How does Myanmar’s complicated history shape the country today? What are some of the wonderful places to visit — if tourists are able to travel again?
Jessica Mudditt talks about her experience in Myanmar, as well as facing fears around travel, and the experience of reverse culture shock on returning to Australia.
- Myanmar / Burma, and the complicated history and politics that shape the country
- Diversity of the landscape and places to visit — once tourists can visit again
- Dealing with fears when traveling — and how people are mostly wonderful, even if a country has a bad reputation
- Reverse culture shock — and how we both struggled with Australia
- Respecting local culture when traveling
- Recommended travel books about Myanmar
You can find Jessica Mudditt at JessicaMudditt.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Jessica Mudditt is an Australian freelance journalist and travel writer. Her latest book is Our Home in Myanmar: Four Years in Yangon. Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica: Hi, Jo. Thanks for having me.
Jo: I’m excited to talk to you about this.
Where is Myanmar and how did you come to live there?
Jessica: Myanmar is sandwiched between the superpowers of China and India. It’s a large country, and it’s got a lot of neighbors. It also neighbors with Thailand, Bangladesh, where I was living previously, and Laos.
There are certainly tensions in the region, and India and China caught Myanmar in different ways, which makes the geopolitical region very interesting. There’s always announcements and then there’re layers of meaning underneath these formal announcements, especially when Myanmar was moving forward and opening up to the world.
I’d always been fascinated with Myanmar, it had just captured my imagination, with Aung San Suu Kyi having been under house arrest for 15 years by the time I got there. I tried to go as a tourist but it had been too difficult because there were all these rules about flying in and flying out at the same place, it was going to be quite costly.
So, when I did my long overland backpacking trip, I ended up missing out on Myanmar. But then I was in Bangladesh, from 2009 to 2012, and I had a mutual friend who owned ‘Myanmar Times.’ So, he was actually in prison at the time and, when he came out of prison, I contacted him and said, ‘Would you mind if I came over for a trial?’ and he said, ‘sure.’ And I arrived in July, 2012.
Jo: I was just looking at the map. Yangon is near the coast.
What is the country like in terms of the landscape? Because that often shapes a country, doesn’t it?
Jessica: It does. And Myanmar is incredibly diverse. In the northernmost parts, in Kachin State, there’s snow-capped mountains, there’s spotted leopards and things like that.
And then, right down in the south, below Yangon, is an archipelago where there’s sea gypsies who can stay underwater for 2 minutes. And it’s so untouched, it’s the same latitude as Thailand’s Phuket but completely untouched; people very very rarely go there. And you can go in very costly sailing boats for a couple of days. I didn’t do that.
Yangon faces the Bay of Bengal. And, so, it’s a port city but, unfortunately, one of the errors, the many errors of the military, was to completely erase visibility of the water for most of the city. So, all you can see is cargo being loaded and offloaded, which is a real shame.
People every now and again would say, ‘Couldn’t we have a promenade or something?’ But also the dictator, Than Shwe, he actually moved the capital. So, Yangon is the de facto capital, the cultural capital, and the financial capital but the paranoid dictator became so fearful that Yangon would be invaded, I don’t know, perhaps by China or India, that he in secret built a capital on a swamp inland and then, one day, just said, ‘Okay, the capital’s moved. Everybody move.’ But even the embassies haven’t moved there because it’s an artificial city, so, people aren’t exactly rolling up to go and live there.
It’s a beautiful country. It’s really lush. Gosh, it’s so hot. And the monsoon is like nothing I have ever encountered. I would go to bed and the rain would be pounding down on the roof and I’d wake up in the morning and it would still be pounding down. You couldn’t even see individual droplets of rain, it’s just amazing. Lots of wildlife, snakes and crocodiles and beautiful birds and beautiful lush tropical flowers just growing naturally and stuff on the side of the road. It’s quite beautiful.
Jo: Yes, that kind of ‘tropical paradise with a dictator situation,’ which is interesting.
Jessica: It’s hell in paradise!
