Book review: Myanmar, Burma in Style, by Caroline Courtauld

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 3:59pm

Myanmar, Burma in Style: An Illustrated History and Guide
by Caroline Courtauld
Odyssey Books and Maps


Myanmar is the kind of guidebook you read before embarking on a trip, more than the kind you carry with you as a real-time reference book.

It is heavy on history and culture but light on on-the-ground specifics. For the most part, practical information such as maps, hotel, and restaurant recommendations are in the back of the book.

Still, it is a good-sized volume touching on Myanmar's major destinations and cities as well as a selection of smaller, more out-of-the-way spots. Of special interest are the "special topic" sections scattered throughout, which explore specific elements of Myanmese culture, often with the help of fascinating primary source documents.

Caroline Courtauld is a knowledgeable guide clearly in love with the country. And, barring some obnoxious turns of phrase ("The Palaung womenfolk are birds of paradise against the restful greens of their mountain jungle landscape") and an annoying tendency to repeat herself, her passion for the country and its people is contagious.

Her optimism left me, at times, sceptical: is the government really to be commended for protecting the teak forests and Yangon's colonial heritage? But, there is no denying Myanmar is entering a hopeful chapter in its history and, for the most part, Courtauld's ebullience seems well placed.

The volume is full of beautiful pictures but readers may be left yearning for even more visuals to compliment a wordy guidebook.

Shortcomings aside, Myanmar will certainly put you in the mood to travel, and won't leave you lost when you arrive. The country is obviously changing fast and Courtauld focuses on the timeless over those things that may go. The result leaves the guide feeling a bit thin in places - great for pagoda buffs, not so great for foodies, for example. Also, it is unclear whether the complete lack of information about nightlife is the fault of the author or of the country, though I would guess the latter.

Most of Courtauld's failings are justifiable when considering the challenges of writing about a destination such as the former Burma. And her guidebook is, at the time of writing this review, the most in-depth, and up-to-date guide on the country. The interesting anecdotes, obvious passion and beautiful pictures make Myanmar a pleasure to behold. But, be warned: it may cause wanderlust.