives or admire scenery should, because it is a bottom-numbing eight-hour drive from Mandalay. The scenery is exquisite — steep, tree-clad hills, broad vistas of cabbage, cauliflower and rapeseed fields, oxen ploughing deep furrows of rich soil. And everywhere the Burmese in their traditional dress, smiling, welcoming and curious.

Inle Lake, with its 17 floating villages, its expanse of water, huge skies and mountain backdrop, should be added to the list of wonders of the world. It is home to the Intha fishermen who propel their flat-bottomed boats with one leg twisted around the oar while standing in a one-legged posture on the stern — this has many benefits, including rowing distances with ease, spotting fish, and negotiating the banks of water hyacinth. Tourists keen to take in the area’s beauty will be ferried across the lake on diesel long boats, with prows that sit proud of the water and slice through the wash with ease.

Every sign of life is present on this lake: Buddhist novices bathing, fishermen mending boats, schoolchildren travelling to school. The handiwork in the villages, which includes weaving and silversmithing, is well worth buying; the food at the floating restaurants is delicious (the traditional vegetable and meat curries are drier than those of the sub-continent); but the best thing is cutting the engine and drifting between the hydroponic gardens where rows of tomatoes and beans bob rhythmically with the swell.

There are several hotels on the water — which are beautiful but pricey. Drop by the Paradise Inle Resort for a drink, but stay nearby at the other Paradise in Taunggyi where the staff are smiley and helpful, the food good and the massages, $5 (£2.80) for one hour, divine.

If you want to do something historical in Inle then visit the restored Museum of the Shan chiefs (and palace of the 33rd and last Shan prince or sao pha Sao Shwe Thaike — who became the first president of Burma). This was something of a pilgrimage for my half-cousins, all of whom were related to the powerful man who died in prison after the dictator Ne Win took over in 1962. Sadly, and rather characteristically, the palace gates were closed. No amount of shouting in broken Burmese or gate rattling could persuade the caretaker of the urgency of our visit.

The best way to see Burma is via the Irrawaddy, the broad, meandering river that snakes from Rangoon in the south to Indawgyi in the north. There are two ways to do this: in style on one of the brass and teak Pandaw ships or by our quicker, basic measure on a steamer that ferries tourists principally between Mandalay and Bagan. On board, my aunt becomes a living, breathing tourist attraction for hordes of American students and some pretty impressive lecturers who are accompanying them. It’s not every day that you meet a real live Burmese princess.


a. May Myo is now known as Pyin Oo Lwin
b. generally the Pandaws ply between Mandalay and Bagan and Pyay (Prome) and Mandalay. There are also annual trips on the Ayeyawady from Mandalay to Bhamo in September and also on the Chindwin River
c. Golden Island Cottages is a reasonably-priced hotel actually in Inle lake and Royal Orchid and Hupin are reasonably-priced hotels on the banks of the lake
d. there is a very nice Shan Museum in Hsipaw (between Pyin Oo Lwin and Lashio) which is attended by descendants of the Shan royal family

November 20, 2010