From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey


In 1988, Dr. John Casey, a professor visiting Burma, meets a waiter in Mandalay with a passion for the works of James Joyce, and the encounter changes both their lives.

Pascal, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, was the first member of his community to study English at a university. Within months of his meeting with Dr. Casey, Pascal's world lay in ruins. Burma's military dictatorship forces him to sacrifice his studies, and the regime's brutal armed forces murder his lover. ...

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In 1988, Dr. John Casey, a professor visiting Burma, meets a waiter in Mandalay with a passion for the works of James Joyce, and the encounter changes both their lives.

Pascal, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, was the first member of his community to study English at a university. Within months of his meeting with Dr. Casey, Pascal's world lay in ruins. Burma's military dictatorship forces him to sacrifice his studies, and the regime's brutal armed forces murder his lover. Fleeing to the jungle, he becomes a guerrilla fighter in the life-or-death struggle against the government. In desperation, he writes a letter to the Englishman he met in Mandalay.

Miraculously reaching its destination, the letter leads to Pascal's rescue and his enrollment in Cambridge University, where he is the first Burmese tribesman ever to attend.

From the Land of Green Ghosts unforgettably evokes the realities of life in modern-day Burma and one man's long journey to freedom despite almost unimaginable odds.

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Editorial Reviews

Nien Chang
“A page-turner…deeply moving, beautifully written, and most inspiring. My heart was filled with joy and gratitude.”
Mail on Sunday
“A magical story, full of richness and subtlety, told with the instinctive touch of a true writer.”
Seattle Times
“Unique as much for the riveting story it tells as for the sublime way it is told.“
New York Times Book Review
“[A] writer of uncommon elegance and sensitivity.”
Financial Times
“A political statement as well as a poetic lament, the book is a true work of art.”
Sunday Telegraph
“Rich, vivid and never..cloying...a marvelous book, full of pity, yearning and wisdom.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“The best memoir you will read this year.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“The best memoir you will read this year.”
Sunday Telegraph
“Rich, vivid and never..cloying...a marvelous book, full of pity, yearning and wisdom.”
Financial Times
“A political statement as well as a poetic lament, the book is a true work of art.”
New York Times Book Review
“[A] writer of uncommon elegance and sensitivity.”
Seattle Times
“Unique as much for the riveting story it tells as for the sublime way it is told.“
Mail on Sunday
“A magical story, full of richness and subtlety, told with the instinctive touch of a true writer.”
Publishers Weekly
Khoo Thwe, born in 1967, debuts with a remarkable portrait of his childhood in Phekhon, "the only Catholic town in Burma," among the Padaung people, a subtribe of the Karenni "known for what outsiders call our `giraffe women' because of their necks being elongated by rings." Modernity seeps into Phekhon slowly-only in 1977 did the locals learn, along with news of Elvis's death, that Americans had landed on the moon. The Catholic and animist fables that the author and his 10 siblings live by would be the emblems of a fairy tale life were it not for the violence and economic crises of the dictatorship of General U Ne Win. Khoo Thwe enters Mandalay University during the years when thousands of student activists were killed or imprisoned by the government. A charismatic student organizer, he is forced in 1988 to flee with fellow students to the jungles on the border of Thailand, where a stay with a Karenni rebel group makes him realize they too were "more interested in claiming leadership than in actually giving lead." But while a student, the author, working as a waiter, met John Casey, a Cambridge don who organized a miraculous rescue of the young man. Khoo Thwe's story ends with his studying English literature at Caius College, Cambridge. It is a heartbreaking tale-he is not able to return to Burma and only meets his family at the Thai border for a few hours years later-told with lyricism, affection and insight. Line illus. (Nov. 1) Forecast: This appeared to rave notices in England and is poised to do the same in the U.S. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Incisively told, remarkable story of a long journey from the hills of Burma to Cambridge University, from a young Burmese man now living in Britain. Born in 1967, Pascal is a member of the Padaung, a mountain tribe with its own language and customs, its religion a mixture of animism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. Living on the edge of the jungle, the tribe members farm and hunt. Pascal's father was a veterinarian who prospered until the so-called Socialist-Nationalist Ne Win set up a one-party state and transformed Burma, once a rich country, into one of the poorest. Pascal details that political history and offers vivid portraits of daily and family life as he records his early school years, his time in seminary, then his decision at 17 to leave and study English at the university in Mandalay. There, conditions and teaching were abysmal: 150 students often had to share a single copy of a book. To pay his fees, he waited tables at a Chinese restaurant, where his conversation about James Joyce with some English visitors led to his meeting, in 1988, their friend from Cambridge, Dr. Casey. Shortly thereafter, the government began ruthlessly eradicating all dissent. Moe, the girl Pascal loved, was jailed, then died in prison, and monks and students were brutally massacred. Previously apolitical, Pascal became deeply involved, and, when sought by the authorities, left his family. Enduring countless hardships, he headed with companions through the mountainous jungle to the rebel-held area on the Thai border. There, despairing of being able to change the situation in Burma, he wrote to Dr. Casey, who arranged for him to travel to Cambridge in 1989 and study English literature. Pascal's English wasnot good, he was often lonely and homesick, but he persevered, graduating in 1994. A distinguished accomplishment that radiates both intelligence and spiritual awareness. Informative and moving. (line illustrations, b&w photos)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060505233
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/2/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 399,314
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Pascal Khoo Thwe was born in 1967 in a remote part of Burma's Shan States. In 1989 he left for England and studied English at Cambridge University. He now lives in London. This is his first book.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Pt. 1 Idyll of the Tribe
Prologue: Imagined Journeys 3
1 The Goddess of Creation 7
2 Grandfather's Domain 20
3 Learning to Love the General 44
4 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Padaung 51
5 Death of a Footballer 65
6 Hunters and Hunted 76
7 The Shaking of the Dead 83
8 A Spoiled Priest 95
9 To the Land of Green Ghosts 108
Pt. 2 Revolution and Flight
10 'Never, Never Argue' 117
11 Moe 128
12 Worth Only One Bullet 136
13 By Courtesy of James Joyce 146
14 The Whirlwind: Moe's Fate 155
15 SLORC 168
16 The Reluctant Flight 178
17 The Great River at Last 189
18 With the Rebels 198
19 Guns and Ghosts 205
20 'Like Alcestis from the Grave' 214
21 Staying Alive 222
22 An Impossible Hope 231
23 Talking to the Enemy 236
Pt. 3 Rescue
24 Defeat: Escape into Thailand 247
25 The Rescue 256
26 Learning Words of Civility 268
27 Gate of Humility: Cambridge 272
28 Reunions with Old Ghosts - and a Farewell 285
29 Gate of Honour: Graduation 290
Epilogue 294
Index 297
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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Goddess of Creation