Jo: Some people might’ve heard that the name Burma as well.
What are some of these aspects of its complicated history? (Myanmar/Burma)
Because actually we met someone who said they were Burmese on a walking trip and I didn’t get into that conversation. But it does seem like Burma and ‘Burmese’ is still used, even though the country is now known as Myanmar.
Jessica: It is complicated. There’s no real right answer because both alternatives are problematic.
Burma is a colonial name and it is a corruption of the majority ethnic group, Burma. So, a lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s not representative and it’s a colonial name.’ However, the paranoid dictator changed the name of the country overnight, so, there’s a bit of a pattern in how decisions are made in a dictatorship, and said, ‘Now the name of the country is Myanmar.’
Burmese people had called their country Myanmar whenever they were speaking in the Myanmar language because…it’s too complex to go into but that is the Myanmar name. So, for the people, it wasn’t a big difference.
However, western nations, critical of the military, refused to call the country Myanmar because they said it was totally undemocratic and, ‘Why are we going to do it just because you tell us to?’ So, it is really complicated and you can sort of test the temperature of the relationship by what name the U.S. is calling Myanmar.
When Myanmar was making fantastic reforms and Obama came and visited twice, he used the word Myanmar. But then, when he was in the company of Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s a staunch burmist, he called the country Burma. Hillary Clinton, when she visited, did not call the country either Myanmar or Burma, she called it ‘the country’ in all her public speeches.
Jo: That’s so political.
Jessica: Totally prevaricating there. It’s super political, and then again, the people of Myanmar are unaware that it’s such a political hot potato in the West. So, they don’t really mind what people call the country.
You have older generations, they prefer Burma and Rangoon instead of Yangon, all those colonial names, but most young people say Myanmar. And it’s Myanmar language, Myanmar country, Myanmar people. You often hear ‘Myanmarese,’ but that’s not correct.
In my book, I chose to call the country Myanmar but the people Burmese and the language Burmese because it’s quite awkward, I think, to be referring to ‘Myanmar people,’ ‘Myanmar language’ throughout the book. But officially that’s not correct, it should’ve been, ‘Myanmar people,’ ‘Myanmar language.’
Jo: It’s so interesting. And like you mentioned, the older generations might still prefer colonialist words. And that seems to be common across some other countries as well. I was interviewing someone about India and many of the names are still used, the older names are still used. You mentioned, obviously, the colonialist influences.
Is there still architecture sort of left over from the Colonial period? What are those places like?
Jessica: Ah, it’s extraordinary. Yangon, it’s got these crumbling colonial relic buildings, many of which are serving still as the immigration department. They’re mostly government departments. And I read on the back of an architectural book about Myanmar, that Yangon is like an open-air museum.
Because the economy has stalled for half a century under dictatorship, there was no building. So, neither were they torn down or rebuilt. Whereas in, say, Vietnam, where a lot of those French colonial buildings were replaced by modern-looking apartment buildings, that has not happened in Yangon.
You can rent them, you can live in them, these incredibly beautiful but, gosh, so dodgy. You’re not allowed to own property in Myanmar if you’re a foreigner but I know some people who just fell in love and bought it in someone else’s name and would then spend so much money restoring these incredible buildings.
And there’s a couple of bars as well that have got Manchester Steel beams and things, and it’s just extraordinary. And because of the climate the paint peeled a long time ago, so, it’s sort of this grimy…I don’t know, there’s moss growing out of it, they’re dripping everywhere, the windows are cracked. There’s some beautiful photography books.
George Orwell, who famously wrote ‘Burmese Days,’ that book is about a fictionalized town but it’s based on his real experiences in then Burma. I went to the Pegu Club, which is unsafe, it’s been completely abandoned but it’s just haunting, these spiral staircases that are like creaking and half broken…and it’s just amazing. A lot of people fall in love with the architecture of Yangon.
