BAGAN has everything going for it when you're smitten with the idea of going back in time and experiencing a life when kings ruled and the main mode of transportation was a horse and carriage. But when you're a novice temple tourist from the 21st century, history is best enjoyed when it's served with a cold welcome drink, butler service and free wi-fi.
Such is the thought that crosses your mind as you land at Bagan's tiny little Nyaung U airport after a rather nerve-jangling two-hour flight from Yangon's domestic airport in an airplane that would look more at home in an aviation museum. It lands right in front of the terminal building - so compact that there is no baggage belt and you pick out your bags as handlers carry them in and set them on the floor. You pass through a haphazard crowd that mills around a desk where military-like staff collect the entrance fee to enter the Bagan archaeological zone, but it looks so disorganised no one seems to care if you walk out without paying. But our law-abiding Singaporean DNA doesn't allow us to do that. Which is just as well because a motley group of cheapskate American tourists is nabbed for trying to sneak out and forced to stump up the US$15 a head - a small price to pay to immerse oneself in this ancient land known for its 3000 plus temples and stupas dating back to the 9th century.
We are rescued from the confusion by our pickup from Bagan Lodge, one of the newest properties that are a testament of Burma's new found interest in the tourism business. On the way, we pass by a good string of faded, crumbling temples looking like a photo essay come to life. The ancient structures pop up like mushrooms amidst lush green landscape that's been kept refreshingly free of any other structures, modern or otherwise. Even when we turn into the newly-built Bagan Lodge, it's a discreet, low-lying property that moulds seamlessly into the surroundings.
However, its unassuming facade opens up into a sprawling compound that looks almost like a safari lodge with distinctive tented villas that are a visual souvenir of the owners' holidays in Africa, notes general manager Jon Bourbad, 46. The affable Aussie native is a veteran hotelier whose tasked with infusing Bagan Lodge with the trappings of modern hospitality while respecting the heritage of the land.
In that sense, Bagan Lodge is a comforting bridge between the old and new - a romantic tented concept that captures the spirit of old world British colonial expeditions, but with 21st century amenities. While safari gear isn't quite necessary, you can still pretend to be an explorer, pitching your glamorous tent in a large, landscaped camp with breathtaking pagodas in the distance. Of course, your tent is actually made of brick walls and wooden floors with upscale toilet fittings, and the only perilous journey you are about to embark on is a hot-air balloon tour that gives you a heart-stopping aerial view of the temples.
Even if the weather doesn't permit the balloon to take off, the Lodge's creative travel desk concierge will easily put together some off-the-beaten track temple tours, or organise visits to artisanal lacquerware factories and the local markets.
If not for the Lodge, we would not have visited the large market of Nyaung U, the greater township that Bagan lies in - a bustling treasure trove of fresh ingredients patronised by the local population. This is where your eyes and nostrils are assailed by fresh fruit and vegetables, bubbling Burmese curries and colourful salads, as well as the distinctive odour of raw meat and seafood.
Imagine all this bounty transformed into the beguiling cuisine of Burma - which is not to be mistaken for Thai or Laotian as it has its own distinctive non-spicy but complex vocabulary of flavours. For a taste of the real McCoy, ask your hotel guide to take you to Nuwa - which serves some of the best local food in our entire trip. The all-you-can-eat restaurant is popular with locals and foreigners in the know - once you get past the dinginess of your surroundings, settle in and take a bite of everything that's laid before you. Myriad relishes are dubious looking but delicious, be it a mixture of tomato, onion and chilli powder cooked till meltingly soft or a sesame dip made from the dregs left over after extracting oil from the seeds - mixed with green chilli and lime leaf for an addictive condiment. An array of salads with peanut-based dressings and different curries that are more flavourful than spicy are more than enough to pique your interest in this unusual cuisine.
But you still want to save enough time to hang out in the Lodge itself, in one of the 85 air-conditioned rooms and villas, de-stressing with a hot stone or aromatherapy massage at the spa or checking out the local specialties at the restaurant which serves a mean tomato salad and lentil soup.
After all, Bagan may be a world totally unlike what you're used to, but Bagan Lodge ensures that even as you dip your toe into the past, you're still firmly entrenched in the present.