Whether or not to travel to Myanmar (Burma) remains a difficult question. The country is ruled by the longest-lasting military dictatorship in the world and economic sanctions have been in place against it for decades. For many years, the democratic opposition – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – said it was unethical for travellers to come here, that they would lend moral and financial support to the regime in doing so.
Yet in the summer of 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi declared that she wanted foreign travellers to visit Burma. The daughter of a hero of Burmese independence and a Nobel laureate herself, Suu Kyi is the political conscience of her country. Her only caveat was that visitors should avoid the tourist establishments that have close ties with the military regime. If you do decide to go, advance planning will ensure your trip is as ethical as possible (see our tips on travelling to Burma responsibly).
The heat, smells, street life and colours of Mandalay are intoxicating. Girls with cheeks smeared with thanaka (sunblock made from ground tree bark) balance two to a bicycle. Barefoot monks holding alms bowls share the streets with scooters, battered cars and cycle rickshaws. Street vendors cook mohingar, a spicy fish broth, over charcoal stoves for breakfast.
An hour outside Mandalay is a ferry crossing to Ava, once one of Burma’s greatest royal capitals. The red-brick entrances to Ava still stand, and there’s an old watchtower in its centre. And just across the Irrawaddy from Ava, more than 2000 Buddhist temples dot the hillsides of Sagaing, their gilded roofs dazzling through the trees. Low chanting is audible from an open window as nuns memorise their scripture.
Yet it’s not all work. One Saturday night, I count 54 monks in a tea shop watching a match between Manchester United and Everton on TV. They sit in disconcerting silence until Manchester United score, whereupon they all applaud happily.
Nearly 200 miles southeast of Mandalay lies Inle Lake. It’s an hour or so by plane across a landscape of tiny fields, huts and temples, a place without water or electricity where agriculture takes medieval forms. Long and tapering, Inle is a place of heartstopping beauty. Its limpid water, ringed by velvety green mountains, is full of floating villages and old temples.
Several different groups live around Inle: the Taungyo, the Pa-O and the Intha, whose houses are built on stilts on the lake itself. The modest Intha houses in Pauk Par village are made from woven bamboo and thatched with wild grass. The Intha wear bamboo hats and sell fish and vegetables from the lake’s floating gardens. Intha fishermen are famous for their gymnastic style of rowing – they stand on one leg and paddle with the oar braced against the other.
Bagan is the outstanding cultural monument of Burma. The city is only 80 miles from Mandalay, but the road is so bad that most visitors choose to fly or travel by boat – which is a day’s journeying down the Irrawaddy.
Cycling along the dusty paths of Bagan, you are quickly lost among the thousands of pagodas that cover the plains beside the Irrawaddy. They’re all of different sizes – from just a few metres in height to more than 60 metres. Many are shaped like bells, but others are more outlandish: Thammayangyi is a pyramid with stepped sides like a Mayan temple’s, while Ananda’s central golden stupa resembles a Fabergé egg. In the delicate 11th-century frescos within Loka Hteik Pann pagoda, the faces and postures of two dancers reflect the area’s historic links with India. And inside the old city walls lie the remnants of a single Hindu temple.
At sunset, the red bricks of the temples at Bagan turn a fiery pink against the backdrop of acacia and cassia trees. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the wind freshens slightly and bells on the golden umbrellas above the pagodas begin to tinkle.