The gold standard

From stupendous stupas to floating villages, Max Anderson embarks on a full-immersion introduction to Burma.

The B600 is a locally made car of astonishing awfulness, a tiny utility vehicle with plastic sun chairs for front seats. I watch one laden with six passengers - a Picasso abstract of arms, legs and faces - as it sputters slowly past the golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

The sacred stupa is taller than the Statue of Liberty and the passengers crane upwards, squinting at a gilded pip on its point. In fact, this "pip" is a six-tonne arrangement of 13,153 gold plates, 1065 golden bells, 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, and a single 72-carat diamond, beaming magnificently, munificently and uselessly over a country Rudyard Kipling described as "quite unlike any land you know about".

I've been in Burma an hour. I have eight days. I think I'd better buckle up.

Days one and two

Robbie, a local guide, begins my introduction to Rangoon at the feet of a giant Buddha whose soles are the size of billboards. He circles the reclining 68-metre statue, equipping me with the basics of astrology, numerology and the business of gaining "merit" for the next life.

My enlightenment, however, comes when I turn to look over the low, green horizon of a city steepled with white and gold stupas. I marvel and guess they number in the hundreds.

"Ha!" Robbie bursts out. "Thousands! Thousands of temples! Thousands of pagodas! Thousands of monasteries!"

There is no part of Burmese society that Theravada Buddhism does not reach. At dawn, crimson-clad monks file into the swept city streets with their silver alms bowls; they reside in monasteries such as the one next to the reclining Buddha, a place of dark timbered alleyways where shy faces peep out of cool shadows.

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There's no apparent shyness in the hot downtown streets of Little China, where market commerce smells of frying food and kerosene, and cars are displaced by people gutting ugly fish or heaping fruit in colourful cones. "If it's Little China," I ask, "where are all the Chinese?"

"Burmese down here..." Robbie says, indicating the melee of labour. He points to apartments high above the century-old street: "...Chinese up there."

Scott Markets are a grid of wooden kiosks beneath giant British-built tin sheds that rattle extravagantly when the humid skies open. Stallholders invite us to buy lacquerware and jade. But they're just as keen to trade wry jokes. When I ask what's Burmese for "no", I'm told it's a tricky three-syllable sound. "Easier to say 'yes' in Myanmar," the trader grins.

Lunch is important, if only to rehydrate, and the food in Rangoon is surprisingly good. At a tea house, sorties of small boys buzz about noisy, crowded tables, landing plates of pork buns, fried mince triangles and dumplings. At night, 50th Street becomes a chattering canyon of bitter smoke and flickering strings of light; I eat quail eggs and crispy-skinned fish outside a cafe presided over by a bare-chested man named Fatty, a figure straight from George Orwell's Burmese Days. (I can't decide whether Orwell would have been pleased to see pirated photocopies of his book being sold for $3.)

If business and Buddha are two faces of Rangoon, there's also a third, and it's British.

The empire clearly valued this river port, an exit point for teak, tin and mineral treasures and a geopolitical crossroad for India, China and Malaya. The British houses of power and commerce are still ranged along one side of the river, though many are dilapidated, their porticos cracked and sprouting vegetation, birds roosting in their copper cupolas. But many of these beautiful time capsules are still in service, including the courthouse and the post office, with its clerks wielding rubber stamps and parcel string.

Similarly rooted in the time of Kipling is the ferry that slugs across the Yangon River, a broad caramel barrier that can be traversed only by boat or a rail bridge. The ferry conveys people and trussed chickens to a village called Dalah, a place of bewildering solace. A trishaw driver takes me through paddies to villages of stilted houses, where I see kids flying kites, adults tending carp ponds and young ladies cycling one-handed while holding parasols. So great is the contrast, I might have been teleported.

Even from here you can see the gilded point of Shwedagon Pagoda. The five-hectare site dates to the 6th century and is in a constant state of being added to by Buddhists seeking "merit". From within, it's blindingly white and gold, a blizzard of spikes, bells and Buddhas and every bit as monumental, as bedazzling and as venal as the Taj Mahal and the Vatican. The difference is few Westerners have heard of it.

