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Mandalay is one of the most evocative place names on the entire atlas – Rudyard Kipling forever linked Burma’s second city with images of sticky tropical heat, Buddhist temples and thwarted love.

And the road to Mandalay – where the flying fishes play – isn’t a road at all, but the Irrawaddy River. At daybreak, it’s a vast sweep of pearl marking out the western edge of the city. Through the morning haze, there’s the muted noise of traffic, mist rising from dark green foliage and the gleaming golden roofs of pagodas and monasteries.

On the streets, in the morning rush hour, traditional dress is the norm: both men and women wear longyis – the Burmese sarong. Schoolchildren carry lunch in tiffin boxes. Girls with cheeks smeared with thanaka (sun block made from ground tree bark) balance two to a bicycle. Barefoot monks holding alms bowls share the streets with scooters, battered cars and cycle rickshaws. Street vendors cook mohingar, a spicy fish broth, over charcoal stoves for breakfast.

The heat, smells, street life and colours of Mandalay are intoxicating. But what’s especially striking to a visitor is the distinct flavour of the not-so-distant past. There are few tourists, no ATMs, International Direct Dial phones are rare and your mobile phone won’t roam here. You can’t pay for anything with a credit card and the only currency you’ll be able to exchange is the US dollar – and if your bills aren’t pristine, they won’t be accepted. Shopping means walking around with a big wad of 1,000-kyat notes.

The reasons for this, of course, are sad ones. The Union of Myanmar, to give it its official name, is ruled by the longest-lasting military dictatorship in the world. Economic sanctions have been in place against it for decades. For many years, the democratic opposition said it was unethical for travellers to come here, that they would lend moral and financial support to the regime in doing so.

Yet in the summer of 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi declared in the first of her Reith Lectures that she wanted foreign travellers to visit Burma. The daughter of a hero of Burmese independence and a Nobel laureate herself, Suu Kyi is the political conscience of her country. Her residence in Rangoon, where she spent nearly 15 years under house arrest, is pointed out in hushed tones. She is referred to in conversation simply as The Lady. No-one who has ever wanted to come to Burma needs more encouragement than hers. Her only caveat was that visitors should avoid the tourist establishments that have close ties with the military regime.

Despite its occasional prominence in the press, Burma remains largely unknown. Some 300,000 tourists visited in 2010; by comparison, about three-and-a-half million people a year pay to go on the London Eye. Coming here preserves that sense of a first trip overseas: the gasp of tropical air on the runway, and the palpable remoteness from home. Travelling through the country, you begin to glimpse the complex influences that have shaped it: Buddhism, the legacy of the British Empire, the ethnic diversity of the population, and the long imperial history of the Burmese themselves.

An hour outside Mandalay, a bumpy road ends at a ferry crossing over a tributary of the Irrawaddy River. The journey continues on the other side by horse drawn cart. The driver, Theinzaw, is 39. His horse is called Dolay – the Burmese nickname for Cristiano Ronaldo, the former Manchester United winger. English Premier League football is an obsession here.

Theinzaw guides Dolay down a narrow, muddy track. The heat is intense. The loudest sounds are made by birds and insects. There’s little to suggest that this place, Ava, was once one of Burma’s greatest royal capitals. From the 11th century until the British arrived in the middle of the 19th century, Burma was a major regional power with an empire of its own. At one stage it included present-day Bangladesh and Thailand. Though ruled by Burmese monarchs, the state was a patchwork of nationalities: ethnic Burmese, Mon, Shan, Chin, Kayin and many others.

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