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  • Writer's pictureLisa O'donnell

The View from Orwell's Window

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

We stood in front of a faded, 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, it 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
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 (the country is now known as Myanmar) was a significant expansion to the British Empire's finances, as it exploited the country’s abundant natural resources. Orwell’s ‘Burma experience’ was his cornerstone for developing into 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. Down below, laid out in front of us was the blueprint for Burmese Days. The church was 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!

Allied Soldiers return to St Paul's.

Our next stop was St Paul's Anglican Church. The Preacher promptly appeared from behind the building, welcoming us with a cheery wave. He led us around, recounting a time the small chapel was damaged and later rebuilt with donated funds from an Allied regiment. A gesture of thanks for the kindness the congregation had shown the soldiers during the WWII Christmas of 1944.

The Officer's Club is now a government building. The supervisor proudly accompanied us around. It's no longer located alongside the river, however, the deep grassy depression running past the back wall shows where it once flowed. The top floor was rebuilt after taking fire during WWII., and except for some antiquated electrical advancements, it's likely the only structural change in all this time. We signed the visitor's book on our way out. We were the only guests in the last 4 days.

Tennis Club Entrance

The Tennis Club was opened in 1924 and the original poles still support 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 once 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 posters of the town's, and Orwell's, stories. We wandered amongst the grazing cattle in the large compound while our guide retrieved the building key from a house across the street.

The Dept. Super Intendant's Home is now a Makeshift Museum

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 charming rural town rests on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River well north of Mandalay. Portside is a hive of activity as passenger and cargo boats filled with colorful characters come and go. The town is surrounded by picturesque farmland dotted with hand-formed haystacks. Past the jail (also referenced in the novel but still operational) at the south end of town, we chanced upon a walking track frequented by friendly locals and linking a string of riverside villages and an old teak monastery. While to the north, there's a lush towering forest where you may spy local mahouts perched ontop elephants lumbering down the road.

‘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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