I think it was about the point when I saw Cliff Richard rounding the corner at the nunnery that I gave up on the idea that Burma is a nation untouched. There were other hints, of course. The appearance of shiny new automatic teller machines around Rangoon, the boatman on Inle Lake answering his mobile while he was navigating his teak dugout - these sights put paid to any first-contact fantasies I might still have been harbouring. And yet, even in the midst of the most profound changes in its nationhood in more than half a century, even as it moves to rejoin the wider world, Burma remains a place apart. As perfect a set-up as running into Sir Cliff in a nunnery might be - a scenario ripe for a punchline - on a trip to Burma, it's just one quirk among many.
The Buddhist nunnery in question is in the hills of Sagaing, about 20km south-west of Mandalay. Sagaing is a popular stop on the fledgling tourist trail, partly for overseas visitors, but mostly for Burmese people who travel here for the spiritual equivalent of a spa break, ascetic getaways more about mantras and mudras than massages and mud wraps. In Burma, the "condition of the soul replaces that of the stock market as a topic for polite conversation", wrote Norman Lewis, and acquisition of spiritual merit is taken very seriously. It's common for Burmese men to have spent at least part of their adolescence in a monastery as a novice monk. It was mentioned to me, too, that in a lot of families one son will take up the monastic life while another will be encouraged to join the army, partly, I suppose, as a bit of secular and spiritual bet-hedging.
It's hard not to wonder, too, if the intense devotion to religion is a way to escape the day-to-day reality of living under one of the world's most oppressive military regimes. Much of the untouched quality that so entrances travellers today has to do with the fact that in 1962, only 14 years into the nation's independence from Britain, a military dictator seized power and cut Burma off from the rest of the world. (The dictatorship also renamed the country Myanmar and the former capital Yangon, which is why I'd rather stick with Burma and Rangoon.)
The system of hermetic self-sufficiency he instigated (autarky, the form of government common to Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Franco-era Spain, Ceausescu's Romania and today's North Korea) wrecked Burma's already war-weakened economy. What had been one of the richest countries in South East Asia and one of the biggest rice producers in the world now sits somewhere between Rwanda and Haiti on the International Monetary Fund's gross domestic product per capita rankings. It's a country rich in resources - oil, gas, gems and teak, not to mention opium - but short on infrastructure, funds and investment.
Under the British, Burma hadn't exactly been a model of fair dealing and probity, but under the regime it has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators place Burma's government among the lowest percentiles for accountability, effectiveness and rule of law. In the 2011 corruption index published by Transparency International, only North Korea and Somalia fare worse.
And, of course, the systems the junta put into place to maintain its rule have ruined or taken countless lives. Burma may not have suffered quite the same extremes of collectivisation as Russia and China, and it has nothing like the bizarre cults of personality seen in North Korea or Turkmenistan, but all the same, arrest without charge, imprisonment without trial, forced labour, violent suppression of dissent, the deployment of secret police and the threat of torture, all those hallmarks of 20th-century totalitarianism, have stained its recent history.
Right now the sanctions are lifting, many political prisoners are being freed, censorship is being scaled back and the government appears to be making an attempt to rejoin the wider world. You don't have to be an especially right-on individual to see that leisure travel in Burma comes with a cloud of asterisks and footnotes. But what about why you'd want to go there in the first place? It might not be as untouristed and unknown as it's billed in some quarters, but it is a very different place. Pizza-pasta-vegetarian backpacker restaurants and ATMs are appearing, but this is still a country where you're as likely to pass bullocks on the highway as trucks, where hotel bills are settled in cash and plane tickets are written out by hand. It's a country where the dateline on the front page of The New Light of Myanmar reads "9th Waxing of Thandingyut 1374 ME". And it's a country that's changing, and fast.
The names of Rangoon and Mandalay, the two largest cities in Burma, have a distinct ring of oriental exotica to them. The appeal of these metropolises isn't necessarily immediately apparent to the casual observer in the flesh, however. Rudyard Kipling made it sound promising in Mandalay, but never actually got there. George Orwell, who had in fact seen it, speaks of its "stinking labyrinth" of bazaars. In any case, the city, the last imperial capital, was razed in World War II in battles between the Allies and the Japanese. It also burned to the ground not once but twice in the 1980s, and so the heart of Mandalay of today is about as charming as the Chinese-built mall that is now its CBD's centrepiece.