'Beautiful goddess of creation, help me find the source of spring.'
My Grandmother's mantra before starting her stories

Genesis According to my Grandmothers

'My ancestors told me it was after the beginning,' said my grandmother, Mu Tha, adjusting her head on the log she was using as a pillow. Her brass neck-rings gleamed in the candlelight. The rings were fourteen inches high and rose to her head as though they were supporting a pagoda stupa. Hanging from her ears and neck were several silver chains holding coins and charms. The holes in her earlobes were big enough to put a bottle cork in. We sat at her feet massaging her legs and shoulders as we listened to the story.

'The male and female winds were blowing through space, but the female wind was pregnant and could not keep up with the male. The male wind circled her until she gave birth to a golden egg, from which emerged the goddess of creation with her children. Sitting on the empty shell of the egg, the goddess watched the faraway stars coming into existence. They appeared in the deep blue-black sky like tiny but brilliantly luminous red, white and yellow flowers, their petals falling to the ground in a gale, filling the firmament.

'The goddess ordered the clouds to produce another world. They formed a sphere which turned into the earth. She created a monkey and ordered it down to the earth to test whether it was solid. The creature descended to earth but was too cowardly to tread on it. Returning to the goddess he lied, and said that he had tested the earth and that it was firm enough for her children to live on. Shecursed him and decreed that monkeys would never sleep on the ground -- and to this day they never do.

'The goddess then created a warbler, and gave it the same orders. The warbler descended and hopped on every quarter of the earth to test its strength. It returned to the goddess and reported that the surface was indeed strong enough to support her children. The warbler was rewarded with a six-month sojourn in heaven every year. That is why we see warblers only six months in each year.

