I had heard of Judyth Gregory-Smith several years before I actually met her in person. Until that time, she was only known to me as “the trishaw lady” from Australia. I don’t think Judyth has ever pedaled a trishaw in her life (she can correct me if I’m wrong!), but her association with that most Burmese of transport options was due to the fact that she had purchased a couple of trishaws for a Burmese man to start a business in Mandalay. The appreciative young man then named one of the cute three-wheeled contraptions after Judyth.
When I finally met Judyth, it was totally by chance. I had gone to the Feel Restaurant in Yangon with Ma Thanegi for lunch one day. The place was busy as usual, but amidst the throng I recognized one man, Kyar Min sitting at a corner table. The odd thing, however, was that he was a trishaw driver in Mandalay and I’d never previously seen him outside of that city. What was he doing in Yangon, I wondered? It was at that moment that I noticed that he wasn’t sitting alone, but with a Western woman. He introduced her; this was the famous Judyth! It turned out that Ma Thanegi also knew Judyth — both of them being travel writers who had trod similar paths —- but she had not met Kyar Min before. More introductions were made.
Fast forward to this year and Judyth’s fascinating new book, Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, has just been published. In this book she writes about her various experiences traveling alone around Myanmar, while gradually coming to terms with the illness and subsequent death of her husband. The book, Judyth says, traces two journeys: a geographical journey and an inner journey. The Pansodan Art Gallery in Yangon recently wrote a short review of the book on its blog, calling Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery “a well-observed account of places and people, and her deeper involvement over the course of several years of visits. This is a great book as a gift to people who want to know more about life in Myanmar in those years, whether they have been here or not, and (aside from its sobering prologue) a highly amusing and well-written book which freshens our sense of why we love this country so much, even now during the crashing monsoon and heavy weather.”
In between her country hopping (she was in Vietnam earlier this month, before making plans for another return to Myanmar) I asked Judyth about her new book and her experiences in Myanmar.
When did you visit Myanmar for the first time? And what were your initial impressions of the country?
I first visited Myanmar in 1987 with my late husband, Richard. He was on leave from his Australian government position in the embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He asked his counterpart in the embassy in Myanmar to do an itinerary for us and we visited Bagan, Mandalay, Bago and many other “must see” destinations in the two weeks’ visa that was allowed in those days. We both loved Myanmar — especially the people — and vowed to return, but over the years we went on to work in other countries and to other places on holidays. In 2003 I did return, but alone: Richard died in 2001.
At what point did you decide: “I’m going to write a book about my experiences in Myanmar”?
The first journey I took on my own, with five words of Burmese, was by train to Mawlamyine. An hour or two into the journey the train stopped. When it had been stationary more than an hour, the engine driver came to tell me why we couldn’t proceed: a train in front had tipped its load all over the track. I left the train and eventually found a truck going to Kinpun, so I visited Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock Pagoda and then found a way to get to Mawlamyine by bus. So many funny things happened on these journeys, that I thought they could be the beginning of a book on travel in Myanmar.
How long did it take you to write the book? Did you agonize over re-writes or did it flow quickly?
The book took more than seven years to write. It started life as a travel narrative, as I am a travel writer, but because of sanctions against Myanmar, no publisher was interested. Eventually, a Sydney publisher suggested I should rewrite the manuscript as a memoir. This took me 18 months. I turned my journey around Myanmar into two journeys — my geographical journey, and my interior journey as I tried to come to terms with the illness and death of Richard.
One of the people you write about in your book, Kyar Min, is someone I know also. Tell us about meeting him for the first time.
On my first overnight bus trip to Mandalay my daughter, Fiona, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yangon, asked me to telephone to tell her I’d arrived safely. This I did, but the man with the telephone on the street spoke even less English than I spoke Burmese. He hailed a trishaw man across the street who spoke English and he took me to a cyber cafe so I could work on my manuscript. The trishaw man, Kyar Min, had supported his invalid father, his mother and three siblings for ten years when I met him. I decided it was time for someone to give him some support. So he came on holiday to Australia and my generous friends helped him with cash, which he used to buy some secondhand trishaws for him to rent out. This has not been a great success, but a little sewing business that we started has done better and is growing. Kyar Min is the manager and quality control manager of the little project.
Obviously, you aren’t the typical tourist who visits Myanmar one time, says “That was nice”, and never returns. Like me, you return again and again. What keeps you going back?
The book is now published, but I return to Myanmar on my tourist visa three times a year. I go to the market with Kyar Min and the seamstresses and we buy fabric for which I pay. Then the seamstresses go off to sew. Kyar Min monitors them daily, going from house to house on his trishaw, checking that they have all they need and improving the standard of their work and. Just before my visa expires I return to each woman, collect what she has made and ask how much I owe her. I pay whatever she asks, so if my plane crashes on my way home they have at least been paid for their labor. Fortunately for them (and me!) my plane has not yet crashed! Kyar Min and the seamstresses know that whatever I sell for them when I go back to Malaysia (where I have a base) or Australia (which I visit for six weeks a year) I will take the profit (or helping money as they call it) back to them. As one person humorously pointed out I am a one-person, not-for-profit, NGO!
Things are changing quickly this year in Myanmar, perhaps too quickly. Are you optimistic about positive changes happening in the country, or do you fear the deluge of greedy developers and investors will have a negative impact?
I am optimistic about change in Myanmar as long as developers and investors employ Myanmar staff and ensure part of the profit of their endeavors goes to the people of Myanmar. I believe Myanmar cultural norms, particularly where family is concerned, will go some way to prevent negative exploitation, for example in the tourist industry.
For someone going to Myanmar for the first time, what are five “must” things they should either see or do?
They must visit the three most important Buddhist shrines in Myanmar: the Shwedagon in Yangon, the Mahamuni in Mandalay and the Golden Rock Pagoda in Kyaiktiyo. Bagan is, of course, a must, as is Mandalay.
What are some of your other favorite travel destinations? Are there any other countries that you would still like to visit?
I’ve enjoyed time in UK, Europe, Nepal, Sudan, Kenya, and Malaysia. I’d like to visit Egypt because my mother was born there. I’d like to re-visit Rome, Paris and Athens with my grandchildren, as I took my children there when they were young.
What are some other books about Myanmar, either fiction or non-fiction, that would you recommend?
Aung San Suu Kyi – Freedom from Fear
Andrew Marshall – The Trouser People
James Mawdsley – The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma
George Orwell – Burmese Days
Inge Sargent – Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess
Sir James George Scott (Shway Yoe) – The Burman: His Life and Notions
V.C. Scott O’Connor – Mandalay and other cities of the past in Burma
F. Tennyson Jesse – The Lacquer Lady
Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps
U Toke Gale – Burmese Timber Elephant
Donovan Webster – The Burma Road
Lt. Col. J.H. Williams – Elephant Bill
How can interested readers get your book?
I chose to publish Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery through Lulu Publishers in the USA. It can be bought online from Lulu, from Amazon.com, or from Barnes and Noble. There is also a Facebook page for the book: https://www.facebook.com/MyanmarJudythGregorySmith