And there is a blue plaque movement that started up just about 5 years ago to get these places protected and listed because developers do come in and a good piece of land in a good location, and they want to tear down these incredible things. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the coup, since February, if the buildings will be protected. I dare to say that nothing will happen at all probably.
Jo: I love to hear about these ruined colonial places. It sounds so romantic and, in a way, it’s weird that we find beauty in the ruins of the old British buildings. But, in a way, I can see, if they do preserve them, that that becomes quite a tourist destination.
What is the situation with tourists? Obviously, you were there as a journalist but you’ve mentioned some of the potential dangers.
Can tourists visit Myanmar?
Jessica: Right now no, because COVID is absolutely decimating the population. And Myanmar, very worryingly, could become a super spreader state. The COVID rates there are so high that, if we’re going to see a horrible variant come out of delta, it could be in Myanmar. So, for that reason alone, no.
The second reason is the political situation. There’s bombs going off almost on a daily basis. People are disappearing. An American journalist got an 11-year sentence, he was just freed today. He was just trying to catch the plane out, it is a frightening situation. You could get shot, you could get caught in crossfire. I don’t even know if they’re allowing foreigners in, they may be, there’s a tiny fraction of the expat population.
It’s tragic because Myanmar became Asia’s new travel darling. It was the hottest new place. So beautiful. The people are so wonderful. It’s convenient, it’s easy to access, it’s like a 45-minute flight from Bangkok. So, it was going great guns when I was there, and the reformers’ government was gradually allowing foreigners to go to more parts of the country that had previously been sealed off.
It was really exciting, there was a lot of sustainable tourism and you could go along the rivers and visit 2,000-year-old temples. And the military are saying that they want to restart tourism in 2022. There was an article on CNN this week about, ‘Could you do responsible tourism in Myanmar.’ But I believe the answer is no. I think most Burmese people, from what I saw on Twitter, no. The military shouldn’t be rewarded for taking over a democratically-elected government. The best thing to do right now would be to boycott it. Sadly, I so much regret I say that but I think that’s the correct position.
Jo: And, of course, that might change over time. Or, hopefully, it will change over time and it will re-emerge as a tourist destination as things change. Things change, that’s what we’ve learned, isn’t it?
Jessica: Yeah, and they can change for the worse overnight and they can change for the good just as fast. If democracy is restored, it’s game on again and it’ll be fantastic. There were so many fantastic ventures that have had to close because, as I said, any Burmese people who could leave have left, and the same goes for the expat community.
Jo: You said it was fine when you were there, but it still feels like you were traveling in places that many I guess Australians, and British people, Americans might think twice about. You mentioned Bangladesh, which also has its own challenges. What do you say to people who might be worried, not about traveling to Myanmar particularly but just in general about tackling fear?
What do you think when you consider fears around travel?
Jessica: I’m not sure what is with me, I also backpacked around Iran for a month alone and I’ve been to Israel and Palestinian territories. I’m very trusting of people and I think a country may have a bad rep but that in no way is reflective of how decent the ordinary people are.
And, actually, when I backpacked through Asia for a year and I finished up in Pakistan, those people were the most wonderful, kindest, genuine, honest people that I came across. Perhaps because there wasn’t a thriving tourism industry, nothing was transactional and it all felt really spontaneous and genuine. The occupational hazards is something that, as I get older, I look back and think, ‘Wow, you’re lucky you didn’t break something.’
I did have minor mishaps but Myanmar previously was one of the safest countries in Asia, very very low crime rate, very low violent crime as well. What you needed to be more careful of was not falling into a pothole on a dark footpath at night. Because I know that happened to people.
Or becoming violently ill because there’s some really nasty bacteria. And then, if you do get ill, there’s no medical care. So, things can turn serious very quickly and there’s rabies and malaria and typhoid diphtheria. Those kinds of things are genuine threats.
Another thing that used to terrify me in Yangon was the number of people that stepped in puddles and were electrocuted by power lines. Yeah, shocking. It’s monsoon season, you can’t go around the puddle, like the entire road is flooded. So, if you tread on a live wire, people were dying. And also road-traffic deaths because the dictator had changed the side of the road that people drive on overnight because he said, ‘The country is moving too far to the left.’
