IT'S BEFORE DAWN in Bagan, central Burma, and we're in a dusty field watching the shapes of men wrestle with huge pieces of cloth. In the darkness, it's easy to imagine that we're witnessing the creation of a circus big top. In fact, the men are preparing seven hot-air balloons for a sunrise flight over the savannah of ancient Buddhist temples that makes up the Unesco World Heritage Site.
We've been driven to the field very early in the morning in a fleet of restored prewar Chevrolet buses, with the company's title “Balloons over Bagan” painted on the vehicles' maroon and cream livery. Tea, coffee and biscuits were served in the dark on foldaway chairs and tables and the whole stylish, efficient operation seemed at odds with the ways of a country unused to tourism on the scale it has begun to experience only recently.
As the light breaks, we lift off with a roar of flame and float towards the silver bend of the Irrawaddy River. Below us, through sparse vegetation and mist, lie thousands of brick and stucco temples that were built by Bagan's kings between the 11th and 13th centuries. Their restoration since the 1990s from piles of rubble to almost complete structures has been controversial.
Still, if ever an experience deserves the cliché “once in a lifetime”, this is it. No doubt Bagan will go the way of many other heritage sites in Asia – there are one or two signs of creeping commercialism on the ground – but for now it's unspoiled and magnificent. Steering a balloon is impossible, our pilot explains, so his skill is in catching the right winds for a journey. He handles it expertly, gliding through the new morning, dipping over history.
To get to Burma, we travelled direct from Hong Kong to Rangoon, which was the country's capital until 2005, when the government shifted its administration to the purpose-built city of Naypyidaw. Rangoon is fascinating, like the Wild West rendered by Kipling and yanked into a century of Japanese cars (imported with steering wheels on the wrong side), cranes (swinging monster-like in lots beside the river), ATMs and the Internet – both of which are new and unreliable.
Visitors normally spend just one or two days in Rangoon before travelling upcountry to Burma's more picturesque destinations. But the city does have a frayed charm that shouldn't be overlooked.
As one of the British Empire's most sophisticated capitals, from 1824 until Burma's independence in 1948, Rangoon was home to some of the finest examples of European architecture in Asia. Many of them, such as the High Court, Government Telegraph Office and Port Authority, survive in the downtown area, where the colonial government was concentrated.
The British introduced a grid plan, which means the streets are numbered and it's easy to find your way around. The electric street lighting, water supply and sewerage system from that time are also still in use.
We rest from the heat at The Strand, which in 1911 was pronounced “the finest hostelry east of Suez” by Murray's Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon, and works hard to maintain that reputation today. Built in 1901, the property belonged to a group of classic hotels that the legendary Sarkies Brothers owned throughout the region. Others included Singapore's Raffles and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang.
The Strand is one of the most beautifully restored of Rangoon's colonial buildings. Its teak-panelled bar, raucous for the Friday-night happy hour, is sunlit and peaceful midafternoon; we order Pegu Club cocktails and settle down to read at the bar for a while amid the high-backed leather chairs. (The Pegu Club was an old Rangoon gentleman's club that burned down in the 1940s; the drink is a potent mix of gin, Cointreau, lime juice and bitters.)
A letter in our suite from General Manager Didier Belmonte lets us know that we've joined an impressive guest register that includes Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell, who served as a policeman in colonial Burma, where his mother grew up. Belmonte has been with The Strand for two years and says tourism in Rangoon took off “like a rocket” after Hillary Clinton's landmark visit in 2011. There are barely enough hotel rooms in the city to keep up with the growing demand. Luxury boutique properties such as The Strand and The Governor's Residence by Orient Express are likely to be booked up months in advance.
The latter is in the Embassy Quarter, removed from the centre of town. It's more of a retreat than a city hotel, with its verandahs, lotus ponds, fan-shaped swimming pool and lovely green gardens decorated with parasols. The front of the property is a two-storey teak mansion, which was built in 1920 as the official home of the Governor of Kayah state. It houses the classic Kipling Bar, a restaurant serving French and local cuisine, and an open-air lounge with rattan chairs that are perfect for dozing through hot afternoons.
As it once did in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, much of Rangoon's nightlife seems to happen in hotels. Independent restaurants and bars don't stay open late. By day, there's plenty to do besides rambling through the back streets, watching people and admiring old buildings – a lovely way to spend time.
After a morning's shopping for trinkets at Scott (Bogyoke) Market, we take a taxi to The Governor's Residence for lunch by the garden and a nap on the verandah. From there, we stroll along the avenue of colourful ambassadors' homes towards the National Museum, full of ancient Burmese treasures, and end up at Shwedagon Paya.
Everyone arrives in the late afternoon, to catch the splendour of the setting sun on the famous gold pagoda. It's supposed to enshrine strands of Buddha's hair and other sacred relics. According to its literature, the top of the stupa is covered in 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 72 carats.
The polished stone grounds of the pagoda house hundreds of intricately gilded temples, the architecture of which spans more than two centuries. Modern technology has encroached: neon lights flash behind the heads of Buddhist statues, and the shrine is surrounded by black speakers on pylons.
Shoes are forbidden, so we leave ours in cubbies at the bottom of a long escalator that leads to the holy site. When we leave again it is dusk. Women sell roses in the high marble hall, while men in longyis walk barefoot between the shafts of dying light. Outside, a column of starlings bursts from somewhere above us, beyond the guarding lions' giant mouths. The birds race and twist in the violet sky like a living, sideways tornado. It's amazing, so we stand still and watch.