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Three Pagodas Pass: A Roundabout Journey to Burma

by George Fetherling

Getting to Burma on the cheap is a formidable task. And who but a weathered adventurer could, as author George Fetherling tells it, “hitch a ride” for a few thousand nautical miles aboard a rotting ship full of inept staff and duped, miserable seniors?

Three Pagodas Pass, referring to a border pass between Burma and Thailand, is as much about the nature of travel, and the traveller, as it is about any particular place. This is largely due to Fetherling’s strong narrative voice. He is the classic adventurer, alone and brazen, tough and curious, shunning pleasures too sheltered or too easily attained. This book is at its best when that voice is front and centre.

The text, despite this voice, often lacks cohesion. With each new destination (and there are many) comes a slurry of names, dates, and places, historical and geographical, diminished by their sheer quantity and rapid-fire succession. Impressive as it is, all this background information precludes dallying at any particular place, including Burma.

In just over 150 pages Fetherling takes a swift tour of the legacy of western civilization, looking in fits and starts at the spread of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, free-market capitalism, and now tourism along the peripheries of Africa, South America, and Asia. Particular snapshots are strong: Buenos Aires, Easter Island, and Rangoon, a major Burmese city, are eloquently described, their histories succinctly mapped out. But destinations like the Falklands get bogged down in historical excess. Fetherling also occasionally lapses into an awkward travel-guide tone to describe hotels or popular destinations, the homes of Pablo Neruda in Chile for example.

Characterization is always sharp, though, revealing as much about Fetherling as the guards, travellers, and women he captures in prose. The book is also soundly plotted, with a few interesting turns and some tense moments. The section on Burma is brief and the conclusion abrupt, but Fetherling seems to be telling us that the end is not always the point of the journey.