One of the three people in my family who influenced my decision to live as an expatriate was, in an odd sort of way, my grandad. It is an odd way because he spent almost his entire life in a tiny village near York in the UK, called Barmby Moor. However, as with most British men of his generation, he was called up to fight in World War II. I will go into more detail about his stories in other posts, but the important part is that he spent 1941 to 1945 in India and, as it was then, Burma.
Jump forward to 2016 and a friend and old travelling companion – Noom, with whom I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia for the first time in August 2013 – posts on Facebook that she is planning a trip to Myanmar (as it is now called) in a couple of weeks time and urgently needs a travelling companion. I had been planning to visit the country for some time, but lacked the motivation to actually start organising it. Noom provided that conviction, so now I’m here!
This trip mirrors that which my grandad took part from 8th February 1943. Operation Longcloth was the first test of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s new special force, the Chindits. Trained in guerrilla warfare tactics, they were to operate behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma and disrupt lines of communication. Their initial task, in Op Longcloth, was simply to prove that their enemy was not invincible and that the dense Burmese jungles could be used as a resource instead of an enemy. In spite of heavy criticism of the Chindits (both at the time and by modern military historians), even their greatest detractors agree that, in this regard, they were very successful.
There were other objectives, naturally. The intention was to disrupt the rail network (which they did, but it was swiftly repaired) and to scout Japanese positions. My objective, 73 years later, is rather more humble. I am instead scouting out the country, seeing the major sights in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Bagan and Mandalay. My journey is considerably less arduous, involves a lot less jungle and will hopefully not result in any casualties!
I do realise that comparing what is essentially a holiday to a military operation from over seven decades earlier is kind of silly. I’m only shooting photos, not a rifle; my route is completely different to that taken in 1943 or any subsequent operations; my objectives are tourist attractions, not enemy installations. However, my grandad’s influence on my life has been considerable. He is the reason why I use “Chindit76” as my web handle. He is the reason why I wear an Aussie-style bush hat. He is the reason why I was so keen to visit Myanmar. These are my own little acts of remembrance, which makes the coincidental timing of this trip, in the week running up to 11th November, particularly poignant.
Actual planning was…well, to be completely honest, it was pretty much non-existent. Neither Noom nor I are particularly good at planning these sorts of trips, preferring to improvise when we get there. This does create a little bit of stress and the risk of missing out on something really cool but, as this is only a reconnaissance trip to hit the key sights, that is not such a concern. I bought a Lonely Planet guide at Phuket Airport – here endeth the planning.
There was a bit of organisation, which I had to rather rapidly handle at extremely short notice. The major problem was getting a visa. Thais can come and go as they please because Myanmar is part of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – basically, the Asian EU). As a Brit, however, I needed a visa. Living in Phuket presented a momentary concern as the embassies are all in Bangkok, but Myanmar fortunately has a very good eVisa online application service. I applied late one evening and was approved by early afternoon the next day. I then scheduled time off work and booked flights.
Incidentally, I discovered this eVisa service through GOV.UK‘s section for travel advice. Specifically, the section which seems to think that Myanmar is still called Burma and Yangon is still called Rangoon! It turns out that the information is also outdated because it is actually possible to apply for a visa on arrival at Yangon International Airport (RGN).
The reason for the timing of the visit is that Noom has decided to take her entire year’s leave allowance in one long go. With about a month-long break, she wanted to go to Myanmar, Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam (in pretty much that order, I think). She has companions for all of the other parts of the trip, but did not have any for Myanmar. Shortly after I signed up, her youngest sister also did, so we are a party of three.
Noom and her sister, Nan, are similar kinds of traveller to me, when it comes finding a the right balance between ‘the local experience’, ‘as cheap as possible’ and ‘comfortable’. However, neither are as photographic as I am. While I would quite happily spend hours wandering around Downtown Yangon, they have been keeping a reasonably quick pace. This is not a major concern for me, though because, as I said, this is a recce – I can always come back for a second trip and concentrate my time in one more specific destination, rather than trying to cover as much as possible in just one week.
I will be sharing my actual experiences in coming posts, and there’s already a lot to tell! Watch out for more coming very soon.
Incidentally, if there are any regular readers who are wondering what happened to my Project52, I’m afraid that I decided to cancel it. I was getting increasingly frustrated with having to post sub-par pics simply because they fitted that week’s theme. Additionally, I was finding myself with increasingly little free time and stopping Project52 was the easiest way to free up some more. Finally, I was getting very frustrated with the fact that what was supposed to be a travel blog had effectively turned into just Project52 posts. I had briefly contemplated deleting all trace of the project in my shame at having been defeated by it, but I quickly realised that doing so would also remove about 80 per cent of my current content!
Anyway, the project has taught me an important lesson. Ironically, it was a point which a commenter on the Project52 introduction post raised – that I should not need “an excuse” to go out and take pictures. If it is my hobby, I should be doing it a lot more. Sage wisdom indeed and, on the back of that, I am confident that Project52 will eventually return.