Rangoon, Pegu, Toungoo . . . I drove all the way across Lower Burma, about two hundred and fifty miles of flat roads, without even sparing a glance for the countryside, so great was my impatience to reach the mountains. My only memory is of buffalo carts forming an uninterrupted column along the tracks reserved for them on either side of the road. The vehicles were laden with Burmans in multi-coloured sarongs, most of them fast asleep, including the driver.
Before leaving I had decided to drive in one lap into China. I had not thought of the petrol problem. Petrol stations were few and far between on the Burma Road; at night they were closed. I prudently stopped in a deserted spot, which I calculated to be about forty miles from Mandalay. I spent the night in the car, woken from time to time by the noise of a convoy of lorries.
I started off again early in the morning and reached Mandalay just as the golden pagodas were beginning to sparkle in the rising sun. I found some petrol fairly easily and, without lingering to look at the palace of the Burman emperors, at last climbed out of the plain and into the mountains, which I was not to leave again for some time.
The first impression of The Road was extraordinary – even better than I had imagined. I stopped a few miles above Mandalay which was dominated by sheer cliffs bathed in a marvellous light. In the distance I could see the immensity of the Burma Plain with its green paddy-fields bordering the Irrawaddy. The huge South-Asiatic range started abruptly at my feet and extended above my head into other loftier, more chaotic, more mysterious mountains. No film has ever given me an idea of this landscape. Nothing here resembled what I had seen in Malaya or Indo-China. The sky was bluer than the sky of Annam; the air was as sparkling as the air of Provence in spring; and the forest, which was as thick as the Malay jungle, did not exude the smell of decay characteristic of equatorial flora.
Mandalay lay at my feet: Mandalay, the town with pagodas even more dazzling than those of Rangoon; Mandalay, with its palace which housed generations of Oriental despots famous for their quarrels and the murders in which they all indulged, so much so that one day the British lion decided to come and establish a little order among them; Mandalay, whose conquest by the handsome soldiers of the Indian Army was hymned by Kipling* and which was to presently experience the Japanese invasion. The few unfortunate thousands of British soldiers defending Rangoon and the plain were soon to be driven back toward these cliffs, cross these reputedly impassable mountains, make their way to India and from there prepare for a glorious return.
*Kipling again – what dreadful colonialists we were!