As the former Burma emerges from its decades of isolation Rob Ingram finds that a river cruise on the Irrawaddy is the ideal way to experience the charms of old Indochina.
The poorest places often have the biggest monuments. The Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria. The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. The National Martyrs' Memorial in Bangladesh.
We're at the big Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, and this is just the beginning of our pagoda pilgrimage. Myanmar is the land of pagodas. Pagodas will be our lasting impressions of the country formerly known as Burma. Golden pagodas and leaden poverty. Most people subsist on an average annual income of less than $250. All of the country's Buddhists, who comprise 90 per cent of the population, aspire to one day visit Shwedagon, the Golden Pagoda, gilded with gold plates and crowned with 5448 diamonds - one weighing 72 carats - and 2317 rubies. For all its charm and stunning beauty, the country's inability to distribute its wealth remains confronting for a traveller.
Visiting Myanmar no longer poses the ethical dilemma it did when everyone's favourite Burmese national Aung San Suu Kyi declared 15 years ago, "Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime." The first significant step in the transition from military rule to civilian democracy occurred five years ago when a nominally civilian government was introduced, albeit with a quarter of the seats in both parliamentary chambers reserved for the military. The first general election since will be held this month. Rudyard Kipling may have been seduced by "them spicy garlic smells" on the road to Mandalay in 1890, but there's still more than a whiff of totalitarianism in the breeze today.