This is kind of a personal one for me.
In the Second World War, my grandad’s brother was killed in Burma, and buried there. Now, 70 years later, I happened to be passing through the region and decided to find out where his grave is and to make the journey.
After some research, I found Corporal Ronald Harry Duffield, of the Royal Berkshires’ 1st Batallion, “Son of Harry and Amy Duffield, of Polegate, Sussex” in the roll of honour for Taukkyan War Cemetery. He was there. Plot 17, row J, grave 16.
After the war, Burma entered into a long period of instability and unrest. Taukkyan War Cemetery was created in 1951 by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to consolidate graves from a number of civil, cantonment and battlefield cemeteries around the country, as well as roadside graves and isolated jungle spots, when it became clear they could not be otherwise looked after. At this point, Ron would have been relocated from a battlefield cemetery in Mandalay.
I was surprised to find that the Taukkyan War Cemetery was the most highly-rated of all “attractions in Yangon (Rangoon)” on TripAdvisor (now second, after the golden Shwedagon Pagoda) but I suppose this could be for a few reasons. Maybe Yangon is completely bereft of things to do, but I now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. More plausible is that, with the political situation in Myanmar in recent years and the subsequent difficulties for those wanting to travel the country, the majority of foreign tourists were put off, unless of course they had a very good reason…like visiting the grave of a loved one.
Also, it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d give a bad review to, is it?
How to Get to the Taukkyan War Cemetery?
Taukkyan is a township just North of Yangon – less than 20 miles, I think – on the main Pyay Road, PY1.
To get there, I took a local bus from the corner of Anawratha Road and Phone Gyi Street (between 12th and 13th) to the junction of Insein Road and Pyay for 200 Kyat (12 pence) then walked through the local neighbourhood that lies between the two and picked up a lain ka (shared pick-up; songthaew in Thailand and Laos) to Taukkyan for 500.
As with almost everywhere in Myanmar, you’ll get a lot of attention from the locals. Many of the women and even some of the men wore a kind of yellow face paint smeared on their cheeks.
The woman next to me on the cramped pick-up threw up in the heat. When she got off and the driver tried to get me to move up, I just shook my head. Everyone on the bus could see why, but the driver – standing outside – couldn’t see the milky-white vomit. While angrily gesturing to me where I should sit, he ended up putting his hand in it. Then he understood.
When you arrive in Taukkyan, don’t do what I did, which, when I couldn’t see any sign of the cemetery, was to ask directions from a taxi driver, who said (as they all do in these parts) that he knew where it was and could take me for 1000. He drove me (in his non-air-conditioned cab, sporadically hocking and spitting blood-red liquid into a rancid-smelling plastic bottle filled with what looked like melted chocolate, but was actually the remains of chewing tobacco or tea leaves) out into the countryside - through a toll booth - for half an hour or so, at which point I was getting pretty skeptical and asked again. He assured me that, yes, he knew where it was, only to pull over two minutes down the road to make some calls. He eventually put me on the phone to someone and what followed was a series of exchanges to the effect of:
“What? Where? We don’t know what that place is.”
And then when they did figure it out:
“Oh, my friend has made a mistake. It is actually the other way…very far. You will have to pay him 20,000 Kyat to take you there.”
He wanted 10,000 just to go back and, when I said no, tried to leave me in the middle of nowhere to find another ride. I refused to get out of the car until he took me back to where he’d picked me up – prepared to trash his cab and come to blows if necessary - and thus followed a tense, silent, 40 minute drive back the way we’d come.
When we got back to Taukkyan, I asked to be dropped off immediately, but he insisted on driving me another 30 seconds round the corner, where the cemetery miraculously came into view. I realised it was almost certainly a scam. He’d known exactly where it was the whole time.
He asked for 8000, then 5000. I gave him what I’d seen him hand over for tolls and a meager estimate for fuel and I told him to fuck off.
So, anyway, the cemetery is directly next to the village, just back on the road from Yangon, on the right as you come in. I’d have seen it on the way, but for the packed pick-up and the fact that I’d been sitting on the left-hand side.
I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that Burmese people are dicks. They’re lovely. He was the only one.
The cemetery is such a peaceful place and so incredibly well-maintained that it seems to be a favoured hangout for the locals. One or two families picnicked in the grass, couples lounged romantically amongst the graves and children played nearby. At least Ron has plenty of company, I thought.
One kid came up to me and asked if he could have some water. (I was carrying the last of a 5 litre container.) I downed all I needed and gave him the bottle with the rest. He thanked me and ran off with it, content.
Later his friends came up to me and apologised for him, saying he was crazy sometimes.
Taukkyan is the biggest of the three war cemeteries in Myanmar. It is currently home to:
- 6,374 Commonwealth graves from World War Two (867 of which are unidentified)
- 52 from World War One
- The “Rangoon Memorial” to almost 27,000 with no known grave
- The “Taukkyan Cremation Memorial” for over 1,000 servicemen who were cremated according to their faith
- The “Taukkyan Memorial” for 45 whose graves couldn’t be maintained
I located the plot and, as I grew close, had to gulp down the suspense that seemed to gather in my throat.
I’m not usually effected by sentimental things like this, but as I reached the grave I couldn’t help but feel something.
I took off my shoes and socks as a mark of respect (as is the custom here in Myanmar and other Asian nations) and sat in the soft grass beside the grave.
Here I was, less than six feet from a man I’d never met but who’d shared my blood and had known my grandad in his youth just as I’ve known my grandad in my youth…six decades later.
I should have been more moved than I was, but it’s hard to feel sad in such a pleasant setting. All things considered, Ron has found an ideal resting place in the end.
Ron & Pa
I don’t know much about my great-uncle Ron. I do know that they grew up together in London’s East End and that my grandad, Pa, once threw sticky orange juice down Ron’s back while he was driving, then the war broke out, and he never got the chance to apologise. Ever since then, he and Hen (my grandma) have lived by a “no regrets” rule – any dispute is resolved that day before bed, no ill-feeling is allowed to continue into another day (because you never know if you’ll get one) – and that’s the system by which they raised their three boys (my dad and uncles) and which I believe has filtered through to me.
Pa never saw his brother again.
One night, when stationed somewhere and put on night watch duty, he happened to take a look at the roster and see that his brother had been there just the night before.
Ron was killed in the battle of Fort Dufferin, on 15th March 1945, just a few months before the end of the war.
He was 24 – two years younger than I am now.
Mandalay Palace (formerly Fort Dufferin), Mandalay
Mandalay Palace (originally Mya Nan San Kyaw (meaning “the Famed, Royal, Emerald Palace”) and renamed Fort Dufferin under British rule) was built in Mandalay by King Mindon when he founded Mandalay in 1857.
It served as the royal residence of Mindon, and later King Thibaw – the last two kings of Burma – until the Third Anglo-Burmese War, when the British took control of Burma, captured the royal family and renamed the palace Fort Dufferin.
The palace was almost completely destroyed in the war, with the exception of only the watchtower and the royal mint (the birthplace of the first Burmese coin and used as a bakery for British troops). It was rebuilt in the ’90s and I was lucky enough to visit while in Mandalay.
A Happy Ending
After the war, Pa stepped off a train in Polegate – a small town in the South East of England, that he’d never been to or even heard of before, but where his family had moved while he was at war in North Africa, the Balkans, Brindisi… – and here he met Hen, started the family I grew up with and they’re still there today, happily married.