Updated: May 28
We stood in front of a chocolate-colored two-story teak residence. Set well back from the road, there were a few rickety additions to it, including a lean-to carport attached to one side. However, the decorative fretwork and shaped balustrades we considered, as probably original. Could this really be George Orwell’s home from back in 1926 where the plot of his iconic book, Burmese Days, was conceived? …Yes! We were assured by our local guide that it most likely was. And it was located just a short stroll from our hotel!
The Local Police Chief now lives in the downstairs of what was once Orwell's quarters
Orwell was stationed in Katha (Katha's name was changed to Kyauktadah in the book) as a British officer in the Indian Imperial Police Force. Between the 1800s and early 1900s Britain’s occupation of Burma was a significant expansion to the British Empire's finances, as it exploited the country’s abundant natural resources. Orwell’s ‘Burma experience’ was the cornerstone to him becoming a literary and political dissident, with a lifelong motivation opposing imperialism.
We climbed the external stairs to the top floor of the quarters because downstairs is now home to the local police chief and his family. The space was dank and empty but my imagination kicked in and filled the visual gaps with descriptive scenes from the book. Like Flory’s bedroom, 'there was no ceiling, but only rafters'. And while there were no sparrows nesting during our visit, there was plenty of bird-poo around.
Our guide led us through the open doorway of a side room and over to the north-facing window. Laid out in front of us was the Burmese Days blueprint. The church; just a few doors up. The Officer's Club, behind the trees and one block over towards the river. Out-of-sight but nearby, the Tennis Court and the Deputy Super Intendant's home. This had to be the view through Orwell’s window!
Our next stop was St Paul's Anglican Church where the Preacher promptly appeared from behind the building to welcome us. He showed us through and recounted a time the small chapel was damaged and later rebuilt with donated funds from an Allied regiment, as thanks for the kindness the congregation showed the soldiers during the WWII Christmas of 1944.
Now a government building, the supervisor proudly showed us through The Officer's Club. The top floor was rebuilt after taking fire during WWII and it's no longer on the bank of the river. However, the grassy deep depression running past the back-wall shows where it once flowed. On our way out, we signed the visitor's book. We were the only ones in the last 4 days.
The Tennis Club was opened in 1924 and still has the original poles holding up the net. The caretaker was fast asleep in his chair when we wandered through, but apparently, he is a tennis coach, all be it underworked! There was a random collection of tennis rackets on hand if we'd fancied a historical hit-out.
We finished our morning tour at what was the British Deputy Superintendent’s home. Probably the grandest building in town, it was repurposed for decades as a government office. Only recently it was turned into a make-shift museum displaying old photos and information posters of the town's, and Orwell's, stories. We wandered the large compound amongst the grazing cattle while our guide retrieved the building key from a house across the street.
The Dept. Super Intendant's Home is now a Makeshift Museum
Orwell and Colonial history aside, we easily filled a couple of days exploring Katha. The picturesque, rural town rests on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River well north of Mandalay. Portside is a hub for passenger and cargo boats and filled with activity and colorful characters. The town is surrounded by picturesque farmland dotted with hand-formed haystacks. Past the gaol to the south of town (also referenced in the novel but still operational), a walking track links traditional riverside villages with friendly locals and old teak monasteries. While to the north along the main road is a tall, lush forest where you may spy local mahouts perched ontop of lumbering elephants.
‘Beauty is meaningless until it is shared’, thought Flory of the forest’s natural beauty near Kyauktadah. Today, whether you’re a WWII buff, a traveler with a keen sense of the intrepid, or an Orwellian devotee, Katha is a unique and captivating riverside district that should be shared.
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