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The red-brick entrances to Ava still stand, and there’s an old watchtower in its centre. An earthquake in 1838 caused one side of the tower to drop by two metres. Standing on its wonky top, I can see other remnants of the royal city poking out of the trees – two monasteries, another gateway, two dilapidated bathing tanks – but the rest of the landscape’s taken up with trees, bamboo shacks, skinny cows and bullock carts.

The monastery to the northwest of the old city is made of solid teak and its weathered boards creak underfoot. The northern hall of the monastery has been turned into a classroom, with desks, posters and a blackboard. It’s lunchtime, and the children are outside swimming in the lake. The school’s sole teacher, U Nayakar, has taught here for 30 years, instructing the village children in maths, reading, Burmese, a little English, and Pali – the ancient religious language of Buddhist scripture.

In this poor country, free schools run by monks are most children’s only chance of an education. Burma is a deeply religious place where 90 per cent of people follow the Theravada school of Buddhism. Buddhist festivals punctuate laborious agricultural life. Monks in maroon or orange robes, and nuns in pink robes holding parasols, are a common sight. Just across the Irrawaddy from Ava, more than 2,000 Buddhist temples dot the hillsides of Sagaing, their gilded roofs dazzling through the trees. It is a place of prayer and scholarship. Low chanting is audible from an open window as nuns memorise their Pali scripture.

Yet it’s not all work. One Saturday night, I count 54 monks in a tea shop watching a match between Manchester United and Everton on TV. They sit in disconcerting silence until Manchester United score, whereupon they all applaud happily.

Buddhist monks are a political force, too. In 2007, thousands of them took part in demonstrations against the government, which we’re violently broken up.

Nearly 200 miles southeast of Mandalay lies Inle Lake. It’s an hour or so by plane across a landscape of tiny fields, huts and temples, a place without water or electricity where agriculture takes medieval forms. Long and tapering, Inle is a place of heart stopping beauty. Its limpid water, ringed by velvety green mountains, is full of floating villages and old temples. It’s also a good introduction to the dizzying ethnic mix of modern Burma. The country is a volatile blend of 135 ethnic groups, which the government has struggled to hold together since 1948.

Inle is in Shan State, the heartland of Burma, and home to the Shan people. But several different groups live around Inle: the Taungyo, the Pa-O and the Intha, whose houses are built on stilts on the lake itself.

The modest Intha houses in Pauk Par village are made from woven bamboo and thatched with wild grass. Daw Khin Phyoe Yee and her friends have gathered in her house to roll cheroots from tobacco grown in the mountains. It’s piecework for a local manufacturer. The rate is 1,500 kyat (£1.50) for 1,000 cheroots, about a day’s work. In another room, Phyoe Yee’s nephew is doing his English homework. His family summons him to practise on a native. ‘I am nine years,’ he manages, finally. Another man, so far silent, now has something important to communicate. It takes me a while to figure out that he’s saying: ‘Wayne Rooney!’

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