Come Friday night, my head is spinning long before I have a beer in the teak-panelled bar of the Strand on the waterfront. The hotel is comparable to Singapore's Raffles, not only for the beautiful restoration but because it was owned by the same brothers in 1901. Today - though perhaps as ever - the bar is a soiree of expats talking business ventures, tourist operations, even wine growing.

No foreigner is left a stranger for long and I'm dragged off to the British Club for poolside cocktails (visitors welcome but leave your passport at the door) then into Rangoon's bizarrely vibrant nightclubs. At the Parkroyal Hotel, nothing prepares me for the performance by Me N Ma Girls, a group of five young women rapping out high-octane R&B. Burma's "first female band" blends MTV hip thrusts with Thai-Burmese dance about 1000 years old. It's being managed by a girl from Melbourne.

Days three and four

An hour's flight north and I'm in Bagan, a flood plain ringed by mountains and carpeted by ancient monuments. More than 3300 temples are spread across 60 square kilometres - their domes and points bloom over the canopy of tamarind and acacia, stone flowers of red, gold and white. People scale Shwesandaw Pagoda, a daunting five-terrace climb, to watch as the fields of ancient monuments light at dawn or dim at dusk.

Such is the richness of the ancient site that I don't know where to start but, thankfully, my guide, Momo, does. At the Shwezigon temple, he explains how Buddhism was brought to Bagan in the 11th century and the "golden period" of temple building began in earnest. It's believed so many bricks were made and wood-fired that deforestation irrevocably changed the region's climate. Today people are captivated by Bagan's beatific Buddhas - perhaps half a million of them - housed in tiny shrines and monster temples. Some Buddhas rise four storeys; others are in matchbox-sized relief. Momo explains their symbolism and dating techniques; he calls 18th-century Buddhas "modern" and thinks of them as uglier than their older counterparts. None are more ugly than the spaces where the treasure hunters have been, lopping heads for Western museums and, more recently, Western mantelpieces.

One never quite leaves the temples in Bagan but other experiences are scheduled. My favourite is a four-hour bike ride on tracks through fields of rice and wheat, stopping in remote villages of thorn fences and palm thatch. At one we happen on the blessing of a new house and we're pressed to stay and eat. In a twist on the usual tourist convention, gaggles of children beg us to take lollies from them.

In amber twilight we repair to the breezes of the River Irrawaddy, the famous "road" to Mandalay (where the flyin' fishes play). From a slender boat, I watch swifts looping over an old British paddle steamer rotting in the shallows, while wood smoke scents the air and gauzes the mountains. And always the gold stupas, slowly catching fire high on the river banks.

Days five and six

Inle is also circled by mountains, only instead of temples the basin is filled with a lake, 20 kilometre long by 10 kilometres wide. Within the lake are sprawling 300-year-old "floating" villages hoisted on teak stilts.

Now my guides are Nini and a boat driver. Their long swallow-tail boat is a thing of cacophonous speed but it still takes an hour to get to the villages. First we encounter floating gardens - rafts of sand and reed that raise the vegetables - tended by gardeners who commute between them, standing in canoes they paddle with a strange ankle technique. "There are over 10,000 acres [4047 hectares]," Nini says as we board a bobbing line of tomato vines. "Sometime gardens break away and block the boat channels." They certainly do; we frequently join other swallow-tails clearing a path with roaring propshafts, using them like blenders and sending up spumes of chopped vegies.

The villages are home to tens of thousands of people; Nin calls them "cities". Certainly, they host some diverse operations, which Burmese tourists have been visiting for years. There's the 1844 Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, known for cats that bored monks have trained to jump through hoops. There are the girls who make cigars from lotus leaves, and a weaving house where each superfine scarf is hand-spun from the gossamer of 16,000 lotus stems. At one of Inle's wealthier houses, 40 Burmese cats are being bred for export; in a darkened room I make the mistake of crouching to take a photo and I'm leapt on by smooth and very expensive felines.

