The Old Moulmein Pagoda

"By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,

   There's a Burma girl-a-settin', an' I know she thinks o' me."

                                                                         Rudyard Kipling, "Mandalay".

It was in Burma and sixty years after his death that I let myself be guided by Rudyard Kipling.  Bewitched by a portrait of the sights, sounds and smells of a distant, tropical haven, I had followed Kipling's lyrical soldier, left behind me the "blasted English drizzle" and flown to modern-day Myanmar to see if the reality matched the poet's images.

Better known for his writings on India, Kipling turned to Burma to enchant me with "Mandalay", the song of a returned British soldier nostalgic for the land and the love he has left behind: "a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land".  Mandalay the city, however, fails to live up to the romance that its name invokes.  It was not there, thankfully, that the verses led me but to Moulmein, south-east of Rangoon and renamed Mawlamyine by the ruling junta: one of their lesser crimes.

I never did get to grips with the Burmese railway ticketing system.  I located the ticket office at the front of a long, unruly queue but, as a foreigner, had to walk apologetically past to buy my dollar-priced ticket directly from the stationmaster.  My ticket cited a coach and seat number but even before the train had come to a halt, hordes of Burmese were throwing themselves into the carriages to claim a place.

I stood little chance with my bulky backpack and no companion to help me: I couldn't even identify my proper carriage.  The kindness of the Burmese is, however, well documented and in such situations I was invariably taken under somebody's wing.  On this occasion, I was led by an elderly man to my allocated (and occupied) seat, where the other passengers insisted upon rearranging themselves to accommodate me.

Burmese trains often appeared to date back to Kipling's days of the Raj and travelling in them seemed to involve a journey through time as well as through the pagoda-studded countryside.  There were frequent stops at tiny villages whose stations mocked my ignorance by carrying names only in Burmese script.  I was thankful that my stop was the last one on this journey.  The stops provided welcome, bargain-priced snacking opportunities.  Baskets and trays of tempting rice cakes, boiled eggs and leaf-wrapped biryani dishes - as well as other not so appetising fare, such as fried crickets - passed below the windows on the heads of their vociferous vendors.

I arrived late at Martaban, Moulmein's twin across the wide estuary of the Salween river.  There was no time to explore either town before nightfall, only to cross the estuary, the white and gold pagodas glinting at me from the hilltops with the last rays of the setting sun.

The opening lines of "Mandalay" tell of the soldier's "Burma girl" gazing upon the sea to the east.  It was disappointing, then, to discover that it is not possible to look eastward to the sea from any of Moulmein's pagodas: west certainly, and south at a push, but not east.

Certainly, the poem is riddled with inaccuracies: it speaks of flying fish in the Irrawaddy river (the poet's "road to Mandalay") and of the sun rising over "China 'crost the bay".  Kipling, who apparently only ever passed a few days in Burma but must surely have noted Moulmein's position on a map, put this down to the confusion of a lovelorn soldier muddling his memories with what he saw on board a troop ship crossing the Bay of Bengal.

The tall, golden Kyaikthanlan Pagoda is thought to be the one recalled by the reminiscent soldier.  Assuming that it is Kipling's pagoda, it's pretty and tranquil but a little disappointing.  On the plus side, it does form part of an impressive parade of temples and monasteries lining a hilltop ridge punctuated by palm trees.

From here the Lord Buddha in all his guises looks out to long flat plains to the east, the leafy town to the north, and Martaban across the water to the west.  The crumbling, colonial town below is rather sleepy except around the bustling jetties where smuggled goods are conspicuous on their way to and from Thailand a short distance to the east, and where bicycle-trishaw drivers energetically compete for custom among disembarking passengers.

Moulmein's temples all granted me Kipling's wind-blown palm trees and "tinkly temple bells" but I was ultimately dissatisfied by what I had seen.  None of these temples, interesting though they were, matched the romantic vision conjured by the poet.  I wondered if this feeling was merely typical of a visit made with too high expectations, but with time on my hands I crossed the estuary to Martaban where I had first arrived.

The town is smaller than its neighbour and dominated by its railway terminus and adjacent jetty.  But on a hill above the town sits a plain, white pagoda.  Unable to find the stone stairway, I scrambled up the hillside by various paths, startling children playing in the vegetation.  At the top stood the bleached, scaffolding-scarred stupa, a family of cows grazing around it.  The only sign of human life, an old, sinewy monk, tended the upper slopes with a hoe.

If I'd had any breath left after the climb, the panorama waiting for me would have taken it away.  The expanse of delta in all directions was perfectly complemented by the silence, broken only by the monk's clinking tools and the warm breezes swinging those "tinkly temple bells".  A magical afternoon soon passed before a fitting sunset brought darkness down over the eastward view.

Nobody seemed to know its name, but when I read the poem now, this for me is Kipling's pagoda.  It wasn't Moulmein really, but I could see Moulmein across the Salween surrounded by bays stretching as far as the eye could see, and the peculiar geography allowed an inlet of the sea to the east.

Now back home, I am occasionally reminded of the final lines of "Mandalay" and I too am overcome by nostalgia.  As the rain falls through the cold air outside my English window, I have an enduring sense that "the temple bells are callin', 'an it's there that I would be - by the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea".

© Nicholas White 1998