Trip of a Lifetime: Myanmar
Emerging from 50 years of isolation, Myanmar is today experiencing a influx of adventure- and culture-seeking travelers. Sara D’Souza travels by rail, horse, bike, boat, foot and hot air balloon to discover this inspiring and rapidly changing destination
After a 50-minute flight from Bangkok, we arrive in Yangon’s baking morning sun with a plan to head straight for the bus station and on to Bagan. But when our smiling taxi driver offers us a tour of the city for just $35, our plans, as they tend to do here, quickly change. By the end of day one our memory cards are full of classic and unexpected city sights, including the million tiny dishes of rice, curry, sauce, spices, vegetables and sweet desserts we ordered for less than $5 at lunch, and the spectacle of Chauk Htat Gyi, a 200-foot reclining female figure of the Buddha complete with highly polished pink toenails and lots of flashing lights, neon and bling.
By sundown we’re back on schedule aboard an overnight bus to Bagan. The Bollywood films and Abba soundtrack that play on a loop at full volume eliminate any chance of sleep, but steaming cups of tea and rich cakes provide ample consolation, particularly during a six-hour breakdown. Bagan is somewhat different from Yangon; it feels like a bunfight. We opt for a horse cart transfer to our hotel, which turns out to be the most reliable form of transport on our entire trip, and bump down Bagan’s long stretch of dusty road chatting with our driver and gawping at the city’s 4,000 red brick temples, which are strewn as far as the eye can see. While Bagan is geared up for tourists, it’s also wonderfully cut off from civilization. Don’t bother trying to use your phone, be prepared for Internet service that is patchy at best, and forget trying to find an ATM. There’s no option but to unplug and unwind.
Our days here are spent clattering down dusty lanes on borrowed bicycles, ducking into temples to cool off and shooting the breeze with locals while listening to the gentle putt-putt of the wooden boats on the Ayerwaddy River. The most unforgettable experience begins in a field before sunrise, when we climb into the wicker basket of a hot air balloon and ascend above the brick temples with nothing but the roar of the open flame to break the silence.
On the return trip to Yangon, the 10-hour train ride turns into more than a day on the tracks, as we stall and stop amid barren landscapes that glow orange at sunset. With time to admire the innumerable golden-domed temples, the farmers collecting coconuts on homemade bamboo ladders, and the snow-white egrets that whoop and wheel low over the rice paddies, we feel grateful for this snapshot of the real Myanmar, one completely unchanged by the influx of visitors and rapidly changing cities. We do, eventually, make it back to Yangon, and we leave Myanmar templed out and incredibly happy. Rudyard Kipling was right: This is a place "unlike any you know about."
Bodrum and Istanbul need to watch out, there’s a new kid on the block: Alacati. Once a sleepy Turkish coastal town, it’s upped the stakes with a flurry of boutique hotels, hipster coffee shops and art galleries. Head for new restaurant Alancha where windsurfer-turned-chef Kemal Demirasal turns out exquisitely presented dishes worthy of Michelin stardom.
What’s rare about traveling Bhutan is its sustainable approaches to tourism. Yes, the $250 per day tourist fee sounds steep but it will cover you for transport, food, accommodation and even a guide. Its spectacular Himalayan landscape is worth traveling for alone, but the predominantly Buddhist country is also filled with beautiful monasteries like the breathtaking Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), which has been built into a cliff side.
With a change in the government seat last August and expectations that travel advice may be relaxed in coming years to increase tourism, Iran is starting to creep up again on people’s must-visit destination lists. If you’re unsure about traveling alone, Tailor Made Adventures have put together a top itinerary that takes in Tehran, the traditional villages of Abyaneh, the 10th-century Jame Mosque, and the former ceremonial capital Persepolis (a UNESCO world heritage site that dates back to 515 BC).
With a 17 percent rise in tourism in the past year (with 20 percent of tourists coming from North America) Israel is experiencing the beginnings of a travel boom. Having just celebrated its 66th year of independence, the country's turned into a creative cultural hub with a flourishing art scene. It’s currently holding a Docaviv, a documentary film festival and in 2015 global project This Place, which saw Frédéric Brenner and 11 other influential photographers document their insights into the country, will hit the contemporary Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
The sign of a new airport terminal opening always heralds big change in a country and Kolkata is no different, as since February this year, the airport will now have the capacity to handle 20 million tourists annually. Throw in Kolkata’s very first skyscraper, which the Times of India have called the ‘Cloud-kisser on Chowringhee' (set to be completed by 2016) and a metro expansion and you have a city that’s on the up.