Burma is such an enigmatic country that the first question for any writer is what to call it. The nation has been known officially as Myanmar since 1989, when the then ruling junta discarded Burma along with other place names associated with British rule. But like all the decisions taken by the generals, it was made without any consultation with the population. The junta saw themselves as absolute monarchs and denied Burma’s peoples both democracy and human rights.
It is for that reason that the UK and US governments continue to use Burma as the country’s official name. So do I in my book, A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma, as do all the writers listed below. But neither Burma nor Myanmar does justice to such an ethnically diverse nation. In Burmese, both names are explicit references to the Bamar – the majority ethnic group – and have little resonance for the 134 officially recognised minorities who make up at least a third of the country’s population.
I was inspired to write about Burma in part because it is such a dizzying mix of peoples, religions and landscapes. Yet, for all the diversity, Burma remains the least-known nation in south-east Asia and there is little contemporary writing about the country. That’s another legacy of the generals, who seized power in 1962 and ruled for almost 50 years. Not only did the junta censor local writers ruthlessly, often imprisoning them, they also sought to close off the country from the outside world.
Even now, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government running Burma in an uneasy partnership with the military, press freedom remains a distant ideal. The country is full of voracious readers, though. In the historic downtown of Yangon – the former capital once known as Rangoon – there are many streetside book vendors, their battered and dusty tomes laid out on the pavements for passing pedestrians to sift through.
Pirate copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days are a staple of those stalls. It’s a telling fact that it remains the most widely read English-language book about Burma, despite being first published in 1934. Almost all the finest travel writing on Burma was written before or just after the second world war. My book is an effort to redress the dearth of recent literature covering the country. Here is some of the finest writing on Burma that is available in English.
1. Burmese Days by George Orwell
The sweet sibilance of the title alone makes this a compulsory choice. Orwell spent five years in Burma in the 1920s as a policeman, alternately racked with self-loathing over his role as a colonial enforcer and enraged by the locals’ increasing disdain for the British presence in their country. All that bile came out in this devastating portrait of small-minded, deeply racist Brits in a tiny up-country town. It is a damning indictment of imperial rule.
2. From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Pascal Khoo Thwe writes about his extraordinary journey from Shan state to Cambridge University in prose that makes a nonsense of the fact that English is his “second” language. From his earliest years in a remote village still gripped by the animist beliefs that held sway in Burma before Buddhism arrived, it takes in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that made Aung San Suu Kyi a global name and his time as a soldier in a rebel army in the jungles of southern Burma. The story would be almost unbelievable if it wasn’t true.
3. Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis
Lewis was one of the greats of 20th-century travel writing and he is at his evocative and empathetic best in this account of his 1951 sojourn in Burma. Arriving just three years after independence, Lewis encountered a country already fracturing along political and ethnic lines. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the book is that it highlights how little fundamental change there has been in Burma since it was written.
4. Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma by Wendy Law-Yone
The 1950s are remembered in Yangon as a charmed decade, when Burma was newly independent and the military had yet to snatch power. Law-Yone’s affectionate, honest and moving memoir tracks how that optimism turned to disillusionment and then terror after the 1962 coup, through the story of her family and especially her father, a larger-than-life newspaper editor who was imprisoned by the generals before going into unhappy exile in the US.
5. Into Hidden Burma by Maurice Collis
Collis was one of the more unusual British officials to come to Burma in the colonial era. A frustrated poet, he wept as he boarded the boat to leave the country for the last time, having fallen out of favour because of his sympathy for the Burmese and their desire for independence. This autobiography follows his postings across the country, from Rakhine state to the far south via Yangon and the Ayeyarwady Delta, and offers an insider’s account of British rule.
6. Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
Inspired by the remarkable true story of Craig’s mother, whose father was Indian Jewish and whose mother was from the Karen minority in southern Burma, this novel deftly mixes fact and fiction. It relates the story of Craig’s mother from her childhood and time as a 1950s beauty queen and film star, up to the point where she renounced her glamorous Rangoon life to become a commander in a guerrilla army fighting for an independent Karen state.
7. Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma by George MacDonald Fraser
Flashman, MacDonald Fraser’s inspired fictional creation, never made it to Burma. But Fraser spent two years there during the second world war, fighting the Japanese. Told from an infantryman’s necessarily narrow perspective, this account of his war – its title lifted from Kipling – is starkly unsentimental. But Fraser’s wonderful ear for dialogue is on display throughout, as is his talent for bringing alive the realities of battle.
8. The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong by W Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham is associated more with sundowners on South Sea islands, and the high life on the French Riviera, than with intrepid travel writing. But the Burma leg of his 1922 tour through south-east Asia saw him spend weeks moving by mule through the jungle and hills of Shan state, a journey that would be challenging even now. Maugham was an acute observer of both people and landscapes and, today, the book reads almost as an elegy for a long-gone culture.
9. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
Another title taken from Kipling, Thant Myint-U roams through Burma’s early history, the colonial period, independence and the junta’s rule, interspersing personal reminiscences along the way. There’s a patrician tone to the writing, as you might expect from the Harvard and Cambridge-educated grandson of U Thant, UN secretary general in the 1960s, but this is perhaps the best general introduction to Burma’s convoluted history.
10. Under the Dragon by Rory MacLean
This is one of the few travel books written about Burma in the junta era. Maclean brings a novelist’s eye to the people he encounters on his quest to discover the origins of a basket brought from Burma to England in colonial times. More than anything, Maclean is superb at capturing the contradictions of the country under the generals, a place where beauty, gentleness and a deep religious faith coexisted with venal brutality.
• A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma by David Eimer is published by Bloomsbury. To order, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.