I must begin at Bagan. It is not the start of my days in Burma - in fact it is in the middle of the journey. But, just as this town of 4000 Buddhist temples lies at the geographic and spiritual heart of Burma, it also lies at the core of my fruitful travel here.
A place of pilgrimage for Buddhists since the 11th century, it has left an indelible memory in me - one complete impression full of sights, sounds, scents and, most important perhaps, a big, soft ball that embraces all of this and lives within me. One complete feeling.
Within that memory are pink dawn mists and golden sunset hues; pagodas peppering an agricultural landscape of small fields; horse carts and bicycles; goat herders and women winnowing sesame seeds; a feeling of space, a feeling of intimacy.
Narrow passages and steep steps to the broad, flat roofs of deserted monasteries, from where I can look out over a landscape where humans and nature seem in a certain harmony. Where the practical and spiritual are synonymous. Where there is stillness. Not a breath of wind. Not a jangly thought. Stillness, in every sense. The most wonderful stillness. On the practical side, Bagan is usually a two-night stop on a tour of Burma, which many now call Myanmar.
But it is not where this tour of Burma, with Integrated Tourism Services, began.
Flying with Malaysia Airlines, and after an overnight stop in Kuala Lumpur, Rangoon opens up before us.
At its heart is the 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda - and at the heart of this 300ha compound there is a gold stupa a smidgen under 100m tall.
But at the 70m long Chaukhtatkyi reclining Buddha, Thandar Aung had already started to tell her stories.D
ear Thandar deserves special mention, for she is more than a guide in the tour sense. This young woman, with degrees in both economics and French and so fluent in English that she gets the slightest nuances and jokes, guides us in the broadest sense.
She guides us past Burma's immigration lines and departure lounges while all others queue. She guides us through busy markets and lacquer ware and fabric showrooms. She guides us through the stories of dynasties, kings and the great Buddhist teachers. She guides us through culture and agriculture; and, perhaps most demandingly, through Burma's past, present and what its future may be.
Her well-humoured narrative is a winsome blend of history, specification, theology and mythology. "Everywhere in Burma, there is history and fairytales," she says. A good guide can make all the difference to the travel experience and Thandar plucks the essence of her country and plants it in my heart.In Rangoon, we stay at the comfortable Traders Hotel and then fly on smoothly with one of Burma's five domestic airlines to Bagan. There we stay at Thazin Garden Hotel, a smallish hotel with big and comfortable rooms, a Buddhist shrine lit with candles in the evenings, and dinner tables out on the lawn.
Adjacent to this, there is a nice swimming pool area.
We also enjoy the local food - a strong theme of the whole trip - with mild and aromatic curry flavours, fresh local produce, but the option of European-style choices. A meal for two, with drinks, is generally between $15 and $25. The local Burma beer is good and around $3 for a big bottle. Burma wine is rather good too.
At each stop, there is transport and the drivers are safe and considerate, even though the vehicles are often older models (there has been a ban on importing cars, until the recent changes). All the vehicles we travel in are right-hand drive and, oddly (one of those old junta rulings) must be used on the right side of the road, which makes overtaking adventuresome.
Baggage is handled for us, and $1 is a good tip for such services in Burma. (There are no ATMs, only one hotel of the set we stay at can process a credit card, so I carry US dollars and convert some money to local currency. Wi-Fi is found throughout the trip, but doesn't really work.)
From Bagan we fly on to Mandalay, to stay in another comfortable hotel, near the Irrawaddy River. We visit the carvers and gold leaf makers for which the area is famous, and Mahagandayong Monastery, to watch its 1000 monks collect their lunch - a generous ladle of rice .
We also walk some of the 1.2km, 250-year-old teak U Bein bridge, and return across the Taungthman Lake by local boat.
After two nights at Mandalay, the tour flies on for another two at Inle Lake before returning to Rangoon for a night and a farewell dinner and then heading back home through Kuala Lumpur.
And Inle Lake is another extraordinary place and my second big highlight behind Bagan.
The lake covers more than 110sqkm. The men of the Intha people, who fish and cultivate floating gardens, have developed a unique style of leg-rowing. They balance on one leg, wrap the other around the paddle and, using their whole body and throwing out their hip, propel the boat forward not only with power but precision, leaving their hands free.
In the floating gardens, which are initially made from dredged-up bottom weeds moored to bamboo poles, they grow an array of vegetables and fruits.
We browse the market at Ywa Ma village, a short boat ride away, which has just about anything you can name. And at Inle Princess Resort, I enjoy my favourite meals of the whole trip. Fresh, spicy and not pricey - a few dollars a course.
And yet Inle Princess Resort is luxurious and in a remarkable position. We approach the remote hotel after a 45-minute longboat trip across the lake and the engine is turned off some way out so that leg rowers can bring us in.
The resort is set among lily ponds and pretty gardens and edges the water. The rooms are big and well appointed with balconies facing the water.
I watch the sun set to the call of myriad birdlife.
And I sleep. In my comfortable bed in chilled air, after a wonderful meal, I sleep in the remote dark of Burma.
I began in Bagan, and it is fitting that I find a finale here in Inle.
• Integrated Tourism Services has two tours of Burma. There is the 11 days/10 nights Classical Myanmar which includes one night in Kuala Lumpur, one in Rangoon, two in Inle Lake (Phaun Daw Oo Festival), two in Mandalay, two in Bagan, another in Rangoon and one night in Kuala Lumpur. Twin share is from $3570 per person. Single supplement from $850. This includes daily breakfasts, two lunches and five dinners.
• Then there is the 11 days/10 nights Road to Mandalay, including one night in Kuala Lumpur, one in Governor's Residence Rangoon, seven nights Road to Mandalay cruise and another night in Governor's Residence. Twin share from $6960 each. Single supplement from $770. It includes daily breakfasts and all meals on board Road to Mandalay.
• Prices includes return international airfares, internal flights in Burma, transfers, transportation, accommodation, breakfasts, dinners in Burma, extensive sightseeing, entrance fees and an English-speaking guide.
• Visit intour.com.au or call 9381 9644.
Stephen Scourfield travelled as a guest of Integrated Tourism Services.