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Jetsetter Guides

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."

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