Next day, by some karmic coincidence, I'm on the lake for its most important ceremony: the towing of a vast royal barge from a temple to a monastery. Forty giant canoes - ankle-rowed by 3400 men drawn from across the region - are tied in a single two-kilometre line to tow the barge for seven kilometres. The route is a cheering flotilla of colour, drum noise and action and we join hundreds of other spectator boats. The event easily rivals Chinese New Year in Hong Kong - I still don't know the name of it.

Days seven and eight

From the lake shore we trek into the mountains, with the aid of two porters. Thick jungle ravines are raucous with cicadas and the climb is so hot I begin to feel I'm composed of only blood and fat. But above 1700 metres the air cools and the landscape becomes rich with crops and pasture, a quilt of red, green and yellow.

These are the lands of the Pa'O people. There are no roads in their villages, just tracks used by walkers, cyclists and grumpy water buffaloes. Women wear layered black tunics and fearsomely coloured turbans. Their men wear "longyi" sarongs; they proudly show us Heath Robinson power systems driven by water ("It gives light to nine houses!") and always invite us to eat upstairs above their tethered livestock.

Sometimes rain turns tracks into orange luges and at one notorious spot we have to run a 500-metre gauntlet of leeches. (I don't believe it until I stop and see them inching blindly towards my smell.)

The highlight is a night in a fog-bound monastery called Htee Thein, sleeping on a wooden floor. The hall is hung with sheets to define "rooms" for travellers; in one corner is the abbot, an old man who wears an Arsenal beanie and snores quietly.

"A lovely man," Nini says. "I wonder who is looking after him?"

At 5am I have the life frightened out of me when novice monks begin chanting as loud as the King's Choir. The abbot still wears his Arsenal hat when he receives the meagre donations we're asked to give. In turn he blesses us and wishes us safety on our journey. I notice his bedside table has stroke medicine. I wish him the same.

I return to Australia with two notebooks that contain 15,000 handwritten words. It's no exaggeration to say that after eight days I feel as if I've been away for weeks. But if the experience has been as faceted, gleaming and rich as the jewelled pip atop the Shwedagon Pagoda, then I'm like the B600 doing its sputtering drive past.

I need to go round again.

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.

FAST FACTS

Ethics of travel

For decades, travellers have weighed up whether visiting Burma meant endorsing — and financing — a brutal regime. In January last year, the released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi indicated foreign visitors were welcome, and the past four months have seen a string of overtures and concessions from president Thein Sein. While some still argue for boycott, change is clearly under way — not least in visitation, which, though small by regional standards, is growing at a fearsome rate.

For the record, while some newspapers (including this one) refer to "Rangoon" and "Burma", you'll sound distinctly odd if you use anything but "Yangon" and "Myanmar" while you're there.

Getting there

Thai Airways has a fare to Rangoon from Sydney and Melbourne for about $935 low-season return including tax. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), then to Rangoon (75min); see www.thaiairways.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 28 days.

Touring there

World Expeditions has a 12-day Highlights of Myanmar tour for $2490 a person, including accommodation, guides, tours, trekking, most meals and internal flights. It takes in Rangoon, Bagan, Inle Lake, the highlands (with monastery stay) and Mandalay. Phone 1300 720 000; see worldexpeditions.com.

Staying there

Rangoon hotels are a mixed affair, with those that cater to expats (posh, faceless) and those that don't (tired). The Strand is a five-star exception for about $US200 ($192) a night; see ghmhotels.com. In Bagan and Inle, World Expeditions uses the positively joyful Amazing Bagan Resort and Amazing Nyaung Shwe. The former has a pool and puppet shows; the latter has a restaurant deck over the river. Fun, beautiful and a steal at about$US35 a night — don't miss them.

While there

Changing money is a bit of a nightmare but your guides will help. You can exchange US dollars for bricks of kyat in hotels at varying rates. Warning: your notes must be new and pristine, or you'll sacrifice about 30 per cent of the value.

When to go

November to February: less rain, less heat.

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