'After many years living on lower earth, human beings became discontented. They wanted to enter middle earth. A huge boulder which they could neither move nor destroy separated middle from lower earth. The goddess piled charcoals that burned with a heavenly intensity around the boulder, causing it to disintegrate. Horses and elephants came to help men clear away the resulting debris, and as they laboured in their task, they broke their horns. The elephants transferred their broken horns to each side of their mouths, creating tusks. The horses grafted theirs onto a tree, where they became mangoes. So the horses lost their horns for ever.

'So human beings and animals got to middle earth together and in amity. But the humans, overcome with hubris, began to forget the language of the animals who had been their helpers and killed them for food. The humans then forgot even their own common language, so they split into disparate peoples and were scattered throughout the world.

'That is how human beings lost paradise and were condemned to be wanderers over the face of the earth.'

All the time she was speaking, Grandma chewed betel nuts, and at every opportune pause in the story she spat out an old nut and began chewing a new one. Our grandmothers, Mu Wye, Mu Kya, Mu Tha and Mu Shant, were oracles and educators of our family in the traditions and way of life of the tribe. (We thought of them all as 'grandmothers' according to our traditions. Mu Wye was the wife of my paternal grandfather, La Pen, head of the tribe -- or of our clan, which was the largest of the Padaung clans. Mu Kya was married to 'grandpa' Nauk, La Pen's brother; Mu Tha was Mu Wye's sister; and Mu Shant was Mu Wye's cousin. They all had the status of grandmothers.) To us children they were by far the most powerful goddesses of the clan. Even their husbands consented to their absolute rule in domestic affairs. Mu Kya and Mu Tha had worn the neck-rings most of their lives, but gave them up in old age. They looked to us like mythical creatures, half-human and half-bird -- and yet it never occurred to us that the Padaung were different from other people. That we were descended from a 'zawgyi' - a male creature, half human and half angel -- and a beautiful female dragon did not seem odd, merely a source of pride. Our supernatural origins were also revealed in the klong, or 'drums of desire' (which we also called 'frog-drums') that were beaten on solemn and auspicious occasions. These had been bequeathed to the tribe by a supernatural being, called 'Big Ball' from his most obvious feature. He was a mischievous creature who delighted in destroying our trees. One of our farmers captured him by seizing him by the testicle with a pair of bamboo tongs. He obtained his release by promising to leave our trees alone in future, and endowing the Padaung and our cousin tribes with the drums of desire. These became the most precious of all our possessions.

Nor did it seem strange that the myths of creation our grandmothers taught us hardly coincided with the doctrines of the other institution that governed our lives -- the Catholic Church. For we were indeed Catholics. Italian missionary priests had given us an alphabet only in the twentieth century, and our spiritual and secular education was in their hands. Perhaps Grandma Mu Tha's story of the creation had elements of Noah and the Tower of Babel -- but we never bothered ourselves to wonder whether our ancient traditions of the Padaung and the teachings of the Church exactly matched.

From the Land of Green Ghosts. Copyright © by Pascal Thwe. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

