Confoundingly Picturesque


On Travel

On the obsolescence of guidebooks; traveling in Myanmar.

A Portuguese engraving of Mrauk U, 1676.

Several years ago in New York, I told Wim Wenders how much I’d liked his film about musicians in Lisbon; he grabbed me by the lapels. “You should go,” he said, “before it’s too late.” I didn’t go then. A few years later I did, and I couldn’t tell whether it was too late. Probably it was—that seems to almost always be the case.

In a similar mind, I went to Myanmar. “It’s already too late” is the refrain one hears again and again about Myanmar, but better late than never. Flights from Bangkok to Yangon are ridiculously cheap, but the city that was Rangoon has a hotel shortage, and beds there are not. Even the taxi from the airport reveals a city in the throes of sudden, extreme development: Vaguely worded business parks have sprouted up everywhere and billboards promise luxurious condos. Hotel lobbies have fliers from real estate developers; breakfast is a sea of laptops, people trying to get in on the ground floor of a newly opened country.

In the hands of Westerners everywhere in Myanmar, one notices a book—Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma), published in July of last year, the most recent travel guide to the country. Leave the capital and its prevalence is even more striking. Elsewhere, the travel guide is a vanishing species, done in first by the Internet and then by smartphones. In most countries in the region, a ten-dollar SIM card will get you Google Maps, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Agoda; even without a SIM, wireless isn’t hard to find. Myanmar, for the moment, is different. You can buy a SIM in Yangon, but we left for Sittwe the day after the electrification of Rakhine State was celebrated: asking for a working cellular network there was too much too soon. Lonely Planet would have to suffice.

From Sittwe we took a boat for five hours up the Kaladan River, arriving at Mrauk U, pronounced “mraw ooh,” once the mighty capital of the kingdom of Arakan, now mostly forgotten by those outside of Myanmar. Electrification’s effects on Mrauk U are mostly theoretical. A good proportion of the local population appears to be occupied by breaking rocks into smaller rocks so that they might have paved roads, which will presumably make getting to Mrauk U a simpler process than it is now. The travelers one sees there are mostly Germans, many of them visibly miffed that we’d brought our daughter somewhere so seemingly remote as to be at the very end of the Lonely Planet. If a three-year-old’s there, it must be too late.

Even if it’s no longer undiscovered, Mrauk U is still deeply confusing. The city is full of ancient pagodas and Buddha images. How old they are is difficult to tell, not least because they’re regarded not as ruins but as part of an ongoing religious tradition. Collapsed structures have been rebuilt; Buddha images said to be ancient and made from sandstone have been repainted so many times that they appear identical to more recent plaster Buddhas. A monastery’s museum contains ancient figurines, old coins, the remains of a blown-up and popped puffer fish, and Sony cassette tapes in their original packaging. Paintings that bear a strong resemblance to Mexican retablos show perplexing scenes: a frog eating a snake, a demon hammering a stake in the ear of a woman, a horse with two heads. Captions in Burmese don’t help—the locals smiled and nodded, but I didn’t understand what I was seeing.

The Lonely Planet doesn’t explain these things—it can’t, really, when it only has five pages for the town. In one of the pagodas, I was happy to find a locally produced guidebook Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U (Useful Reference for Tourists and Travelers) by Myar Aung, translated into English by Ah Lonn Maung. It’s a helpful book, though occasionally perplexing: one learns, for example, the etymology of the town’s name:

As regards the name of the city, i.e. Mrauk-U, there are different assumptions. One is that when the Taungnyo and Kokka hills were being levelled to erect the palace, a monkey was found guarding the golden egg of the pea-hean, signifying Myauk (monkey) and “U”, (pronounced “Oo”) signifying the egg; thus “Myauk-U”. Another theory holds that the site where the city was founded was home to “earth-goddess” Mrauk-U. Still holds another belief that the city site lies to the northward of Laung-kret, the old royal city. (sic)

And one learns of the eight wonders of a certain Buddha image:

  1. No animal and no bird dares to pass or fly over, jump or rest on the tired-roof of the special chamber in which Mahamuni Image has been housed.
  2. The face of Mahamuni Image always enamates aureole of colourful hues like the full moon just coming out.
  3. The face turns brownish blue when the infidel looks at it.
  4. The exact likeness of the Image could not be casted.
  5. Suffering is faced in practical terms whenever a person lies in judicial dispute.
  6. Proportionate bodily structure is maintained through gilding by the devotees is made daily.
  7. Being crowded with the devotees all the year round.
  8. No water remains on the Image though water be poured on it in Tagu, Kason months of Rakhine calender as well as in New Year celebrations.

It’s a lovely book, slightly amateur but with a clear heart and a desire to teach the befuddled traveler. I like this kind of book more than I should. My shelves are crowded with out-of-date guidebooks. My copy of Ahmed M. Ashiurakis’s 1977 Guide to the Libyan Jamahereya will never help a potential traveler, but once, theoretically, it could have.

* * *

On my travels, I brought along the Library of America volume of the early Henry James novels—The American and The Europeans, of course, but also the ones than no one ever reads: Watch and Ward, Roderick Hudson, and Confidence, a novel so unloved that its title is erroneously prefixed with The on this edition’s title page. The ridiculousness of reading Henry James while on a Burmese river goes without saying, of course. But it’s hard not to see oneself reflected in James’s idiot Americans mooning about Europe. In Roderick Hudson, the diligence of one character, Mary Garland, is signaled by her immersion in a book. At the Vatican:

He had been watching, once, during some brief argument, to see whether she would take her forefinger out of her Murray, into which she had inserted it to keep a certain page. It would have been hard to say why this point interested him, for he had not the slightest real apprehension that she was dry or pedantic. The simple human truth was, the poor fellow was jealous of science. In preaching science to her, he had over-estimated his powers of self-effacement. Suddenly, sinking science for the moment, she looked at him very frankly and began to frown. At the same time she let the Murray slide down to the ground, and he was so charmed with this circumstance that he made no movement to pick it up.

