You Can Go Home Again: A Return to Myanmar,
70 Years in the Making
The first time I heard about Daphne Pirie and her incredible story of life in pre-WWII Myanmar, I knew: I had to be involved in helping her get back to her homeland.
Even though I had recently come off the road and moved from guiding trips to planning them in places like Newfoundland and Chile, Myanmar had a special place in my heart.
I spent years there researching and guiding B&R trips, so when my colleague who was planning Daphne’s return to Myanmar after a 70-year absence, asked me to guide it, I jumped at the opportunity.
And in hindsight, I’m so glad I did. Daphne’s trip was one of the most challenging to plan and co-ordinate that I’ve ever been a part of – and unquestionably one of the most rewarding, too.
Helping Daphne feel right at home again in Myanmar after a 70-year absence was our number-one priority for the trip.
I set off on a research pre-trip to familiarize myself with some of the locales relevant to Daphne’s past and dove in headfirst.
I visited colonial-era schools, churches, government offices, graveyards, police stations, homes and hospitals (including an asylum in Yangon and a leper colony in Mandalay) in various states of abandonment.
As B&R Guides are wont to do, I chatted with locals, including teachers, priests, police officers, military, archivists, monks and an electronics shop owner (a contemporary of Daphne’s from Maymyo who actually featured in the trip) among many others.
So many people were drawn to this incredible story and helped in the search for the people and places from Daphne’s past.
I also went deep into archives both online and in-person, everywhere from the national archives in London (where we enlisted our friend and colleague, London-based trip designer Steve Wilson, to do a little digging), to the Anglo-Burmese archives in Yangon and municipal government outposts in the farthest reaches of the country.
Between the research and the trip itself, we utilized nearly every mode of transportation known to man – including the car, motorbike, bike, boat, train, plane, foot, tuk-tuk and horse-drawn carriage (no joke!) – to bring it all together.
And I can say with confidence that all of this hard work and planning felt absolutely worth it the moment Daphne stepped foot once more in Myanmar.
The Mergui Archipelago
Daphne’s trip began in the southern reaches of Myanmar on the Mergui Archipelago.
During the time that Daphne lived there, the town was called Victoria Point and was completely cut off from the rest of the country by dense jungle – visited only bimonthly by the steamships that would ply the seas between Singapore and Burma.
Daphne’s father was a police officer there and was overseeing the local station. The area was especially significant to her, as Daphne’s father passed away there due to pneumonia.
We took a traditional longboat across the border from Thailand into Myanmar, following in the footsteps of her mother in one story told in the book. An epic beginning to an epic journey.
Our mission in Victoria Point, now Kawthaung, was to locate her father’s grave and to visit the Moken people, sea gypsies who during colonial times were among the few who survived in these parts.
See for Yourself
On B&R’s Myanmar By Sea trip, it’s the country’s quiet mystique that proves so compelling. Discover the forgotten world of the Mergui Archipelago – more than 900 tropical islands! – explore pristine dive sites and lounge on empty sand beaches surrounded by untouched rainforests.DETAILED ITINERARY
Sadly, her father’s grave had been moved about a decade ago to make room for housing and a Buddhist monument (we were told a rather funny story about the spirits of those in unmarked graves being “driven” to the new site in empty trucks). But Daphne did get to pay her respects in an emotional moment as we sent fire balloons off into the skies. (There was not a dry eye in the house!)
The Moken people, like many tribes in Myanmar, have long since modernized, but a few do still live off the coast on their barges and the tiny islands that dot the peninsula. For our first big day out, we chartered a boat to visit one such village.
We were able to find a group of Moken fishermen and bought fresh seafood straight off their boat – crab, lobster and prawns and fish – in exchange for cold beer. Through a connection I had found during my research, I was able to connect with a man who owned a small island, thus avoiding the challenges of military restrictions that make the area very difficult to travel in.
There we had an epic beach bbq on one of the most lush and exotic tropical islands you could imagine, visited a small Moken village enroute and snorkelled along the reefs.
Kalaw was a rather large hill station during colonial times and a favourite among expats for its cool temperatures and pleasant atmosphere.
Daphne’s family was also stationed there for a short time and several of her family members went to school in the area. Thanks to a bit of finagling, I managed to get us access to the Kingswood School – once the top private school in the area and now occupied by military (as many impressive buildings from the colonial era are these days).
It was an emotional visit. The building is nearly empty but remains intact, and it was easy to imagine life as it was at the time.
I was able to track down a former librarian of the school, a fantastic 90-plus-year-old-lady with an excellent grasp of English who invited us around for tea and chit-chat. She and Daphne really hit it off, and they spent an hour or so listing off names of people who they knew who attended the school or lived in the area.
Of everywhere we visited, it was clear to me that Maymyo (or Pyin Oo Lwin) was the place that Daphne felt the most connected to and had the most vivid memories of. This was the last place that she and her family lived before their evacuation to India.
Maymyo is another hill station just outside of Mandalay but a world away in look and feel. A good number of the homes and commercial buildings have been preserved in their original state, but many more were either bombed during the war or renovated beyond recognition.
Sadly, her family home fell to the bombings, but while in Maymyo we visited the church where her parents were married, the graveyard where many of her relatives were buried and Daphne’s primary school, St. Michael’s, where we were given a private tour by the headmaster. The place hadn’t changed!
Trains featured heavily in her mother’s memoir and a ride in the countryside was a must. Of course we had to take the most memorable route – the journey across the Gokteik Viaduct, a feat of engineering that impresses even today.
The visit culminated in a visit to the Maymyo train station, the last place that Daphne remembers from her time there. She recalled the hoards of people being corralled onto the platform – soldiers, colonials, refugees whose homes had been bombed. It was a sombre but cathartic moment.
Daphne’s mother didn’t think too fondly of Mandalay and made that very clear in her book.
Compared to the tropical south and cooler hill stations, Mandalay is dry and hot, hot, hot. Their house was infested with snakes and Daphne’s father was away a lot for work. In the memoir, Daphne’s mother recounts the day trips they would take – in one case across to Mingun to visit the old folks home (yep, still standing!), the famed Mingun bell and ruins of what would be the largest pagoda in Burma, if it were standing.
Her mother, like many in Myanmar, was intensely superstitious and a follower of astrology. One afternoon I had a picnic set up in one of the oldest and most beautiful teak monasteries where we indulged in some local curries and an astrology session to follow. Daphne declined the reading for fear of bad news! The apple does not fall far from the tree.
While visits to Daphne’s old stomping grounds were the driving force behind this trip, it was clear to me from the very get-go that it would be the people of Myanmar who would bring this trip to life.
Even in the memoir, Daphne’s mother writes about how much Daphne loved the local people and the spicy food. Throughout the three-week trip, I think it’s safe to say that this was what Daphne enjoyed the most – re-engaging in local life.
We spent countless hours chatting about the old days over tea, and laughing as, with every new encounter, Daphne listed off all of her favourite local foods and Burmese catchphrases.
In the markets, train stations, temples, schools, workshops, monasteries and farmer’s fields, the feeling was unmistakable: Daphne felt like she was home again.