It’s insane; you couldn’t make it up. No reasons were given, but that’s one of the theories that has the most currency. However, most second-hand..well, all the cars are second-hand pretty much from Japan and they’re not meant to be driven on that side of the road. So, it’s terribly dangerous. So, those kinds of things.
But I would go out, sit at an outdoor pub and have my bag slung over the back of the chair and I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I would not do that in Sydney. But that kind of crime is almost unheard of, you have to be so unlucky.
Bangladesh, it had all those occupational hazards but it did have muggings. And towards the end, that did scare me and that was one of the reasons why I thought, ‘I think 3 years is probably enough.’ You start to feel you may be the cat with eight lives in the current city that you’re living in and not to push your luck forever.
Jo: Well, it’s interesting though because you did say that, ‘I don’t know what’s with me, I backpacked in Iran,’ and things like this. Have you thought about what is it that makes you different? Obviously, you said you have experienced fear.
Is there something in your background or just your personality that makes you able to do these things, especially as a solo female traveler?
Jessica: Well, ironically, I grew up in the safest suburb of Australia, statistically, by the level of crime. I don’t think there’s ever been a crime in my one-traffic-light town. So, it’s funny but I was always restless and I always wanted to see the world.
I take it incrementally. I started in Cambodia and Lao and Vietnam. But then someone said, ‘Oh you’re doing the Banana Pancake Trail. This is where all the backpackers go.’ And I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to China.’ So, I went to China and funnily enough, no one could speak English and I was so lost and so overwhelmed. But, eventually, I was like, ‘I can do this. Okay, I’ll do Nepal. I’ll do India. I’ll do Pakistan.’
After I arrived in the UK, I was like, ‘I’m quite close to Iran. I think I could do that.’ I was a bit scared before I went. But it was incredible, and the people were completely amazing. I’m so curious about people and I’m very optimistic and I think the best of people.
I’m actually gullible, it’s a hazard. But it doesn’t seem to stop me going to places. Once you start to get the feel of a region, like South Asia, I wanted to fill in the blanks. So, that was one reason why I went to Bangladesh because I’d been to almost all the other South Asian countries. So, it was familiar but also, yeah, I was very curious to see what that was like, as a nation.
Jo: Yes, that combination between restlessness and curiosity. I think that drives us as people who want to travel.
You’re Australian, and you said, when you returned, you suffered reverse culture shock. What do you mean by that?
Jessica: Oh, it was terrible. I’ve been away for 10 years and I’d spent 7 of the 10 years in 2 of the world’s poorest countries. But, at the same time, while I’d lived in Myanmar, I was a cross-cultural consultant.
So, for all the expats having quite strong culture shock coming to Myanmar, I would have sessions with them to sort of ease them in. I knew that I might get reverse culture shock because it was something I coached other people on. But it hit me really badly, partly because the move was so abrupt and I didn’t feel it was really my choice.
I had insomnia, I had nightmares. I was depressed and anxious. I would walk into supermarkets and just be overwhelmed by how much food there was and the prices were out of this world to me. And I’d just leave, I couldn’t even decide what to buy.
And I had to start from zero again. I got a job in a retail store. I flipped my CV from when I was 14 and was pushing the trolley down to the garbage section with all the cardboard boxes and stuff like that. So, it wasn’t as though I sort of slid in and was being a journalist again, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
People talking English, that spun me out because I’d be on public transport and I’d be able to hear every single word of the couple behind me. And I was like, ‘I think I prefer not understanding.’
And physically as well. Sydney has these incredible blue skies that seem to go on forever. I was used to thunder clouds and humidity, really thick humidity. The footpaths here, I could’ve licked them they were so clean and everyone’s shoes were so perfect and everyone just seemed so rich.
Perspective is really different in a developed nation. In Myanmar, people are really stoic and they don’t complain, they sort of get on with the most unfathomable difficulties. But in Australia, people…I don’t know, people whinge. Do they?
