Landing in Myanmar's former capital Yangon, I was met and driven through busy streets lined with crumbling buildings to the Governor's Residence, an Orient Express' property and an oasis of calm and comfort in the heart of the city.
Suitably restored and refreshed, I was up early the following morning to explore the many fascinating sights of Yangon, some of them tucked away in obscure parts of the city, before ending the day at Schwedagon Pagoda as a steady stream of local people arrived to pray at this holiest of Buddhish shrines and the sun set behind its towering golden stupa.
From Yangon, I flew north to Bagan and headed straight to its wonderful local market which every morning is a pageant of sound and color as the local townsfolk come to shop for their daily provisions and to socialise. Bagan is of course world-famous for its ancient and innumerable temples that dot the plains around the town, and my passionate and highly knowledgeable guide (Mr Than) made each and every one an absolute joy to visit. I did though stop counting how many times I was asked to remove my shoes, so a horse and cart ride through the archeological zone, with the peace only occasionally disturbed by children chasing our cart in the hope of sweets, was welcome respite!
I then flew from Bagan to Mandalay, but go by boat up the Irrawaddy River if you have the time - a wonderfully relaxing experience and a unique insight into rural life along the river. Despite the allure of its name, Mandalay was probably the least interesting stop on my itinerary, although I wouldn't have wanted to miss the extraordinary sight of a thousand monks queuing for their lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery.
On next to Heho, where most head straight to Inle Lake. I instead drove through the hills to Pindaya, a beautiful journey through countryside that reminded me of England. Perhaps it was the much cooler air?! Pindaya' s claim to fame is it strange and magnificent caves that are decorated with thousands of Buddha images, each of which is underscored by the name and nationality of the respective donor.
The following day I continued up to Kalaw, once a British hill station and surrounded by rolling, forested hills where a number of minority tribes, distinguished by their dress, have settled. You are encouraged to walk here and, after a little persuasion, my ever-smiling guide succeeded in dragging me up through fruit orchards to the picturesque hilltop village of Palaung. Green tea is the village's main source of income (it can be seen drying everywhere), and to celebrate my arrival I was handed a steaming cup by a local lady who claimed to be 75 years old. A walking advert for green tea or a slight stretch of the truth perhaps, but she didn't look a day over fifty.
Inle Lake was my final port of call and what a magical place it was. A local boat took me across to the wonderful lakeside resort of Inle Princess which looks out across mirror-like waters that are dotted with villages on stilts, flowering water hyacinth, floating vegetable gardens and fishing canoes. The local Intha people are renowned for their highly unusual leg-rowing technique - one leg in the boat and one leg wrapped around the oar. I was dying to have a go, but as the result would have wet and embarrassing.
I spent my last few days visiting the temples, villages, markets and monasteries around the lake. You are greeted by warm smiles and friendly faces wherever you go in Burma, and Inle Lake was no exception. I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to visit such a special country. Since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, things are changing fast and the rise in the number of incoming tourists has been little short of phenomenal with many hotels booked out months in advance.
So, go as soon as you can but give us enough notice to secure good accommodations for you, or travel outside of the peak season from December to February.
Read more about vacations to Burma