High above, golden pagodas glitter, while below a heady blend of colour, incense, flowers and people creates an extraordinary first impression of Burma, writes Annabelle Bladon
As the Aegean Odyssey, Voyages to Antiquity, makes its way up the Yangon River, passengers gather on the Observation Deck for their first glimpse of the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, glinting in the midday sun. The air is thick with excitement; the sense of anticipation palpable.
Our voyage started in Singapore, with calls in Thailand (Phuket) and Malyasia (Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca), but the real draw of this trip is Burma. Although a number of cruise lines have added the former capital, Yangon, to their itineraries since the country opened to tourists, the small size of Voyages to Antiquity’s ship means that it is able to sail right up the river into the heart of the city, rather than berthing at the main cruise terminal, a good 90 minutes away. As we pass the many overladen barges and rusty fishing vessels which chug alongside us – all waves and beaming smiles, eager to get a closer look – it becomes clear that our ship is still an uncommon sight.
The build-up to our Burma experience started the previous day, which was spent cruising the island-dappled waters of the Andaman Sea. We awoke to a perfect sunrise, the water smooth and glassy, occasionally interrupted by an orderly row of hut-like wooden fishing boats, stretching endlessly into the pink horizon. “Sea gypsies,” suggested a fellow onlooker. After the daily struggle between a ‘healthy’ breakfast on the Lido Deck and a much more indulgent one, on offer were two lectures: one from former war reporter and politician Martin Bell, and another from journalist Justin Wintle charting Burma’s struggle for independence. These were of course interspersed with some poolside relaxation, before an evening showing of the film The Lady, the story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in Burma’s democracy movement.
The ship docks early, in time to catch Shwedagon Pagoda at its best – dusk. On the short journey through the crumbling colonial streets of downtown Yangon, our enthusiastic guide Thi Thi hurtles through an informative yet entertaining introduction. With a 99-metre-high stupa, gilded and diamond-tipped, Shwedagon – or the Golden Pagoda – is the country’s most precious possession. According to legend, it’s the oldest pagoda in the world, and as the only one to hold the relics of the last four Buddhas, the most sacred.
In the distance, it towers like a golden mountain against a thundery sky. Up close, in the waning light, it is even more breathtaking; a maze of colour and reflection. The atmosphere is peaceful: an old monk kneels before an image in an alcove of mirrored tiles; incense wafts from a shrine adorned with flowers as a father helps his son light a candle; nearby a family wash the head of a Buddha with a blessing and a prayer; children play; teenagers gossip. It is hard to believe that this has been the site of historic political demonstrations and revolutionary speeches, earthquakes and colonial raids. When the sun sets and we have taken our photos, on Thi Thi’s orders we sit for a moment on some steps to contemplate and drink it all in.
Day two in Burma takes us to Bago, a city 50 miles outside Yangon. Our bus passes through dusty villages, watermelons stacked high along the roadside, and across government-owned farmland, teak-forested hills in the distance. At one point we gain a police escort. No one is entirely sure why, but Thi Thi says it is because “we are VIP”.
Our first stop is a Buddhist monastery, where monks, robed in brick red, line up for their last meal of the day – a strange and solemn sight. “This is a rare treat,” says Thi Thi. “We are the only monster car in this place!” Peering through the crowds, we realise that this is not strictly true – though there are few other Western faces. Tourism is new here, and after decades of isolation by military rule, Burma has in some ways changed little since British colonial times; it is a world apart from surrounding countries. McDonalds and Starbucks are yet to emerge, but 7-Elevens are popping up, and the time to visit the country is now, before it becomes too commercialised. And while independent travel in Burma still has its difficulties, Voyages to Antiquity’s cruise provides the ultimate hassle-free way to visit, with even your visa sorted for you.
Next stop is Bago’s colossal Reclining Buddha, one of the largest in the world, before a lunch of local cuisine overlooking another of Burma’s magnificent pagodas, Shwemawdaw. The green tea leaf salad is an unexpected delight, accompanied by Christmas carols from an equally unexpected string quartet in santa hats. The rest of the day is packed full of interesting visits, including a beautifully maintained war memorial and a roadside guardian spirit shrine under an enormous banyan tree, where we witness the blessing of a new taxi. The shore excursions are included in the price, and are of excellent quality, with a strong focus on history and culture. Alternative optional trips by air to the ancient empires of Bagan and Mandalay are also available, should you fancy venturing further afield.
Our final morning in the country is spent in the bustling labyrinth of Bogyoke, or Scott’s Market, a bazaar as good for people-watching as it is for shopping. On our way there Thi Thi keeps up her breathless commentary. “People are not in a rush here,” she says as we pass a group of young men seeking shade under a gnarled mahogany. And true enough, when we arrive at 10am the vendors are laying out their wares at a leisurely pace. We pass stall upon stall of silver, gold and gemstones; women, faces smeared with thanaka – a white paste used as protection from the sun – sell traditional sarongs and laquerware; small children hawk fragrant sandalwood fans in front of jade statuettes and rosewood carvings. The vendors are warm and gracious; shy to practice their English. The children are persistent yet not crowding. Early on Thi Thi announced emphatically “This is really the nicest country to visit in Asia.” And in spite of its brutal past and uncertain future, three days have been enough to convince us that she might not be far wrong.
Burma and the treasures of Malaysia
A 16-day round trip from Singapore with Voyages to Antiquity sailing on 23 February 2014 starts from £3,295 per person, based on a double occupancy cabin and including daily shore excursions, gratuities, wine with dinner and scheduled flights. Call 0845 437 9737 or visit voyagestoantiquity.com
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