Roads to Mandalay

Burma's colonial days are long gone, Thant Myint-U writes, but echoes of that era still remain

A few years ago on Christmas Eve, I travelled east of Mandalay by car to visit the grandson of Thibaw, the last king of Burma. He lived in Maymyo, a small town perched on the edge of the Shan Plateau - a couple of hours' drive and more than 3,000 feet up - in a rambling old red-brick house with overgrown garden and several aggressive-looking geese wandering around.

In British days, Maymyo acted as the summer capital. Every year in March, when the weather became unbearably hot in Rangoon, the governor and his staff decamped to this pleasant little highland retreat. Many others followed suit, and over a few generations, Maymyo developed into a temporary replacement for home, with fancy-dress parties and polo matches, not-too-bad theatricals, and, best of all, the cold misty air that allowed the homesick to forget, however briefly, their strange colonial life in the plains below.

The old prince had spent most of his life at Maymyo. He was then in his mid-seventies but very lively, with an easy smile and the convent-school accent of British Burma. For an afternoon, over tea and biscuits, we talked about the past, about his family and the old days of the royal court, the prince becoming more relaxed and animated the further back in time we went.

My host's grandfather, Thibaw, had been 28 when the Burma Expeditionary Force of General Sir Harry Prendergast seized Mandalay and extinguished Burma's thousand-year-old throne. This was in November 1885. Randolph Chur chill, then secretary of state for India, had pushed for the intervention in the hope that a short, easy war in Burma would be a good thing for British profits and an even better thing for his party on the eve of the general elections. Thibaw, his wife and small daughters were immediately packed off to exile in Ratnagiri, a little town on India's west coast, not far from Goa. Other members of the royal family were scattered around India. Thibaw would die in exile in 1916; only then was the rest of the family allowed back to Burma, although not to Mandalay.

My host was the son of Thibaw's third daughter. He had grown up and gone to school in Moulmein, far to the south on the Bay of Bengal, and had been refused permission even to visit his ancestral home. "I was on the football team at my school, St Paul's, and I wasn't even allowed to go to Mandalay for a game!" He laughed, but was clearly bitter. He apologised for not having much to show, saying people claiming to be researchers - Burmese as well as foreigners - had often come and borrowed papers and photographs and never returned them. But he did have an elaborate genealogy of his Konbaung Dynasty, printed on a huge paper, which he proudly unrolled. There were also some pictures of weddings and funerals from the early 1930s, the last time, he said, that members of the old Court of Ava had come together and tried to reproduce the ceremonies of their extinct society.

It was perhaps ironic that this man, whose entire life had been framed by Lord Churchill's war of 1885, had chosen to live in one of the few places left in Burma where the British past is still so plain to see. It is not only the pleasant botanical garden, the immaculately kept golf courses, the strawberry fields next to Croxton (once the family holiday home of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company), the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Craddock Court, the mock-Tudor homes, or even the slightly bent Purcell Clock Tower, gift from Queen Victoria. It is also many of the people here, their lives, like the life of the old prince, remnants of a finished era: Gurkhas from Nepal; children and grandchildren of demobbed Indian army soldiers, now running a dairy farm on the outskirts of town and selling strawberry lassis to visiting tourists; old Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indian pensioners, former district clerks and railway officials, who still worship at All Saints' Church.

But this final glimpse of a different time won't last long. Satellite dishes have gone up everywhere and though big crowds gather to watch Premiership football matches (with a strong Arsenal contingent), many also tune in to the channels of an increasingly dynamic Asian region. DVD shops are stacked with Bollywood as well as American films, and many afternoons are whiled away watching Singapore's MTV or the latest episode of some popular Korean soap opera.

When I was last there, the winding, narrow road northwards into the mountains was being upgraded to a proper multi-lane motorway, and now Maymyo is fast filling up with a huge influx of immigrants from the booming Chinese cities only some hours away. New hotels cater to businessmen from Kunming. There is talk of a Chinese-financed "cybercity" nearby and a major airport extension has just been completed. Heavy-duty Korean trucks rumble through by the dozen, carrying in one direction Burma's natural treasures and in the other the manufactured goods of a rising superpower. Throughout Burmese history, this has been the route of Chinese invasions; the Mongols and the Manchus came through the forests around Maymyo, before descending on the Irrawaddy Valley below.

The prince was philosophical. Few, he said, cared at all about the old ways, whether of the old court or of British Burma, because it was in the nature of things to change. A yellow Chinese temple, with scaffolding all around, was being built across the street. I was curious and asked him whether he had ever managed to have a profession or to work at all. "Well, in the 1950s I was quite into bodybuilding," he said, "and so the government made me the head of the Council on Physical Fitness!" He still had a stocky build. But except for that brief interlude, he had spent his entire life as a symbol of a lost time, living in the town built by his grandfather's captors, and surviving long enough to see yet another transformation, on a different road to Mandalay.

Thant Myint-U was a senior officer at the United Nations. His personal history of Burma, "The River of Lost Footsteps", is published by Faber & Faber (£20)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery