As modern influences come to Myanmar, the past is always near, writes Neda Vanovac.

In 1927, Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda feared he had come to Rangoon too late.

"Everything was already there — a city of blood, dreams and gold, a river that flowed from the savage jungle into the stifling city," he wrote.

Almost a century later, a traveller might be tempted to feel the same sense of coming late to the party, but as Myanmar begins to open up to tourists once more and greater parts of the country become accessible, that fear should dissipate.

For several years now, Myanmar has been a country on the cusp, as the military begins to release its choke-hold and democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi steps in to turn the country back towards the rest of the world.


But even as Myanmar seeks to modernise — with high-rise developments, new freeways and Wi-Fi hot spots popping up with incredible speed — it is still possible to see the romantic crossroads of Asia that so captivated the literary heavyweights of Neruda, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.

Rangoon, now renamed Yangon, is still a dreamy city of gold.

Walking through the bustling downtown area, it's impossible not to feel surrounded by the ghosts of a mythologised old world.

The crumbling buildings of colonial England still line stately avenues, but trees grow out of their uncovered top floors and mosses creep along the walls.

Downstairs, people go about their daily life, washing laundry in huge buckets, cooking on fires on the footpaths, pecking away at typewriters for hire, poring over stacks of books for sale as cars whizz by.

Commuters still wear thick cotton longgyis, teamed with business shirts and neat blouses, the women's cheeks smeared with the yellow paste of the thanakha tree, thought to be both a cosmetic and a natural sunscreen.

This feeling of a country on the cusp is evident everywhere, even in — or especially in — the tourism centre of Bagan, in the heart of the country, where thousands of centuries-old temples dot 42sq km of the dry savannah plains.

Tourists clamber up and huddle together in the pre-dawn winter chill atop a stone temple to watch the sun come up as hot-air balloons begin to float along the horizon, costing $420 a pop.

But lining the main road into the temple complex are hundreds of tarp-and-branch lean-tos, a stark reminder of the extreme poverty that grips so many of the locals.

Even in a bustling hub popular with foreign and domestic tourists, it is still possible to spend most of your daytime travelling as you tour temples and seeing only the occasional other visitor.

You can cycle through village markets as the morning mists rise, as local women efficiently behead chicken carcasses and as street dogs look on longingly.

Elsewhere, men stack eggs, women weigh piles of betel leaves and others sell palm-sugar lollies.

You can explore monasteries where monks nap in the warmth of the early-morning sun as it inches along the crumbling walls.

You can marvel at a 13th century Mon-style brick temple covered in fresco squares painted with plant dyes, telling the life story of Buddha, where the fading plaster on the ceiling depicts a Myanmar Romeo and Juliet story.

You can climb near-hidden internal staircases, breathing in dust and hoping not to startle a roosting pigeon as you reach the roof, clutching the brick peak as you are rewarded with a panorama across the plains, temples as far as the eye can see. The history is palpable.

Below, a goatherd slowly moves her flock as they graze from temple to temple in the shade of a few short trees.

At the major temples the spell is somewhat broken, as hawkers well know how much may be squeezed out of an unsuspecting tourist, and they sell sand paintings, wooden puppets and jade jewellery by the thousands.

However, seen against harassment at comparable wonders of the world, here it is minimal.

Across the country, the people of Myanmar are exceedingly polite, smiling with curiosity at foreigners who remain an uncommon sight, occasionally stopping to chat before going on their way.

In this way, we negotiate to take a ride on a local wooden fishing boat up the Ayeyarwady River for sunset.

We don't expect the mini tour that comes with it, as our wizened captain putters along and indicates we should get out at a small monastery that perches on the cliffs overlooking the water.

He collects the keys from a monk and unlocks the squealing gates to three temples, each lovelier than the last.

The aura of peace is almost a physical thing as we enjoy the temples in silence. We climb a steep hill past a fence of cacti for panoramic views across the river plains.

Back on the water, we drift towards the sunset as the clouds light up a brilliant pink before fading to lavender.

As we cycle on creaking, lightless bicycles through the bustling early-evening traffic of Nyaung-U village, swerving out of the way of trucks, horses and motorcycles, we almost can't believe that for a few hours we'd managed to teleport to a different time altogether.

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Yangon, via Kuala Lumpur.