Steve Weir
Racing Club de Blackheath in MYANMAR 2016

Day 1 Saturday 22/10/16 - Yangon

Rocky Rangoon checked into his room

So we landed at Yangon airport looking like a right bunch of colonial bastards, straight out of George Orwell's 'Burmese Days', an everyday tale of colonial bastards which turned out to be readily available from street-sellers, and which several bastards were reading by the end of the week.

On the way in from the airport, we stopped off to look across a lake at the house where Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house-arrest, and racked up a world-record score on Guitar-Hero. Our guide, Victor, told us that we were standing on the spot where an American journalist had jumped into the lake in order to swim across to the house and get an interview. He prevaricated when asked how he knew this was the same spot, thus immediately re-igniting the age-old Racing Club tradition of not trusting anything the guide tells us, as well as the age-old Racing Club tradition of guides called Victor.

Bastard Vigne quickly arrived at the conclusion that Victor was keen to tell us whatever it was he thought we wanted to hear, a view I was sceptical of until Victor expressed the opinion that Burma would have been better off if the British had stayed. Surely not a common view amongst the populations of countries liberated from the British Empire?

Conforming to yet another Racing Club tradition of politically incorrect guides, Victor went on to express a view which drew an audible sigh of disapproval, when he made reference to disability being the wages of sin committed in a previous life, thereby revealing himself as a follower of the ancient religion of Hoddleism.

It was reminiscent of Victor the Syrian tour guide referring to the Saudis as "the scum of the desert", or the Romanian tour guide (I have a feeling his name was Victor, too) making disparaging remarks about Romanian gypsies. It's the wrong way to curry favour with the bastards, Victor. It may spring from your local cultural traditions, but in our culture, it will lose you the England manager's job, with only the consolation of a huge pay-off (though it may help you become President of the United States).

Fighting through the permanent gridlock of traffic towards downtown Yangon, we were eventually dropped off at a colonial-style building (natch) in the colonial-style centre (natch). The East Hotel had seen better days, but was a handsome enough building, with some interesting design features, bearing comparison with the quirky design flaws of previous Racing Club hotels.

I was particularly puzzled by the large window between the room and the corridor, as if the designer had wanted to provide the luxury feature of being able to lie on your bed watching to see who was walking past your room. It did have a blind over it, difficult to adjust but at least providing some visual privacy when required, though we quickly realized that it didn’t extend to audio privacy when Bastard Lang informed us that he could hear us loud and clear when he walked past our room to his own. There followed a hastily-convened marital conference in which we tried to piece together what he might have heard.

On the other side of the room, next to the window so as to provide for a poo with a view, the designer had thoughtfully removed the inconvenience of a door, so as to enable hotel-guests to carry out their ablutions from behind a convenient and decorous screen, of the kind that you might use to screen yourself from prying eyes while sipping your tea in an ornate tea-house. The result was a carefully crafted auditory trail, leading from the khazi, across the face of your unsuspecting spouse relaxing on the bed, and out the window into the corridor for your neighbours to enjoy. The fact that the olfactory trail stopped short of the auditory trail, and stayed trapped behind the window, only served to illustrate the cleverness of the design. In the corner, next to the khazi, was a shower-room which worked well enough if you had enough time to spare to wait for it to get you wet.

Perhaps unadventurously, I decided against using the room khazi, and took to using the khazi behind the downstairs bar. Bastard Foster proved himself to be more adventurous, as he later demonstrated when he stood up after finishing his beer in the bar and declared: “Right, I’m off to use the best tea-house in Rangoon”, before marching upstairs to discharge the white man’s burden. Mrs Foster looked particularly impressed, but at least he was thoughtful enough to provide notice that she might not wish to return to the room for a while, so romance isn’t dead.

A busy schedule had been provided for this tour, so we soon found ourselves negotiating the teeming streets of downtown colonial Yangon. The buildings themselves were recognizably handsome, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine Bastard Hoff sitting with his gavel in the large red courthouse with the clock-tower, and donning his black skull-cap in order to sentence a local for the theft of a peanut in the local market, before setting off for lunch at the Rangoon Tea-House. Nor to imagine Bastard Watson turning sharply on his heels to go and supervise the execution of the sentence.

The central grid of streets would once have glowed in its colonial splendour, but by now it looked less like the Japanese had bombed it, and more like they had dropped an enormous bucket of shit over it. Followed by an enormous box of tangled electrical cables. Some of them were held up by the kind of pylons you see criss-crossing the English countryside, but with their legs chopped off, so as to give you the option of reaching up to touch one, and reducing yourself in seconds to a frazzled silhouette on the pavement. “A Yangon Electrician” was the answer to the question: “What’s black and crisp, and hangs limply over the streets of Yangon?”.

Some of the potholes looked like they led down into a cavernous Stygian nightmare. There exists a ‘Slips and Trips’ department in the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, a department which would be epically inadequate in a town which has devised so many ways in which to lose your children on a simple excursion to the market.