Jo: Yeah, they do!
Jessica: I’m now a whinger. I think I’ve melted back into my old ways. I mean maybe I’m not quite the same, I like to think I do have perspective, but it’s a real shock to the system. Because you don’t know which way is up, you’re like, ‘Well, what is the correct perspective?’ because these two perspectives are wildly different. ‘What do I believe?’
Over time, I did see a psychologist about it, she said I had a cultural adjustment disorder. I had a few sessions, started to sleep a bit better, started doing some journalism again, just freelance, bits and pieces. Then I started dreaming about sharks and crocodiles and all these like really Aussie, iconic things. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’m getting better.’
I was glad as well to have left some of the stresses of Myanmar, which was I had a very precarious existence, so did my husband from Bangladesh. It does take its toll on your well-being after some time. So, there were pluses and minuses I guess. Now I’m really happy. I’m really happy to be in Sydney. But, gosh, I can’t wait to be able to travel again when this pandemic’s over.
Jo: Thank you for talking about that, it’s so important to be able to recognize the good and bad in your culture and also where you fit and where you don’t fit.
I have a New Zealand passport, I lived in New Zealand for 5 years, I lived in Australia for 5 years, and I have moved back to the UK after a decade. I now understand why I feel English and I don’t feel Scottish, for example, and I don’t feel Irish or Welsh.
I feel absolutely English, and there are good and bad things about that. But it’s almost like, by living somewhere else…and, obviously, living in Australia for me was not like living in Myanmar for you, but I learned things and I was like, ‘You know what? I can’t live here, I can’t live in Australia. This is not my culture.’ Even though many people would think it’s quite similar. It’s strange, isn’t it, that feeling?
Jessica: Yes. I know this from my cross-cultural training is that, in your situation, you can have a more difficult time because the expectations on you are so much higher to fit in. So, you arrive and people don’t even realize that you’re not, you know, from…you were in Brisbane I think?
Jo: Yeah, I was in Brisbane and I lived in Sydney. All over the place, really.
Jessica: People would just be like, ‘Well, she’s from Brisbane.’ And then, when you don’t understand, people sort of look at you aghast and so you can have really interesting interactions, as you probably did.
And your expectations of yourself can also be, ‘Why am I struggling with this?’ And then, by the time you go, ‘No, this is not for me,’ you’ve probably gone through quite a lot of those disjointed feelings, that fish-out-of-water type feeling. It can be uncomfortable. Can’t it?
Jo: Yes, even just sometimes there’s little things like body language or in England, we have a lot of subtext when we’ll say something, we mean something else. And I think I just assumed in Australia that people would understand what I meant when I said something. But Aussies are very direct, a lot more direct.
Jessica: Yes, terribly direct. I would struggle when I would go to, I don’t know, a fuel station or something and the guy there would like chat to me. Like really chat to me about who knows what. And I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ I would be averting my eyes.
I was used to, in Asia, in a more crowded environment, you keep your eyes down cast, you don’t strike up chitchat with some man. I think I became a little bit more modest, which is pretty funny.
Elevators as well. Aussies will think the time is right to talk about dogs and a cricket or whatever. And it took me a long time to be okay with that, let alone initiate it. Sometimes the subtle differences are the ones that hit you the hardest, I think.
Jo: Absolutely. Now, it’s interesting though, you mentioned averting your eyes and being modest, this is something I think is really important. Even as independent women traveling, as Western women, we still need to travel sensitively and respect other people’s cultures.
What other things did you do when you traveled around in Asia that you wouldn’t do in Australia?
Jessica: A head covering, for example, in Bangladesh. Not all the time but if I was out on the street and I was on a rickshaw, because I have red hair, well, it’s dyed red, from behind, I would get so much attention because there’s such a tiny expat community and there could be 70 young men like staring at me in a group. Which can be quite overwhelming.
