Buddha's lost world

In my years as a travel writer I confess I've been spoilt.

I've marvelled at India's Taj Mahal, Egypt's Great Pyramids, Jordan's ancient rock city of Petra and China's astonishing Terracotta Army in Xian. They all take some beating. Yet there I was actually squealing - "That's amazing, unbelievable, just look at that one!" - at one of the most extraordinary sights I have ever seen. What's more, until I'd arrived in the south-east Asian country of Myanmar - still also known as Burma - I had never even heard about it.

Bagan, first capital of the Burmese empire that thrived from the 11th to the 13th century, is predominantly a plain, baked naked by heat, with little vegetation. What it does have, though, are 2,000 ornate, red-brick pagodas, little ones and big towering edifices, some multi-layered, many with golden domes shimmering in the sun. It's astonishing. And to think, in its heyday there were 13,000 pagodas and stupas. Tolkein himself could hardly have imagined a more other-worldly landscape, a fantasy world where to spot a centaur, a giant or some other supernatural creature wouldn't be a surprise.

And giants there are aplenty, of the statue variety, at least. Step inside the best pagodas and you'll see huge, beautiful golden Buddhas, dozens of them, sitting serenely in their individual alcoves, their eyes gazing with apparent benevolence over the tourists.

Not that you'll see too many western visitors in Myanmar, except perhaps in Yangon, the capital - which we know better as Rangoon - and Mandalay, the last royal capital.

There are several linked reasons for this: the country's politically turbulent recent history; the relative lack of development; and the fact that some activist groups and western governments have called for a tourist boycott (Tony Blair, in 2005, urged us not to holiday there) due to the military junta's human rights abuses, which continue to attract US and EU sanctions. When Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the country's first general election in 1990 in a landslide, the result was declared invalid; Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, has been living under house arrest on and off, presently on, since 1989.

Though Suu Kyi herself has also asked tourists to stay away, numbers have been growing in recent years, and there are a few voices, including that of the pro-democracy Free Burma Coalition, who argue against a boycott and point out that tourism is one of the few growth areas of a poor economy. Ultimately holidaying in Myanmar is a question of informed choice. What I found was an enticing, exotic, mysterious land packed with treasures, and the most delightful people.

Undeveloped as it is, in tourist terms at least, backpacking your way round is not the only option. The Road to Mandalay is a 52-cabin river cruiser offering itineraries of three, four, seven and 11 nights. You sail on the Ayeyarwaddy River, one of Asia's great waterways, between Mandalay and Bagan, hopping off for sightseeing along the way.

As the boat is operated by Orient-Express, the voyage is luxurious. Which is why, as we admire the view from the terrace of one of Bagan's biggest pagodas, crew members appear with cocktails and canaps for us to enjoy while the sun sets.

The next day, we see the same plain from an astonishing new perspective, courtesy of Balloons Over Bagan. Brits co-own this company, and we're delighted that our balloonist is from Bath. From on high, we get a whole new view of the intricate spires, the pagodas and the Ayeyarwaddy, an experience that can be likened to a Nile cruise in Egypt, though our vessel is a mighty step up from most Egyptian river boats, and the number of river miles covered is not so great.

As on the Nile, though, when the boat is cruising gently along the top deck is the perfect place to plonk yourself with a cool drink and watch the world go by - farmers tending their crops, fishermen in simple craft, merchants in rowboats piled with sacks of rice and other produce.

The ambience on board Road to Mandalay is chic, not stuffy. Cabins are relatively large and beautifully furnished using local materials.

Your journey is enriched by on-board cultural insights - exquisite dancing by beautiful people in wonderful costumes, lessons in how to wrap yourself properly in the sarong-style skirt called longyi. An elegant girl comes to apply thanaka to female guests' faces - a sandalwood paste that denotes beauty and protects the complexion from the harsh sun. Guest speakers give cultural talks encompassing local music, religion and cuisine.

Food on board the boat is rather special, too, reflecting the influences of Myanmar's neighbours - Thailand, India, Bangladesh, China and Laos. The curries are mild, but there are dishes with a bit of a chilli kick if you wish. It's a five-star travel experience.

As is traditional in Myanmar, we shared some food with local monks. In Shew Kyet Yet, near Mandalay, where Road to Mandalay has its own private berth, a seemingly unending single queue of robed holy men in ascending order, from cute little boys to the revered elderly, floated past enigmatically, holding out their bowls for rice and vegetables.

Later, in the Sagaing Hills where more than 600 monasteries, temples and stupas are tucked away in the vegetation, we were delighted when two young shaved-headed monks wandered over to engage us in conversation. Language barriers forced talk to be limited to nice views and the weather, rather than the rigours of monastic life and the mysteries of the universe. I loved their curiosity - staring at us, shyly asking our names, seemingly pleased to welcome foreigners into their country.

The joy of visiting a place that has yet to see mass tourism is the total lack of hassle. Only once were we asked for money, by a lad masquerading as a mini-monk, who was quickly chased away by real holy men.

Myanmar is, of course, a predominantly Buddhist country, hence an overexuberance of pagodas. It's hard to distinguish one religious building from another, yet each has its own appeal.

There are, however, unforgettable highlights, such as the astonishing Mahamuni Pagoda. Pilgrims from around the world come to worship and adorn the immense Buddha with gold leaf - men only, though. So many slivers of gold have been pressed onto the body of the statue by devotees that his outline has swelled out of shape - only his face is as it should be.

Then there's the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which houses the entire Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, inscribed on marble slabs and enshrined in 729 miniature pagodas. And, in Yangon, the remarkable Shwedagon Pagoda, don't miss the country's biggest and most important Buddhist shrine, which dates from 1769. Its spire rises to 100 metres, acting as the centrepiece to a whole land of hundreds of decorated pavilions, shrines, and statues.

Slightly less holy activities include a visit to the Jade Market, where men crowd round tiny stalls holding scraps of green. Because producing crafts in Myanmar is still a laborious, intensive and handmade affair, everything that's for sale is rather beautiful, whether a finely faced chip of jade or a simple basket from Nyaung Oo Market. We also visited workshops producing lacquer ware, exquisite silk and tapestry, woodwork, mesmerising gold leaf work, and stone carving.

Workers at least seemed pleased to see tourists as they practised their hellos, and you'll have no problem finding wonderful souvenirs to take home, along with some brilliant photos - this has to be the most photogenic country I've visited. sm

Factfile: Myanmar (Burma)


Orient-Express (tel: 0845 077 2222, visit www.orient-express.com) offers the following holiday from 3,475 per person: a four-night cruise on board the Road to Mandalay, one night at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, two nights at La Residence Phou Vao, Laos, two nights at The Governors Residence, Yangon. Return flights from Edinburgh, transfers, sightseeing and all meals on board the ship included. Other hotel accommodation is on a B&B basis. Price is based on two sharing.

Red tape: You will need a Package Tour Visa for Myanmar, obtainable from the Myanmar Embassy in London, and a ten-year passport with at least six months' validity after the UK return date.

Health: Tetanus and polio jabs should be up to date.


For Balloons Over Bagan, visit www.balloonsoverbagan.com

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