Rosie Garthwaite cruises and cycles through the adjacent countries of Myanmar and Laos and finds tranquility despite a troubled past.
Discover the temple treasures of Laos and Myanmar
Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda has been ransacked, conquered, stripped of its jewels and melted down for the layers of gold leaf laid by dedicated monks countless times over the years. But ever since it was built in the sixth century, the "golden pagoda" has remained one of South-east Asia's most extraordinary monuments.
There are hundreds of worshippers assembled even at five in the morning, and the sound of chanting soars over the kilometre-long platform that runs around the shining structure. Monks scurry like worker bees, cleaning, polishing and adding yet more gold. Then the sun comes up and you have the choice of putting on your sunglasses to watch the dazzling sight or turning around to admire the pilgrims bask in the pagoda's majesty. Even the black ravens in the eaves seem to stop and stare.
It was the last thing I did in Myanmar, but it's the first I describe because the religion it represents is the focus of every place I visited - and almost every person I met.
I'm on Orient Express's Road to Mandalay boat for a cruise down the Irrawaddy River, and my itinerary runs something like this: our first stop is Mandalay, which used to be the capital about 100 years ago; we then head to Sagaing Hill, where most of the residents sought refuge and hid during the First World War; then on to historic Bagan, founded in 162 AD; before ending in Yangon, where the colonial government was based.
Sam, my guide on the boat, tells me he's biding his time before he can become a monk. An only son, he needs to provide an income to look after his mother in Yangon. His job means regular visits to the monastic centre near Sagaing Hill, home to 200,000 monks. It is where Sam wants to spend the rest of his life.
According to Sam, most people in Myanmar donate nearly a quarter of their income to religious charity. I can well believe it. At daybreak on the first morning, several of us accompany him and the rest of the crew to give out alms in the village of Anapura, where our boat is docked. Alms-giving is a daily ritual, and I observed it three times during my stay here as well as in neighbouring Laos. Each time, I notice something different: this time it is the eyes of the proud old monk leading the monks in height order - from lanky to grasshopper - on their march through the village. I witness a special moment pass between the old man and Sam, who later tells me he had served with the veteran as a novice when he was just nine years old.
There are more than 400,000 monks in Myanmar, but we usually hear about the 400,000 soldiers. I see only one soldier during my week there. I admit I was on the lookout, my preconceptions coloured by the news I had seen and heard so far: blurry camcorder shots of the crackdown on the rioting monks in 2007; romanticised pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader; and those awful images of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the south of the country and left 130,000 people dead a little over two years ago.
My arrival in Myanmar coincides with the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. The rabbit symbolises rebirth, a chance to start again, and that is exactly what Myanmar's government is trying to do: they want to double the number of people visiting each year from its current handful of businessmen, charity workers, intrepid tourists and undercover reporters. Right now, it gets about 500,000 visitors a year - and that is counting repeat entry.
The government's re-genesis began last year with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years under house arrest. The government offered an election, too, but most of the opposition boycotted it with accusations of corruption. There have also been moves to open up business links, but only via the hand of the generals in charge. In 2005, the capital was moved out of Yangon hundreds of kilometres away to Nay Pyi Taw. It is still mainly empty; people haven't been forced to move there yet. But, as Sam points out, Myanmar's rulers have shunted the capital around like chess pieces for thousands of years. Seen from a tourist's point of view, this is fantastic. You don't need an archaeologist to dig deep to find the remains of past generations. They are still standing abandoned all around the country.
Sam tells us all the juicy bits of history: Myanmar, for example, was the richest place in Asia in the 1960s, and any leader for whom marauding, raping or pillaging was a favourite pastime found their way into the country at some point.
But it's only when I stop listening to the tales and arrive in Bagan that I catch a glimpse of a different, more dishevelled Myanmar.
Waking up and looking out of my cabin porthole at the view that ancient Bagan offers will, for me, always be a hard one to beat: thousands of stupas, in various states of repair, lie scattered across the horizon - some big, with their spires puncturing the mist, others hidden in dips in the ground or so completely swallowed by the fertile green around that you might end up going right past, thinking they are haystacks, until someone tells you to stop.
I have Zen to do just that. Zen, a boy I find hanging about the docks in Bagan, grew up in this historic city with the stupas as his playground. He jumps on a bicycle and attaches himself to me, using every bit of English he knows to make me laugh, until I stop and hire his know-how for the day. Along with a couple of other absconders from the tour bus that picks us up from the boat, I follow Zen on a long bike ride full of secret gardens and hidden Buddhas, pushing open doors that look as if they have been untouched for years. Zen claims to know the history of the stupas but cannot read properly because he has to work to feed his family - they come from a tribe that "the government doesn't like". Almost all the other people I had met so far were Burmese, the majority tribe. This is my first experience of the other side of Myanmar.