Again on the Palatine:

The day left a deep impression on Rowland’s mind, partly owing to its intrinsic sweetness, and partly because his companion, on this occasion, let her Murray lie unopened for an hour, and asked several questions irrelevant to the Consuls and the Cæsars.

And at the Galleria Borghese:

Miss Garland was wandering in another direction, and though she was consulting her catalogue, Rowland fancied it was from habit; she too was preoccupied. He joined her, and she presently sat down on a divan, rather wearily, and closed her Murray.

“Her Murray” is Murray’s Handbook for Travellers on the Continent, a British travel guide published beginning in 1836. Four decades later, when James published Roderick Hudson, carefully reading guidebooks had become a duty of the traveler already tiresome: Rowland Mallet, secretly enamored of Mary Garland, waits again and again for her to grow weary of her book. Mallet is a seasoned traveler living in Rome. He doesn’t need a guidebook. Mary, by reading hers, hopes to become something she’s not.

There might be something quintessentially American about what her behavior reflects—a belief that the travel guide might not be that far removed from the genre of self-help, transforming a plain woman from Northampton (much of the humor in Roderick Hudson comes from jokes about how backwards Northampton is) into an educated woman who can hold her own with cultured Europeans and expatriates.

And this gets, perhaps, to what’s always seemed somewhat suspect about the guidebook as a form: the presumption that it’s a key, a vade mecum, that will instantly unlock a city or a country. The promise of a shortcut to knowledge.

* * *

Murray’s Handbook got its start just before the better-known Karl Baedeker sent Germans tromping all over the world, something irksome to the Anglophone traveler by the time James wrote Confidence in 1880. Bernard Longueville realizes that he’s at the wrong hotel in Siena:

If he had gone to the other inn he might have had charming company: at his own establishment there was no one but an æsthetic German who smoked bad tobacco in the dining-room.

Though Germans remained more industrious travelers, Murray’s Handbook would soldier on, turning into the Blue Guides in 1915; though the Blue Guides have seen better days, they’re still, amazingly, being published. They don’t cover Mrauk U, though Murray’s once did. A page from the end of the section on Burma in the eighth edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon, published in 1911, has this to say about Mrauk U:

A pleasant excursion may be made to Myohaung, the ancient capital of Arakan, 50 miles up the Kaladan river, where the remains of the old town are still to be seen. For a description of them reference may be made to the reports of the later Dr Forchhammer, which were issued by the Burma Government Press in 1891. The ruins of the ancient Fort, with traces of the massive city wall and the platform on which the old palace stood, and the Andaw Shitthaung and Dukhantein pagodas, with their dark passages, images, and inscriptions, and the Pittekataik or ancient depository of the Buddhist scriptures, are among the most interesting sights of the place.

The antiquarian will thus find that Myohaung is full of interest, as also, if he has time to visit it, the Mahamuni Pagoda, some 48 m. farther N. A trip may also be made by river steamer to Paletwa, the headquarters of the Arakan hill tracts district, which is inhabited by Chaungthas, Shandus, Kwemis, Chins, Mros, and other strange hill tribes.

The industrious traveler with an Internet connection can download E. Forchhammer’s Arakan (1891) from the Internet Archive, where my copy of Murray’s is from. Forchhammer was, more than two centuries ago, already bemoaning how it was too late for Mrauk U:

For the splendid temples of Mrohaung, built by the kings of the Myauk-ū dynasty, the natives have more superstitious awe than religious reverence; they seldom worship at these shrines and they allowed them to fall into disrepeair; while they contribute freely to plaster, whitewash, or gild the architecturally worthless Urittaung or the Sandoway pagodas, they will not raise a hand to prevent the wanton destruction, by treasure-hunters, of the temples, which bespeak the power, resources, and culture of their former rules. The architectural style of the Shitthaung and Dukkanthein pagodas is probably unique in India, and the two shrines are undoubtedly the finest ruins in Lower Burma.

Henry James suggests that it’s always too late for the traveler, who will never reach the desired destination. Roderick Hudson again:

It all was confoundingly picturesque; it was the Italy that we know from the steel engravings in old keepsakes and annuals, from the vignettes on music-sheets and the drop-curtains at theatres; an Italy that we can never confess to ourselves—in spite of our own changes and of Italy’s—that we have ceased to believe in.

And here, maybe, is the dilemma of the travel guide. A book, to be read, must be written in the past. But places, like people, unlike books, are constantly changing, and the travel guide is out of date the minute the pen is lifted from paper. One suspects that Lonely Planet isn’t long for this world, at least in print form: the admittedly infelicitous and unpredictably inaccurate sentences of Wikitravel are free everywhere an Internet connection can be had. The travel guide may join the Mrauk U that Forchhammer regrets, the Italy that exists only in memory, the Burma that everyone insists is vanishing. Against them we might poise the temples of Mrauk U, ancient ruins extending into the present, still worshiped by bemused locals who wonder at the waves of visitors.

Dan Visel lives in Bangkok and is writing a book on reading.