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"Katha is today, as it must have been in Orwell’s time, a fairy-tale setting. The town sits on a bank of the wide Irrawaddy river, and is surrounded on all sides by the jagged outline of distant mountain ranges. The air is laced with the crisp, fresh smell of fir trees. Decaying colonial mansions and teak houses the colour of cooking-chocolate are hidden amid a forest of mahogany trees and rose bushes … Walking through the streets of Katha is therefore an eerie experience - a bit like walking on to an abandoned stage set."

Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma


Most visitors to Katha, in Myanmar’s north, are there to trace the steps of John Flory, the protagonist in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Orwell was posted in Katha as a colonial police office from 1926 to 1927, and his novel set there (renamed Kyauktada) attacks the boozers and bores of British colonialism. Some of the buildings mentioned in Burmese Days are still standing, though currently only the Deputy Commissioner's House has been done up for the sake of tourists. Literature lovers can hover outside the old British Club (now an association office) and play a round of tennis on the club court. The decaying house of Orwell himself is situated on the main high street and is free to enter, though there is not much to see. Though Orwell remarked that Katha had barely altered from the time of Marco Polo to the arrival of the British, it has certainly changed since the country’s independence. However those who know the book intimately will still be able to spot the “chickens cheeping in wicker cages” and the “pomelos hanging on strings like green moons” as Flory describes at the vibrant local market.


Orwell in Burma


Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in India in 1903. In 1922 he moved to Myanmar, then known as Burma, to join the Indian Imperial Police. His mother had been born in Burma and his grandmother still lived in Mawlamyine, then known as Moulmein, the first capital of British Burma. After completing his training in Mandalay, Orwell was posted to a succession of places such as Myaungmya, Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin), Twante, Syriam (Thanlyin) and then finally Katha, in Burma’s Kachin State, in 1926.

In his book Burmese Days he describes the town thus:

"The native town, and the courts and the jail, were over to the right, mostly hidden in green groves of peepul trees. The spire of the pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold. Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus."

During his short time in Katha (he left Burma for good in 1927) Orwell acquired a reputation as an outsider, embarking upon ‘non-pukka’ activities such as attending the local street performances known as ‘pwe’. Orwell learnt to speak the language fluently and even got tattoos similar to those of many rural Burmese, said to protect against bullets and snake bites. Such attributes are reflected in the protagonist John Flory. Orwell came to quickly regret the part he played in the British Empire and in Burmese Days Orwell viscerally attacks the British policy in Burma and the oppression it exerted on indigenous peoples throughout the Empire in general.

It is a commonly regurgitated quip in Myanmar to say that Orwell wrote not just one novel on the county but a trilogy: the subject matter of Animal Farm and 1984 being applicable to the military coup in 1962 and the subsequent dictatorship. Orwell’s essays Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging set in Moulmein are explicitly about the colonialism in Burma and are both engrossing - even if slightly uncomfortable - reads. The next step for those whose appetite was whetted by Burmese Days, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin is a book that not only traces Orwell’s time in the country, but also uses the novel as a prism from which to analyse the effects of colonial rule in Myanmar and the subsequent military junta.


Getting to and from Katha


Many visitors to Katha come by cruise ship. One can travel south along the Ayeyarwady from Bhamo, stopping off on the way at the unfussy and rustic town of Shwego. Alternatively one may travel upstream from Kyaukmyaung, and in doing so see some of the finer landscape that the Ayeyarwady banks have to offer. There is also a 13 hour train from Mandalay.

Keen to visit the setting for Burmese Days? Have a look at the Belmond Orcaella Cruise to Bhamo which stops off at Katha.