In Yangon, I encounter it again. There is Victoria, the homeless Catholic woman, who hops into my taxi with her umbrella to tell me about the oppression of the people in her church. There is the bespectacled fortune-teller with a huge Buddha tattooed across his chest, who politely says I cannot take his photo because "he would never be able to join his image outside the country".
Looking around, it seems that, like the government, the people of Myanmar are working out their own ways to build links outside of the country. Well-known brands are plastered on every lamp post. And you can pay for everything in dollars, as long as the notes are brand new. Mandalay's gold leaf factory dresses the stupas across the skyline. It takes 3,000 bangs to make a few tiny centimetres of bling - painstaking but holy work that I am told will be rewarded. And it has begun to, with an online-sales business to clients worldwide. Everyone seems to be industrious in their pursuit of bettering their situation, from the tiny corner shops to the small offices that line every street. One businessman I speak to says "sanctions suck", but doesn't miss a beat before telling me there are plenty of ways around them.
Queries about going off the "Big Four" trail - Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon and Lake Inle (which I skipped on this journey) - will elicit a shaking head from many tour operators you meet. But I am assured by one, who has been running a top travel company in Yangon for five years, that it is easy enough. Despite popular belief, government approval is needed for only a few areas and can usually be gained on arrival. I make plans to come back and do exactly that.
But on to Laos. Ten years ago I spent a summer in the lesser-known parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. I had a fantastic time, but everywhere I went all I heard was how Laos was "Asia's last kept secret". But what I find is a country that has, in parts, been run over by the "Khao San Road" bus, its innermost sanctums laid bare and exposed.
Luang Prabang is where my journey through Laos begins. There is no direct way to get to Laos from Myanmar, so I flew from Yangon to Bangkok, then took a flight to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang was made famous by its dozens of Buddhist wats, or temples. But here, it is not religion but the ratio of restaurants to residential dwellings that makes our over-riding impression. And thus begins my pilgrimage for Laotian cuisine. I grow to enjoy its combination of Thai, Vietnamese and French influences, packing a punch with plenty of chilli in nearly every dish: fresh noodle soup, stuffed lemon grass fish steamed in banana leaves, beef cooked fondue-style in coconut juice, spicy English-style sausages. The morning markets are packed with food stalls selling a dozen different things, including grilled rats and canaries, if you fancy them.
From Luang Prabang I ride a bicycle - with no gears and a shaky basket on the front - along a tough but beautiful 32km stretch through cotton-weaving villages to Tat Kuang Si waterfall, its cool waters inviting after the long, dusty ride. I find a simple but clean guest house with a cooking class and its own tiny waterfall and, after a night's rest, end up returning to Luang Prabang in a tuk-tuk, my thighs unable to pump me back home.
The next day, a five-hour winding journey from Luang Prabang brings us to Vang Vieng, on the edge of the Nam Song River river and surrounded by paddy fields and limestone mountains. The town is popular for its inventive water sports, notably tubing, which is immensely popular with gap-year teenagers. For those not in the know, it involves floating on the inner tube of a tyre down the Nam Song past a four-kilometre stretch of makeshift bars. I end up joining in the fun, and go down giant slides and zip lines into the slow-moving water below.
But it is my biking adventure out of the city and through tiny villages, into mountain caves and over swinging wooden bridges that creaked under my weight, that will remain in my mind.
The journey comes to an end in the quiet capital, Vientiane. Here, the little corner shops are stuffed with art quite unlike the kind found in the touristy markets of the region, and I quickly fill my bag with purchases. Young apothecaries offer us a choice of dried gecko, turtle tongue or a pile of bootleg DVDs hidden under the counter. I wander through the streets, trying different dishes morning, noon and night.
Over lunch one day, I am introduced to "the best singer in Laos" - "Little Sunshine" Noi, who is trying to set up a music and theatre school for the disabled but hasn't the money to bribe the right official. She gives me a private performance, singing and playing on a traditional harp, and presents me with a book of ancient Laotian myths that recounts a time before the country became known as the most bombed in the world during and after the Vietnam War. One of the tales is about a stupa in the centre of the city where a dragon is supposed to be sleeping. It rises up and defends the stupa against invaders. I can't help but joke that the beast should make an appearance again should the tourists try to take over.
Rosie Garthwaite is the author of How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone (Bloomsbury).
If you go
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies to Bangkok from Dh2,700 return. Return flights with Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokairways.com) from Bangkok to Yangon cost from 7,550 Thai baht (Dh934), and from 10,800 baht (Dh1,335) to Luang Prabang.
Orient Express (www.orient-express.com) has several cruises on the ‘Road to Mandalay’. The three-night ‘Highlights of Burma’ journey costs from £1,510 (Dh9,105) per person, based on two sharing a superior cabin, including meals, internal flights and sightseeing.
Double rooms at the Mandalay Hill Resort (www.mandalayhillresorthotel.com) cost from US$100 (Dh367) per night. In Luang Prabang, rooms at La Residence Phou Vao (www.residencephouvao.com; 00 856 71 212 5300) cost from $260 (Dh955), including taxes.