David Eimer journeys to the heart of Burma and out to its unexplored vistas, bringing to vivid life all its riches and complexities.
For almost fifty years Burma was ruled by a paranoid military dictatorship and isolated from the outside world. At this time, Burma became Myanmar without a local accord. Eimer sides with the locals by using its original name, refusing to let the nation’s history be rewritten.
In 2015, a historic election swept an Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government to power and was supposed to usher in a new golden era of democracy and progress, but Burma remains unstable and undeveloped a little-understood country. A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma tells the modern story of this fairy-tale land that few really understand.
Nothing is straightforward in this captivating land—home to a combustible mix of races, religions, and resources. Eimer reveals a country where temples take priority over infrastructure, fortune tellers thrive and golf courses are carved out of war zones. Setting out from Yangon, David Eimer travels through this enigmatic nation, from the tropical south to the Burmese Himalayas in the far north.
The story of modern Burma is told through the voices of the people Eimer encounters: former political exiles, squatters in Yangon’s shantytowns, radical monks, Rohingya refugees, princesses and warlords, and ethnic minorities clustered along Burma’s frontiers.
Layers of history are unfurled and innumerable stories are woven together to create a sensitive and revelatory portrait of this mysterious country. Authoritative and ground-breaking, A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma is set to be a modern classic of travel writing.
Excerpt from the Book: Burma 2010
I came to Burma in search of the road less traveled. In early 2010, this was a mysterious nation: little-visited, barely mentioned, hardly known. A paranoid military dictatorship had ruled for almost fifty years and Burma had become the monster in the Southeast Asian attic, the unhinged relative locked in a top-floor room. While its neighbors hosted an ever-increasing number of tourists, the generals sought to isolate the country from outside influences and regarded foreigners with intense suspicion.
Downtown Yangon’s collection of colonial-era buildings is the largest in Southeast Asia. But even without their presence, I felt I had slipped back through time and arrived in a city that looked, smelled and sounded as it must have done decades before.
The sweet aroma of food-stall curries and the disconcerting odor of ngapi – the pungent fish paste used in Burmese cooking – mingled with the more straightforward stink of open drains. Street vendors shrilled their wares while balancing them on their heads as they walked.
Trishaw drivers glistened with sweat as they stood on the pedals of their contraptions, hauling old ladies home from the markets. A few taxis competed with them for customers and space, as they edged down the narrow streets running back from the riverfront that had not been designed for motorized vehicles.
The buildings rising above them, whether the grand structures of the colonial past or the tenements and apartment blocks built after the Second World War, were all neglected and in need of repair.
Shadowed by Street Dogs
Everyone was shadowed by seamy-eyed, mange-ridden street dogs, limping and creeping in their perpetual search for sustenance. The Buddha’s ban on killing animals, except for food, is taken seriously in Burma and Yangon’s canine population is huge.
When the British attempted culls, people hid the hounds in their homes. Unchecked and unneutered, the animals roamed everywhere. At night they curled up on pavements and in doorways and Yangon became a vast, open-air dog dormitory.
Yangon in 2015
Late October and the last days of the monsoon season seemed interminable. The rain had been falling since May, drumming off the metal roofs of houses and apartment blocks and flooding streets whose drains dated back to 1888. Mould had taken hold on walls and pavements, making the latter even more hazardous than usual. Now, when the rain stopped, the mercury rose quickly, resulting in a sticky, unpleasant heat. It was the final twist of the knife before November ushered in a few rain-free months of lower temperatures, the most pleasant time to be in Burma.
Tim and I were in a beer station in Dagon Township, a mile north of downtown and south of the Shwedagon. We sat facing each other across a low wooden table, pock-marked with cigarette burns.
Around us, the other customers – all men – sat with their legs crossed on plastic chairs, their longyi tucked up underneath them, sinking glasses of Myanmar Lager – the national beer – or sharing small bottles of Grand Royal, a local brand of whisky, and the spicy tea-leaf salads that often accompany alcohol in Burma.
No one moves to Yangon for the nightlife. Western-style bars are a new phenomenon and far too expensive for most locals. There are still only a small number of them in the city.
Even the karaoke parlors, where you imbibe between songs, cost too much for the average person. Instead, ordinary people do their drinking at beer stations, like the one Tim and I were in.
It is a predominantly male environment, as many Burmese women consider it disreputable to be seen in such surroundings.
Pursing his lips, Tim made a kissing sound to attract one of the teenage waiters. It’s a uniquely Burmese way of getting service, although considered impolite in smarter restaurants. Two more beers arrived, we clinked glasses and Tim carried on telling me about how challenging it was returning to Yangon after more than a quarter of a century away.
‘It’s like moving back to a different country. So much has changed. It’s taken me a year just to find my bearings again,’ he said, sounding half exasperated and half excited. ‘Yangon was so quiet, so peaceful when I was growing up here in the 1970s.
We used to play on all the vacant land they are building on now. There was no television in Burma then, so my brother and I would sit out on the street and count the cars going by. We’d see maybe one or two an hour.’
Life had moved on since both Tim’s childhood and my first visit five years before. The half-empty roads I had driven down from the airport in 2010 were a distant memory. Now they heaved with new cars, trucks and a fleet of buses with the name of the city of Busan written on their sides, part of an aid package from South Korea.
Traffic jams had arrived in Yangon, just another consequence of modern life that Burma had previously avoided, and even the stray dogs had learned to look left and right when crossing the road.
David Eimer is the author of the critically acclaimed The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China. A former China correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, Eimer was the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Daily Telegraph between 2012 and 2014. He is currently based in Bangkok.