Keen to learn a bit more about Myanmar before you go? Please find below a small selection of what we believe are some of the best books to read pre-travel. If you have any suggestions you would like to add, please be sure to let us know by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint U (grandson of U Thant, a Burmese diplomat and the third Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971). This provides an interesting and factual account of the country’s origins, all the way up to present day.
Here’s a review from the New York Times that goes into a bit more detail.
Another book, we would strongly recommend is Burma’s Spring by Rosalind Russell, a journalist that came looking for work in Myanmar, just before Cyclone Nargis devastated the country back in 2008. ‘In her memoir, Russell has written authoritatively of the changes that swept through Burma, yet she has done so by focusing on the stories of a series of individuals and looking at how their lives were affected by events.’
You can find a review written by the UK’s Independent newspaper below.
If these don’t take your fancy, how about the following?
The Glass Palace – Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her.
Letters from Burma – written by Aung San Suu Kyi, this offers a great insight into the plight of Burmese democracy.
The Trouser People – ‘Part travelogue, part history, part reportage, The Trouser People recounts the story of George Scott, the eccentric British explorer, photographer, adventurer, and later Colonial Administrator of Burma, who introduced the Empire’s best game (soccer!) to Burmese natives and to the forbidden Wa state of headhunters, who were similarly enthusiastic about it.’
Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess – A must read for anyone travelling to Hsipaw. Sargent’s sad, exotic story survives her deeply flawed telling of it, but she would have been better advised to stick with a straightforward memoir. While at school in Colorado in the early ’50s, the Austrian-born author met and married fellow student Sao Kya Seng. Because he wanted a wife who would marry him “for the right reasons,” Sao chose not to tell Inge he was prince of Hsipaw, one of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma (although the convertible Nash Rambler and the ruby-and-diamond engagement ring might have tipped her off.) For eight years the couple presided over the modernization of their small state, sadly unaware of the weak poltical leadership plaguing Burma since the 1947 assassination of General Aung San (father of jailed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi). Then in 1962, General Ne Win seized power and Sao disappeared. Shadowed by Ne Win’s men, Sargent waited desperately for news of her husband, until two years later friends convinced her to escape to Austria. Sargent’s descriptions of life in the small, tropical state and of her machinations to smuggle out her daughters (both Burmese citizens) are strong enough to withstand her unconvincing re-creation of decades-old dialogue (even extensive sections on the vanished Sao’s unknowable last thoughts) and the near-fatal decision to write in third person.
Burmese Days – George Orwell’s first novel and arguably one of the most famous books devoted to Burma. Orwell’s fictionalised account of his time in Burma is a complex portrayal of colonial society. Whilst not as popular as his bestsellers ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, ‘Burmese Days’ is just as multifaceted, just as thought provoking, and just as rewarding. The book is a scathing criticism of racism and imperialism that seems in many aspects ahead of its time, the piece not only describes the waning days of British rule, but also contains sophisticated means of expression; “the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand.”
The Burman: His Life and Notions – Written by the Scottish journalist and British Colonial administrator James George Scott, the book was initially published under the pseudonym Shway Yoe; the author’s language proficiency and his exquisite style stunned both the public and the critics, as it was deemed impossible for a Burmese person to write so well in English. Even though ‘the Burman’ was written over a hundred years ago it is still referred to as one of the most comprehensive introductions to Myanmar culture; it provides with a tremendously detailed description of nearly every aspect of Burmese society and its customs.
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey – The book tells an extraordinary story of Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Burmese author from the minority Padaung people. This autobiographical tale details Khoo Twe’s life from his childhood in a remote tribal village in southern Shan State, his escape as a forest guerrilla-fighter to Thailand and the improbable journey from his strife- torn homeland to the University of Cambridge. This deeply moving, well written piece is “more than a record of an astonishing life, [it is] a work of art.”