Rangoon is rather more interesting. It's true that many of its colonial buildings are best spoken of as faded without any real glory, which furthers the impression that it's a city that never entirely won its struggle with the jungle, and could disappear again at any moment. Beyond the architecture, its key sights are religious. The 60-metre-long reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi is fascinating partly for the 108 symbols embossed on the soles of his feet, representing his life across the three planes of existence, and partly for the striking shoddiness of the structure housing him, which resembles nothing so much as an overgrown suburban carport.
Shwedagon Paya, the golden stupa, is considerably more impressive. For starters, there are the relics that it enshrines: eight hairs of the Buddha, contained in strata of gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron and brick. In the 500 or so years since its construction, successive generations have layered it with ornament, bringing it to its current gilded 99 metres. For Burmese Buddhists, it's the country's most sacred site, and for supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, it's been a rallying point; for the layperson, it's simply arresting as it shimmers in the light of the setting sun.
The heart of Rangoon feels completely safe (for a visitor, at least), but is far from sleepy. Wander Mahabandoola Road and you'll pass the betel nut vendors whose wares account for the scarlet streaks on the cobblestones. In the late afternoon, cooks fold rice in vast pots at the biryani restaurants. Tarps and tables are spread with wares: flimsily bound songbooks, baskets of fried crickets, medicinal herbs in heaps, and skewers of chicken heads, bright with turmeric.
Many of the faces of the women on the street are painted or patterned with thanaka, a pale yellow mixture of ground bark and water that's both sunscreen and cosmetic. It's more common still in the sticks, where you'll also see it on men. It's striking, can be beautiful, and hopefully won't be brushed away by contact with the wider world.
I flew from Rangoon to Mandalay to join Orient-Express's Road to Mandalay for a three-night cruise down the fabled Irrawaddy River to Bagan. Though the charms of Mandalay itself are rather limited, there's plenty to see on its outskirts, and the village of Shwe Kyet Yet - where the ship docks downriver - serves as a handy staging point. At the Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura (another former capital), I'm less interested in the now flashbulb-lit procession of the monks to their daily meal than in the kitchens themselves, which feed 1400 monks for less than two dollars per head a day. Boating around the U Bein bridge, a structure with the seldom-challenged claim to being the longest teak bridge in the world, is a must. Over in Sagaing, as thrilling as the brush-with-fame with Sir Cliff might be, it's meeting the women and girls who live at the Zeyar Theingi nunnery that makes the lasting impression. There's the striking dignity of the older nuns, but also the simple fascination of seeing how other people cook, pray and live. Nuns, my guide says matter-of-factly, can never be daughters of Buddha in the way that monks are his sons, but they are the keepers of morality.
Back on the Road to Mandalay we set sail. Top deck is where it's at, and most of my fellow passengers opt for lounging, sunning and reading (a quick head count reveals that Orwell's Burmese Days is being read by one out of every two of us), punctuated by dips in the pool and rather a lot of lemongrass iced tea. I explore the refitted Rhine cruiser. Here's the library, there's the piano bar and down below is the treatment room where the skilful masseuses do their work. Somehow between the 43 cabins there's also space for a consulting room for the ship's doctor and a boutique. Food-wise, I'm more enamoured of the Burmese spread laid out at lunch (the salads of butter bean or pennywort and onion with pounded peanut, curries punched-up with pea eggplant and sawtooth coriander leaves) than the more international likes of the Norwegian salmon and chèvre soufflé on the table d'hôte menu at dinner.
Leafing through histories of the river itself, I read that its banks have been the lifeline for Burma's many kingdoms, its vast fertile delta on the Andaman the foundation of its rice production. As a transportation route, Burma has known no equal to the Irrawaddy, modern or otherwise. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company grew from four steamers at its founding in 1865 to more than 600 vessels in the 1930s, carrying as many as eight million passengers and more than a million tonnes of cargo a year. All this came to an abrupt halt in 1942 when the company ordered the greatest river fleet in the world scuttled ahead of the Japanese invasion.
