57 of wealth that are generally owned and op- erated by former members of the Myanmar military elite. Between them lie older displays of wealth and power — huge Buddhist tem- ples built by former kings — and tucked away a little further are the slums where residents of Bagan live and survive. It is easy to feel cynical about this naked disparity, but hard not to be won over by the temples, the nat- ural beauty of the desert landscape and the transformation of the sky each sunrise and sunset. The next day we joined a boisterous group for a three-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. As the most accessible and popular trekking route in the country, we certainly weren’t alone on our expedition. But upon sleeping on chilly bamboo floors, eating fresh fish curry cooked on an open fire and patronizing the village shop that sold just one item (the es- sential Myanmar beer), it was clear that the route’s popularity was new; the conditions were still rugged, with locals who were simul- taneously curious and cautious. My Myanmar circuit ended in the country’s economic capital, Yangon, a city that wears its colonial history quite visibly on its tattered and stretched-out sleeve. Before the British and the backpackers there was Buddhism, a devotion that has remained constant amid the turmoil and development. And so, fittingly and unsurprisingly, the city’s main tourist attraction is the country’s most sacred Buddhist site, the giant gold Shwedagon Pagoda. The path to the entrance is discouraging: A blind man will vacantly beg for your money, children barely 5 years old will ask you to buy a plastic bag and stray dogs will bark fiercely. An $8 en- trance fee also awaits you, an amount much more than the weekly earnings of the average citizen of Myanmar (which will go directly to the military government), but once you final- ly reach the interior of the pagoda you’ll be positively dazzled: Its insides are ablaze with gold, so much that people across the country and monarchs throughout history have had to donate their ow n stores just to maintain the temple. It’s utterly breathtaking, and almost impressive enough to erase your memory of the walk up to the entrance. Almost. Such are the complications of visiting a country like Myanmar, as you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen. It may be dif- ficult to be fully optimistic when visiting, yet when the sun sets, gold relics are illuminated and the world is hushed, I can’t imagine a bet- ter setting to contemplate the complexities. GEttING tHERE c Korean Air runs a direct fight to Yangon from Seoul, and there are several daily connections from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Calcutta and Singapore into both Yangon and Mandalay. Myanmar Airways and Air Bagan have poor safety records (there were two fatal crashes in the 1990s and several close calls in 2008), so try to book through other channels.