"Nearly every night I dream of the Shan State, of Mandalay, of the jungle. The landscapes of my dreams resemble real ones, yet they shift like images on silver screens…"
For Pascal Khoo Thwe, his childhood as part of the Padaung tribe is a time defined by the closeness of family and the rhythms of life in the small village of Phekhon. His grandmothers spin mesmerizing stories about the myths of creation, which blend with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The daily practices of the Padaung -- rice-wine making and drinking, playing football, and tending to crops and animals -- are punctuated by BBC radio broadcasts that tell of the political turmoil rumbling throughout the country. As a young man, Pascal journeys to Mandalay to study English literature at the University -- where students are forbidden to express their opinions about the texts or they face severe punishment. Outside his village for the first time, Pascal is witness to the harsh reality of how decades of war, foreign occupation, and a totalitarian regime have devastated the country. In Mandalay, where he works as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, a chance encounter leads to a meeting with Dr. John Casey, a professor at Cambridge University on a tour of Burma. An unlikely connection is forged between the two men, instigated by a shared love of the works of James Joyce. Forced to abandon his studies when the government orders the closing of the country's universities, Pascal heads home to the sanctuary of Phekhon. But the conflict soon reaches even the most remote parts of Burma, and although he shuns the violence of war Pascal discovers he has agift as an orator and speaks out against the government's atrocities. Soon the Burmese Army is on the hunt for Pascal and other students, and he is forced to leave Phekhon and join the rebel forces. He spends the next several months in the jungle on the Thai-Burmese border, where illness is rampant and attacks by the Burmese Army are frequent. A second chance encounter occurs when a Western journalist visiting the rebel camp offers to hand-deliver a letter from Pascal to Dr. Casey, and a correspondence develops between the two men. When Dr. Casey arranges to have him smuggled out of Burma, Pascal is consumed by feelings of guilt at abandoning his home, his family, and his comrades. With the hope that he will be able to help his people by revealing their plight to the outside world, he journeys to England. Under the guidance of Dr. Casey, Pascal becomes the first person from the Padaung tribe to attend Cambridge University. With language that is by turns lyrical and poignant, laced with humor and told with an insight that is well beyond his years, Pascal Khoo Thwe has created in From the Land of Green Ghosts both a mesmerizing autobiography and a powerful tribute to the homeland he left behind. Questions for Discussion
  1. In the Foreword John Casey writes, "There is a good measure of humor both in his observation of his tribe and its customs and (which is more surprising) even at some of the most dangerous moments in the jungle fighting." Did Pascal's sense of humor surprise you? What do you think was his motivation for writing From the Land of Green Ghosts?
  2. "My grandmother Mu Wye was the first woman who influenced my way of thinking. Her influence was as strong as the teachings of the Church" (pg 58). The women in the Padaung tribe are revered for their storytelling ability. What role does storytelling play in this culture? How would you describe Pascal's relationship with his mother and grandmothers? How about with his father and grandfathers?
  3. Tradition and ritual form a large part of the everyday existence of the Padaung. Of the rituals and traditions the author describes, which did you find the most interesting and why?
  4. Why does Pascal decide not to pursue a life in the seminary? How might his life have been different if he had chosen to stay on this path?
  5. Pascal became friends and then lovers with Moe, a young woman he met while at the university in Mandalay. What is about Moe that attracted Pascal to her? How was he affected by Moe's death?
  6. Twice the Burmese government demonetized the currency. Why did they choose to do this? How did it affect not only the country's economy but also the circumstances of individual people, including Pascal?
  7. While he is in the jungle with the rebel forces, Pascal chose to help others in many different ways -- he shares the money Dr. Casey sent to him, he taught the rebels' children, and he regularly crossed the border into Thailand for medical supplies. What do his actions during this time reveal about his character?
  8. When he leaves Burma to journey to England, Pascal states that he believes there is a "terrible egoism" in his leaving his comrades (pg 235). Do you agree with this statement? Why do you think he ultimately chose to leave?
  9. What scene in the book did you fine the most compelling, and why? How does this scene relate to the overall story?
  10. Why do you think Dr. Casey chose to help Pascal, a stranger to him? How does Pascal's life change once he is England? What adjustments must he make as he enters life at Cambridge?
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2005

    Amazing story!!!!

    This is one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring stories ever told. It truly puts life in perspective. Pascal's incredible memory of intricate details from his past and his beautiful, in-depth descriptions make this a must-read for anyone interested in understanding more about Burmese culture and politics.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2012

    A Riveting Account

    This is one of the most deeply-moving books I have ever read. Khoo Thwe interweaves information about the evolving history and politics in Burma with a personal account of his life growing up there. A stirring account of his childhood in a tribal community moves on to his training in a monastery, then to his education at a university in Mandalay. Suddenly, and violently, his life takes an irrevocable turn as the 1988 uprisings unfold, and Khoo Thwe is swept into this massive struggle. The book becomes fast-paced with accounts of the many twists and turns his life takes while fleeing the junta. This book is highly unusual because the reader learns about history through the eyes of a Burmese man living there and experiencing the devastating effects of life under a military regime. If you wonder what it means when people refer to a "repressive regime", you will understand how the everyday lives of people in the country are effected.

    Khoo Thwe's writing is lyrical and poetic, filled with symbolic imagery and laced with mystical stories his grandmother told him about his ancestors. He is also masterful at conveying the emotional struggles and turmoil he feels as he moves from his tribe to the jungle, and eventually to Cambridge University. He ends with a profound description of what it is like to live a life in exile - possibly as challenging as his life in the jungle.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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