Today, at 100 metres, the Road to Mandalay is the proudest thing on the water. She'll soon be joined by a second, smaller Orient-Express vessel, the Orcaella, designed to better navigate the narrower, shallower waters of some of the more remote river reaches. It was 1996 when the Road first set sail. What of the ethics of an international company continuing to operate in Burma in the tourism boycott encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD between 1996 and 2010? It's a question worth asking; in practical terms, though, Orient-Express has a lot of experience on the ground as a result, and runs a pretty seamless show in a country famed for the unreliability of its services. On the social responsibility front, they built a school in Shwe Kyet Yet in 1997, and maintain a free clinic in Bagan. The Governor's Residence, the pretty teak hotel it operates in the embassy district back in Rangoon, is perhaps the local benchmark for high-end accommodation.
Meanwhile, the Irrawaddy flows on, huge and ochreous, to use Orwell's phrase. Beyond the shear of the bank glide frangipani and mango groves. Women wash clothes on the shore, and men work fields of peanut, sesame and corn with pairs of yoked oxen. On the river itself float long ferries, low-slung canoes, massive rafts of teak logs lashed together, and the occasional dead dog.
And then, Bagan. Every stretch and bend of the river has revealed religious monuments, some winking gold or whitewashed in the noonday glare, others looking more forlorn. Bagan, though, is something else entirely. It was the site of a 230-year frenzy of building that began in 1057 and ceased with the advance of Kublai Khan. In its day it was the capital of the first kingdom that unified the regions which have come to be known as Burma. At its peak it was home to as many as 200,000 people, but it's the thousands of brick and stucco stupas, temples and monasteries for which it is best known. More than 2000 - perhaps only a fifth of the original number - survive, and they're crammed together in a manner that's boggling to the mind. In the spaces between them where houses once stood is mostly farmland, and the way the rows of peanut, pigeon peas and melon are planted right up to the red-brick feet of many of the pagodas themselves is perfectly magical.
I didn't see anyone selling T-shirts that say anything like "I'm With Stupa" or "My Dad Went To Bagan And All I Got was This Stupa Shirt", but I can't imagine they're far off. The number of sites clustered here is hard to take in. There are temples to enter, pagodas you can (and probably shouldn't) climb. The architecture is variously rounded, squared, squat and slender. Some edifices are richly decorated with carvings or murals; others still pay tribute to nats, local animist spirits. There are stupas in stunningly good nick, and others that have been reduced by successive earthquakes to mere bumps in the plain. Others still have fallen victim to the Burmese government's decision to let local contractors have a crack at restoration work in the 1990s, often with all the success you'd expect of someone touching up the Sistine Chapel with Spakfilla.
There's no shortage of ways to get out onto the plain and see them. Me, I'd recommend skipping the buses and bicycles in favour of taking a horse, cart and local driver. Fast? No. Comfortable? Um. But fun? No question. The very best way to see Bagan, though, requires a little forethought. If you only realise you'd like to join the Balloons Over Bagan party when you're in Bagan itself, you'll probably miss out, because they book up weeks if not months ahead. And with good reason: the air gives you a very real sense of the scope of the ancient capital, and on a good morning the pilots sail the baskets down wonderfully close to some of the more majestic structures. Khin Omar Win and Brett Melzer, the Burmese-Australian couple who run the company, tick all the boxes, whether it's the antique buses they use for ground transport, or the fizz and pastries mustered to the landing spot - even if that happens to be a cotton field.
Bagan is the end of the Road as far as the cruise is concerned, but Burma's other best-known drawcard for visitors is also on the water. Inle Lake is a 40-minute flight from Bagan and then an hour in the car. It's also a world away. Get out on this 21-kilometre by 11-kilometre expanse and you really are somewhere else.
