Mail on Sunday

Burma is a country where the past is constantly jostling with the present. Even as I waited at the immigration counter at Yangon airport, I was struck by what turned out to be the first of many surprises.
There was a channel marked ‘Seamen’ with no queue at all. It turned out that the channel was reserved for those seeking permanent residence. However, nobody arrives by boat these days, so having such a counter seems like a curious attempt to preserve a vanished past.
The surprises piled on the next morning as we took the two-hour flight to Mandalay.
At the check-in counter, in addition to being given my boarding pass, a sticker was attached to my jacket. Although it was explained that this was so that airline staff could be sure I was directed to the right flight, on our arrival in Mandalay my passport was checked by two officials.
Military rule may have ended a year ago but the old distrust of foreigners remains.
More encouraging was our experience in nearby Pyin Oo Lwin. The old British Governor’s House has been converted into an impressive modern hotel complete with Madame Tussauds-style waxworks of bygone British administrators.
From this re-creation of the past, we were introduced to the new country that is emerging. Our guide told us he would take us to a tea house. I imagined perching on stools sipping tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk like the locals. Instead I was ushered into a restaurant where a lavish buffet was laid out. The meal we ordered came on fine plates.
Had we arrived a year before, customers would have included police spies, eavesdropping on conversations. If they felt a person was subversive, he would receive a visit and could be imprisoned for years.
Our guide, who had lived through the dark military era, smiled as he recalled those grim days. His only concern now was whether we would like fish or pork.
Mandalay was immortalised by Kipling as a city whose palm trees and temple bells are always saying, ‘Come back you British soldier, come back.’ If the British soldier were to heed the call today, he might puzzle over what the Burmese soldiers have done to Mandalay in the past 50 years. This is most noticeable at Mandalay Fort, where Burmese kings reigned and where the British imprisoned the Raj’s most feared opponents.
In the 1990s, the army forced locals to repair the 24ft-high crenellated walls and clean out the moat, some with only their bare hands. The moat now forms a promenade and, beside a short section, there are some primitive exercise machines, rather like a playground for adults.
From Mandalay we drove to the nearby Shwe-kyay-yet jetty, where we embarked on a river cruiser destined for Bagan.
It was on this two-day journey down the Ayeyarwady that Burma finally revealed itself to be an enticing blend of the past and present.
The boat, a beautiful replica of a colonial-era river steamer, had all the modern comforts. Yet along the way were places untouched by time.
Our first stop was at the village of Yandabo, where the peace treaty following the first Anglo-Burmese war was signed. It paved the way for British rule and brought modernity. Yet the way the women were making water pots suggested a world long before the Europeans arrived.
Later during our trip we reached Inle Lake, nestling below the Taunggyi mountains. At a jetty we were helped on to a motor boat where we used umbrellas to keep out the sun, and were made to feel like Victorian travellers setting off to explore.
There was much to marvel at, as a ballet on water performed by the local fishermen unfolded before us. They had one foot on a slender boat, another leg wrapped round a paddle which they manoeuvred in the water to propel the boat. The fishermen carry large conical nets and, the moment they see movement, they thrust the net towards the lake’s bottom to catch the fish. It’s an art form.
Military rule may have ended a year ago but the old distrust of foreigners remains
But some locals cannot live by fish alone, as we discovered at the market. It was no surprise to see at a food stall a man frying fish, but what followed was astonishing. He put the fish in a bowl which also contained several red ants, mixed the two and sat in a corner eating the resulting concoction with great relish. The guide explained that red ants are supposed to be good for the eyesight.
Yangon was the last stop on our trip and the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon pagoda was an appropriate climax. It enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and we were also told that one of the trees is the very one under which he meditated. That may be for believers but what cannot be disputed is the quite magical sunset we witnessed from the terrace.
A mile from Shwedagon is the city’s only Jewish synagogue. Next to it is a Muslim shop. The owner’s grandson was proudly wearing a Manchester United shirt, having fallen in love with the club’s legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Nothing could better illustrate how this country is emerging from the long freeze of military dictatorship. More changes will surely come and I left thinking that, if you want to catch this change, now is the time to visit.
Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861 has a 13-day private trip from £2,595pp including return flights from London, transfers, a two-night full-board Pandaw river cruise, and accommodation with breakfast in Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon.


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