So, it was easier for me if I was traveling to work or something, I’d just pop a headscarf on. Because, at least from behind, no one would think that I was from anywhere else. And you cover your legs all the time. The idea of wearing shorts…my husband, Sherpa, he struggled to wear shorts in Myanmar. He wears shorts now, in Australia, but men don’t wear shorts in South Asia. So, he was really uncomfortable with that.
And we never had any public displays of affection because that is not acceptable. It’s okay for two men to cross the street holding hands or give each other a brotherly hug or something but not men and women. And the same in Myanmar; you’ll see couples like canoodling under parasols and things like that. It’s a very modest place.
Because the fashions were changing when I was there, there were some men who felt that women shouldn’t show their ankles and there were some girls who were starting to wear cut-off denim shorts. So, there was like the tension between parents and kids. It was like the 60s were kicking off, in a way. So, it was really interesting to see that.
Even Australians are loud and we swear…not aggressively always, but people in Myanmar are very quiet, they have this graceful reserve to them. And even facial expressions, in a way, you have to read people a little bit more closely, like people are often smiling, but the smile can have all different meanings.
So, there’s all these kinds of things that I think you pick up on when you live abroad. I remember in India, I was in India for 6 months, and when I got to Goa the touristy part, and there were all these girls in bikinis, I was offended by that. I was like, ‘Put your clothes on. What are you doing?’ You can very quickly become used to what your day-to-day life is like. Don’t you think?
Jo: Absolutely. It’s very much that way. Even though I think British people are compared to Australians, we don’t take our clothes off like the Aussies.
Jessica: We really take our clothes off!
Jo: I want to come back on you mentioned men holding hands. And just for people listening, if they don’t know, you’re not implying that they are gay. That’s actually what men do in a lot of cultures, in Asia, also the Middle East. Men holding hands is a friendship thing, not a homosexual thing.
Jessica: Because homosexuality is sadly illegal in strict Muslim countries, of which Bangladesh is one. Really quite terrible things happen to homosexual men. The holding hands is really friendship. It’s funny, I didn’t see it as much between women but men really very commonly…but it’s the way I think of it is, brotherly, it’s just that physical affection.
I had an Australian male friend come and I said to him like, ‘If my friend holds your hand, don’t be shocked, just to hold his hand back.’ Simon, he thought that was really cool actually. And it did happen. Because, especially people, when they’re warming up to you, it’s the way we might like rub your shoulder or something affectionately. I think it’s really sweet, I really liked that.
Jo: I like it too but I remember, when I also worked on the west bank of Israel/ Palestine, and I remember being quite shocked about the friendship between men, the physicalness between men that just wasn’t between men and women even, as you say, it’s all about modesty. These little cultural things that are just so different but a part of normal life.
I do want to ask you about the religious side because, when I was looking at pictures of Myanmar, there are some incredible temples.
Could you talk a bit about the religious side and any temples you visited that were incredible?
Jessica: Yangon has the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is, in terms of a landmark for a city, it just knocks all the others out of the park for me. It’s this enormous 2,000-year-old gold leaf temple that has relics of the Buddha. I think it has Buddha’s tooth in it or something. And Buddhist pilgrims come from all over the world to go to this temple.
It’s so alive, every day it is bustling with people coming. It changes color throughout the day, so at dawn, it’s incredibly dramatic and there’ll be monks going around in their saffron robes offering arms and that kind of thing. And then, at sunset, people will light candles and incense and ring bells.
Families go there, it really is a destination of itself, you see people, families, sitting down. It’s absolutely enormous. Wherever you are in Yangon, you can see it. And then, at night, if you’re out having a drink at a beautiful rooftop bar, and you can see this glittering gold bell-shaped temple. It’s magical.
There are so many temples across Myanmar, they’re so common, they’re as common as a playground would be in suburban Sydney. They look quite similar, they follow a very similar architectural design, but then you also have Hindu temples and you have Chinese temples. There’s some beautiful mosques as well.
