However, Mandalay is a really outstanding destination mainly because of what lies immediately around it: the ruins of much older cities and religious sites sit decaying in an antique landscape. We took a boat trip 10 km up the Irrawaddy to Mingun, gliding past a timeless scene of bullocks ploughing a tapestry of fields on our way, to see the remains of a massive, half-built pagoda abandoned in 1819. Moving south, we crossed the little Myitnge River and explored the ancient capital of Inwa (or Ava) by horse cart, clopping in dappled shade along rural lanes to monasteries and a watchtower now standing amid paddy fields. The great palace at Inwa no longer stands: it was recycled as a kilometer-long teak footbridge that leads across Taungthaman Lake to Amarapura, which became the royal capital in 1783. We walked the length of this winding structure, known as U Bein Bridge after its master builder, stopping here and there to talk to monks from Amarapura’s huge Mahagandayon Monastery at the foot of the striking monument. The young, saffron-robed men smilingly told us they were keen to improve their English and to that purpose were sent out by their elders in the late afternoons to meet tourists and visit local internet cafes – of which there are a growing number, thanks to a new university nearby, although getting serve access is currently a slow and frustrating exercise.

Description: the ancient capital of Inwa (or Ava)

the ancient capital of Inwa (or Ava)

We flew on to Bagan later that day, and arrived in the dark. We woke the next morning to find ourselves in what seemed like an ethereal theme park of Burmese history and extraordinary beauty. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was Burma’s capital, and a jaw-droppingly glorious one. Pointedly mixing religion with politics, the era’s 14 kings built 3,000 monuments (probably many more, lost over time) in roughly 50 square kilometers, and their nobles followed suit on a less ostentatious scale. Our archaeologist guide took us to what are conventionally considered the major sights: the wonderful golden Shwezigon Pagoda, dating from the 11th century; the great Ananda Temple containing hundreds upon hundreds of Buddha statues; Nanpaya Pagoda with terrific stone carvings (possibly a Hindu temple in origin). We gazed amazed at the murals of Gubyaukgyi, Thambula, and the late-12th-century Lo Kahteikpan. Best of all, he then took us off the beaten track, unlocking the gates of several more pagodas where the paintings are almost unknown. Even though many of the Bagan monuments have disintegrated over the centuries, it would take a lifetime, he said, to examine all those remaining. At dusk we climbed Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch a breathtakingly lovely sunset over a wide plain dotted as far as the eye could see with an array of bell-shaped temples.

Description: the great Ananda Temple

the great Ananda Temple

Tourism in Bagan, however, is not without controversy. When I first visited the district in the 1970s there were villages in what is now the designated archaeological zone. In the 1990s the residents were relocated in the name of conservation, and indeed tourism. That might have been deemed a worthy, if difficult, undertaking were it not for the fact that a few modern constructions were subsequently built, and here and there they now mar the horizon.

Description: Horse cart in Bagan

Horse cart in Bagan

Returning to Rangoon, I had tea with an old friend, who is member of the National League for Democracy. She drew my attention to her party’s line on tourism. They are well aware that communities have been harmed by the interests of this growing industry, that getting the ideal balance between new jobs, economic development and environmental issues is extremely tricky and that the wrong sort of visitor can cause serious harm – such as the effects of sex tourism in neighbouring Thailand. On the other hand, in the right circumstances tourism can boost the arts, culture and conservation. In this respect and many others, Burma is on the cusp.

Description: A farmer herds goats near a Buddhist temple in Bagan

A farmer herds goats near a Buddhist temple in Bagan

We had one evening left in the country, and spent much of it at the Shwedagon Pagoda. As the sun set we sat on the marble pavement watching the golden stupa gain ever-greater depth of colour against the darkening sky. The air was suffused with the intonations of a monk uttering prayers and extolling a list of good deeds. It encapsulated a pervading sense of hope. “Thadu, thadu, thadu,” he chanted – it is good, it is good, it is good.

Description: the Shwedagon Pagoda

the Shwedagon Pagoda

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