We finished up in the air-conditioned Rangoon Tea House, where the colonial bastards used to convene in order to compare notes on how many locals they had horse-whipped that day. The 12-hour flight to Bankok, followed by another flight to Yangon, was beginning to take its toll, along with the Bridge Over the River Kwai humidity. Stepping in from the heavy blanket of humidity into an air-conditioned room was a slightly weird experience, and wasn’t helping the touch of man-‘flu I had contracted before I left. The cucumber-flavoured water was eyed suspiciously, as was the first offering of a week-long diet of curries, as nobody knew which curry might trigger a dose of the Chindits; a familiar return to the well–known Racing Club experience of Curry Roulette.

The slick and fast-paced Racing Club schedule was now under way, and soon we were piling back into the coach to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple which pre-dated Yangon itself, and a historic meeting point for people who were revolting (whether it be against the colonial British adminstration, or the military regime. Aung San Suu Kyi herself addressed 500,000 people there in 1988).

We had to remove our shoes and socks, which in my case was a pretty revolting act in itself, after a day trudging around Yangon in sub-tropical humidity. (My socks immediately walked off to the nearest Buddha statue, and started praying).

This evoked the famous “shoe question”, arising from the fact that the British colonial bastards refused to do it. You would think it would just be easier to comply, but they made a big deal of it, discussed it endlessly in various colonial committee rooms, and steadfastly refused to comply for many decades until eventually arriving at a compromise: they would take their shoes and socks off, but only if there was an exemption for government employees. There was an incident in 1902 when an Irish monk called U Dhammaloka confronted a British policeman for not removing his shoes (“Could yer not see yer way to taking yer feckin shoes off, yer eejit?”). But he refused. They weren’t just colonial bastards, they were argumentative colonial bastards.

We Racing Club bastards took our shoes off without demur, and marched in, walking around the huge golden stupa in a clockwise fashion, as per the tradition. The central stupa was surrounded by smaller, open-walled temples, all dedicated to different things. It reminded me of a fairground, and in one of the pagodas there was a money-changing kiosk, like where you go to get your change to play on the penny waterfall.

Various planetary posts on the circular tour are dedicated to the days of the week, and if you are a Burmese Buddhist, your name derives from the day of the week you are born, so you should pay extra attention to the stage representing your birth-day. The week is divided into eight days, in homage to the Beatles, and they’ve thought it through sufficiently to get it past Dragon’s Den: Wednesday morning is one day, represented by a tusked elephant, and Wednesday afternoon is another, represented by a tuskless elephant. If you’re born on a Saturday, your nominated animal is a serpent, and you’re basically deemed a loser, which seems a little unfair, but in the maternity wards of Burma, many births are induced on a Friday afternoon, apparently.

Buddhism here had embraced modern technology, and the many, many Buddha statues all had a halo of blinking red and green lights around them. It was Disneyland for Buddhists, in much the same way as Assisi is for Catholics. But while in an Assisi gift-shop you might find a fetching little Jesus statue with fairy lights representing the halo, they’ve stayed old-school in the churches themselves, and the haloes are depicted only in paint.

In another pagoda was a huge bell. There had been two previous bells, but they had both been stolen by colonial bastards (first Portuguese, and then British). In both cases, the bell-ends who stole it were unable to get it across the river, like the Chuckle brothers. The one the British nicked was eventually fished out, after the locals said they would retrieve it if they could keep it. The British (believing it couldn’t be done if they couldn’t do it), agreed, whereupon the locals tied bamboo sticks to it and floated it to the surface. Doh. By the time they left, the British had also dug a tunnel into the stupa, “to find out if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine”.

There was a calm, friendly atmosphere, with crowds of smiling people milling around, and the evening sun glinting off the central, golden stupa. A good place for a visiting Buddhist to hang out of an evening and meet the locals (as it is a famous a place of pilgrimage, to the Burmese). Better, I’d say, than the YMBA (Young Men’s Buddhist Association. Yes, it really exists, though I don’t know how you articulate the ‘B’ when you dance to the Village People’s homage to it).

Climbing back onto the bus, I chanted “You’re going home in a cosmic ambience”, but I was ignored. It was one of those reflective moments when you know you’ve milked a joke for all it’s worth. We were transported to a pleasant-looking restaurant where we were too tired and hungry to be fastidious about the Curry Lottery, but the food was good, and we didn’t take any casualties. I saw some creatures running along the rafters under the red, vaulted roof, and preferred to think of them as “mice”. Mrs Vigne pointed out, or rather, I think, hoped, that they might be gekkos, but I didn’t think gekkos were likely to have brown and white fur.

Finally, nightcaps were taken on the top floor of the hotel, on a fetid, humid little square of balcony basking in the title of “roof terrace”. It was difficult not to keep an eye on the foliage surrounding the edge of it for any signs of movement, but the only movement was from gekkos making sudden darts across the walls and the ceiling. I’m not sure how we decided they were gekkos…they may just have been lizards. Bastard Lea was keen to test the theory that they discard their tails when caught, but wasn’t fast enough to catch one, an ominous harbinger for the next day’s game. Finally realizing that we were effectively talking to each other in our sleep, we repaired to bed, helpfully leaving behind a large collection of empty Myanmar beer bottles on the little terrace table, for the staff to carry back downstairs to the bar.

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