These are very old buildings. There’s a synagogue as well. If you go to Bagan, which is in the very hot dry inland, there are temples that are at least 2,000-years-old and they’re spread across the most enormous area. You can go and you could spend weeks looking at these temples.
Sherpa and I got electric bicycles. You can take an oxen cart or a horse cart or something. And we just looked at these extraordinary temples. In terms of material for your books, Jo, you’d be beside yourself and there’s no one else around, it’s just like you and a bat in this temple. And then you go inside and there’s these enormous Buddhas.
I don’t know, how did they even get them in? No, it doesn’t make sense. They’re as tall as two buses, golden Buddhas staring down at you. And again, Bagan is still an active place of worship. There’s a much lower population there. But there are people in there praying. This is a tradition that’s gone on for however many thousand years, people aren’t even really sure. It’s pretty magical.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is absolutely stunning but there’s so much development around that and there’s a real industry. So you never get the temples to yourself or feel like you can really have the piece and really take it all in in an undisturbed way. But Bagan is something entirely.
If tourism resumes to Myanmar, I would just say to anyone listening, ‘Get yourself there.’ You can take a hot-air balloon over the planes. And the mists come up in the afternoon and it’s stunning. Because it’s a savannah, so, the temples come up out of that, it’s very very beautiful.
Jo: Again, I just love these places. And the pictures I was looking at, as you say, I was like, ‘Oh, I really must go there.’
Jessica: So tempting. It’s wonderful.
Jo: What are a few books that you recommend about Myanmar and/or travel in general?
Jessica: There’s some fantastic books on Myanmar, my favorite is Burmese Days by George Orwell because he’s my favorite author in the world. And that takes you back to colonial Burma. It will give you an incredible insight into the really complicated and some of the nasty aspects of society that have the divisions endured today. And it’s very powerfully written.
Then, linked to George Orwell, my second favorite is Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin. She writes under a pseudonym. This book is now about 20-years-old. She went very secretively on these very short trips and she was followed. This was when tourism was not a thing in Myanmar. She spoke to people, normal people, and asked them about their lives. And, as she did that, she was retracing all the places that George Orwell lived. So, because he was in Burma as a member of the Imperial Forces. It’s fascinating.
My third favorite is a memoir called From the Land of Green Ghosts, and it’s by Pascal Khoo Thwe. And he’s a member of the Padaung tribe. He lived in a village so remote that his village did not find out that man had gone to the Moon or that Elvis had died until 1977.
He ended up studying in Oxford, he is a genius, but his story is just remarkable. The women of his tribe, like his mothers, they wear gold rings around their necks to elongate their rib cage. They are called ‘the giraffe women.’ Apparently, it was so that tigers didn’t bite them and kill them and drag them away. But it’s sort of mystical, it’s almost hard to believe that it’s true, this memoir, it’s so beautifully written as well.
My fourth and final recommendation is The Hidden History of Burma by Thant Myint-U. His father was the general secretary of the UN and oversaw the Cuban missile crisis. And the author’s insights into Myanmar are from that really high-level…and he goes way way back to ancient history, and he takes you right from the beginning and then leads you all the way through. It’s quite a dense book but if what you want is the important facts about Myanmar and insights from someone who’s struggling both cultures, that’s an excellent book.
There are so many books that I could name that I love about Myanmar. Because it’s such a complicated country that a lot of the books are really sad and they’re written by former political prisoners. But they’re so powerful and so inspiring. I always finished every book that I started on Myanmar, even if it was hard-going. So, yeah, there’s some great stuff out there.
Jo: Fantastic. Where can people find you and your books online?
Jessica: I only have one book. I have Our Home in Myanmar but I’m working to correct that as we speak. Our Home in Myanmar is on all the retailers, if you just put it into Google.
I have a website, which is jessicamudditt.com. And that’s got links to the retailers as well. So, that’s where you’ll find me. And all the usual Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Jessica Mudditt is my handle on all of those.
Jo: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Jessica. That was great.
Jessica: Thank you so much. I loved talking to you.