About 100,000 Intha people live on and around the lake, many of them in stilt houses right over the water itself. Calling at one of these houses for tea one morning, we get a glimpse of village life. One north-facing room sleeps all four members of the household. The other room is for living and eating. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi stand on the same shrine to the eastern side of the room as a small statue of the Buddha. Bright hands of bananas dangle from some of the bamboo crossbeams of the woven-thatch wall. The kettle sits on a four-legged steel hearth in a small kitchen off to the side, which also holds baskets of tomatoes, piles of bitter melon and green onions with very long roots. To make their living, the men of the house fish, using the distinctive one-legged rowing style that allows them to cast lines or their conical nets as they perch on the ends of their slender canoes. The women make cheroots, the big, rustic cigars common to the region. Many of the neighbours also keep pigs, which live in enclosures under the houses and are fed on water hyacinth and seaweed. The remarkable floating gardens of tomatoes, gourds and beans are another source of employment, as is boatbuilding, weaving (with lotus-stem thread), and running restaurants and food stalls.
Correspondents old and new have had less than complimentary things to say about the food of Burma. "Filthy" is a word that crops up with alarming frequency on the topic in Orwell, while a fellow gourmet traveller warned me ahead of my visit that Burma took the worst from the neighbouring Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines and fused them into one. I'm very happy to report that on my travels I didn't suffer from boredom, disgust or illness at the table. There's very little Burmese food to be had outside the country, good or otherwise, so each meal yielded what felt like discoveries. Some things feel Indian, others Thai, but they're seldom exact matches, and seeing them sharing the same table is an eye-opener.
The thoke (salads), seen all over the country, are a definite highlight, whether it's jewels of pomelo tossed with garlic oil, fish sauce and fried shallots, or young ginger with fried soybeans, lime and shrimp powder, or laphet thoke, the national favourite of pickled tea leaves. The ethnic diversity of the Shan state comes to the fore eating around Inle Lake, where in addition to the Intha, Pa-O, Taungyo and other groups mingle. The morning's tea is taken with pakoras, crisp-fried rolls stuffed with cabbage, or a local form of black pudding made by mixing the blood with rice and aromatics, rolling it in banana leaves and steaming it. The big hit for me was an unusual version of the Shan noodle soups ubiquitous to the area made with a liquid form of the yellow chickpea "tofu". Part Indian, part Thai and completely unique.
One of the other standout meals I had was at Inthar Heritage House. As good as the spring onion cakes and the khao soi-like noodle soup were, though, it was the pleasure of Yin Myo Su's company that made it special. Misuu, as she's known, is a force of nature. She brought Yannick, her French husband, back to her home region and started the Inle Princess Resort 16 years ago.
"We try to create a village experience rather than do fancy stuff," she says. "It was our wish that we import as little as possible and keep the focus on quality rather than quantity." The couple are rare hospitality operators in that they're keen to reduce rather than expand the number of rooms at the property. "We only have 46 rooms but I still think this is too much because I can't remember what each client had for dinner the night before, or their room number, and I find this frustrating."
Misuu and Yannick are the kind of people who sweat the details: the rooms are beautiful, equipped with no TV sets, but sublime water-frontage and traditional brick stoves for the cooler months. Boats have to kill their motors as they near the resort through a canal, making the final approach silently under paddle-power.
Misuu likes a project. In addition to the Inle Princess, she also runs Inthar Heritage House, a site out on the lake that combines several of her interests. It houses part of her project to reintroduce true-bred Burmese cats to Burma (they're all but unknown here today), an organic kitchen garden, a gallery for local artists, a museum dedicated to the care of the fish of the lake, and the restaurant where we've met for lunch, which celebrates the recipes of her late grandmother.
Though it's fair to say she's at the vanguard of enlightened tourism in Burma, Misuu is cautious in her optimism for the country's development. She's adamant that progress is as important as preservation, but has concerns about the transition to come. The season before this one, she says, saw 300,000 tourists fly into Burma. "That's less than the number of people who visit Phuket in a month, and Thailand as a whole gets 14 million visitors a year." She worries that the tourism infrastructure will be overwhelmed by the flood of interest that has followed the lifting of economic sanctions and the NLD's boycott on tourism, plus the extra attention brought to the country by recent visits from Barack Obama, our own PM and other world leaders.
"It's like Burma is a girl coming out of a nunnery," says Misuu. "She still has a chance to make her own mistakes, but we hope that they won't be extreme and that she will learn from them. But too much worry is not very progressive. Give us a break and let us try as well."