Burma, also known as Myanmar, graces nearly every recent "hot list" of places to visit. That's a big change. For years, a repressive and corrupt military dictatorship kept travelers away and put the country on the U.S. State Department's warning list. Now things are improving. Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in 2010, and U.S. President Barack Obama paid a much-heralded visit in November 2012.
Longing to see Burma, we found Voyages to Antiquity's "Singapore & Burma -- Lands of Contrasts" cruise to be the perfect opportunity for an introduction to Burmese culture. Thanks to its size, VTA's 378-passenger Aegean Odyssey is able to sail upriver to the capital, Yangon (previously Rangoon) and dock right in the heart of the colonial city -- a big advantage.
The ship spent a full two days in Yangon, allowing deeper interaction with the culture, including the opportunity for some independent roaming and meals ashore. What struck us most were the friendly and welcoming Burmese people -- from youngsters waving on the dock, to market vendors, to our delightful guide, who spoke from the heart about her country and the changes it was experiencing.
But that's not to say the country is lacking in boggling sights. Whether it was towering gold-clad pagodas or a quirky shrine for blessing new cars, we found ourselves maxing out camera memory cards with hundreds of great shots.
Someday we'll return and spend a week, exploring far-flung destinations like Bagan and Mandalay (perhaps on a river cruise?). But, for now, let us tempt you with these discoveries in and around Yangon.
The first things you notice on the Burmese landscape are golden Buddhist pagodas with stupas (dome-shaped structures erected as Buddhist shrines, usually containing religious relics) that catch the sunlight from miles away. It's a four-hour sail up the vast Irrawaddy River delta and then the Yangon River to reach Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Along the way, you can also see church steeples (remnants from the British colonial era). Our ship's arrival was a big deal. Kids, dogs, photographers and ferry passengers looked on and waved. It was the first hint that the Burmese people were just as excited and curious to see us as we were to see them.
Our first shore excursion was a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma. We arrived in time for sunset and lingered until it was illuminated at nighttime. The main stupa is covered in 11 tons of gold plate, and the top is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats. The highest stupa in Yangon, it towers 361 feet. Our guide gave us some good advice: sit down and spend a few quiet minutes just contemplating it (if you can stop taking photos for that long).
The entire complex contains hundreds of temples, statues and smaller stupas -- with untold numbers of Buddhas, large and small. At night, it's a popular and lively place for locals to gather, visit and worship.
The next morning, we left on an all-day excursion to Bago, an 80-kilometer drive northeast of Yangon. Bago was the seat of Burma's second empire. (Two supplemental-cost shore excursions took us by air to visit Bagan and Mandalay, seats of the first and third empires, respectively.) Our buses were given a police motorcycle escort to help speed us through morning traffic. That may be why we got so many waves and curious stares from locals along the way -- including this truck full of school kids.
Kya Khat Wai Monastery
In Bago, we visited Kya Khat Wai Monastery, home to more than 450 monks. We watched as they filed into the dining hall, carrying their rice bowls, for their only meal of the day (a far cry from cruise ship life) at 11 a.m.
The monks' robes are 20-foot long rectangles of fabric, and they can arrange them in different ways, with a more modest style covering their arms for when they're out in public. Our guide asked a young novice to demonstrate the technique, which took about 10 minutes to complete in a series of intricate twists and folds. Boys have to be 9 years old before they can try monastic life. "You have to respect 279 rules to become a permanent monk," our guide told us.
About 10 minutes from the monastery, a pavilion houses the giant reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha, dating from the 10th century. He's 180 feet in length, with a 15-foot ear, a 7.6-foot eyebrow and a 6-foot-long big toe!
Temple complexes have stalls selling religious items and souvenirs. The indoor stalls were a good spot to shop for carved-wood items and textiles. Outside the temple were a small local food market and a few more stalls selling souvenirs.
Something you'll notice right away is that many women have a light-colored substance applied to their faces, almost like a tribal marking, called thanaka. It's actually a combination makeup and sunscreen, made by rubbing the bark of a Thanakha tree on a little clay palette, along with a few drops of water. Every woman creates her own design, and some moms also put it on their children. As in many Asian countries, women are very conscious of wanting to have light skin, and this concoction has been in use there since the 13th century.
We stopped for lunch at a pleasant restaurant in Bago. The buffet offered more than a dozen Burmese items, including salads, fish and a long-simmered beef dish. There were Indian samosas (the British brought in Indian workers during the colonial era) and some Thai choices, as well. (Dishes from neighboring Thailand were also on the menu at two other restaurants we visited on our own.) One interesting dessert was chunks of pumpkin caramelized in syrup, which was like the Burmese version of pumpkin pie.
Burmese food isn't spicy, as a rule, but chilies are served on the side or can be mixed into sauces, as you see here. Learn from our mistake, and beware of the little chilies that you could easily mistake for green beans.
At the next temple, Shwemawdaw Pagoda, we learned that pagoda complexes have four gates, oriented to the cardinal directions, with long stairways leading up to the gates. "Remember never to enter from the west gate, which is the direction of death," our guide warned us. You always have to take off your shoes and socks before climbing the stairs, and modest dress (no knees showing) is a must for both men and women. A fellow passenger had a news photo proving that rule even applied to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama when they visited Burma in November 2012.
As we climbed these stairs, we passed some new monks coming to the pagoda to celebrate and give thanks after taking their exams. Notice the relief on their faces.
At 374 feet, the main stupa at Shwemawdaw Pagoda is the tallest in Burma, but it's only covered with 4.6 tons of real gold -- the rest is golden paint on the lower levels. You might have noticed that pagoda names all seem to begin with "Shwe." No coincidence, since it means "gold."
The complex has twice been damaged by quakes, in 1917 and 1951. Buddhist philosophy dictates that the pieces stay where they fall, but the main stupa is restored. The piece pictured above is from very high on the structure, so you can see how huge it actually is.
Golden Banyan Tree Shrine
On the way back from Bago to Yangon, we made a quick stop at the animist Golden Banyan Tree shrine. People bring new cars there to be blessed right after purchasing them. "It's like Burma's St. Christopher," our guide said. And because it's the cars that are getting blessed, not the owners, the car has to be driven backwards and forwards several times -- as if it's bowing -- while the priest performs the blessing. Bobogyi, the protector of cars, is one of 32 spirits in the belief that protect different things, such as cars, children, lakes and palm trees.
Yangon City Hall
The next day, we had a bus tour through various neighborhoods -- the colonial area, Chinatown, the Indian sector (Indians workers were brought in by the British). Here's an example of a colonial government structure that's been restored. It's now Yangon's city hall, which changes color (perhaps out of superstition, our guide said) every time the administration changes.
Right across from our dock was the beautifully refurbished Strand Hotel, a great place to visit for a drink and a trip back to another era. More colonial buildings line Strand Road. Many crumbling colonial buildings haven't been restored, but it's rumored that one massive old British administration building has just been bought by a luxury hotel group.
Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market)
We paid a visit to Yangon's sprawling covered Bogyoke Aung San Market (also known by its British name, Scott Market) where you'll find lacquerware, textiles, carved-wood items, jade, jewelry, antiques, food and more. As in many countries, the first sale of the day brings good luck for a vendor, so arrive early to make the best bargain. We bought a sarong from very nice women at the stall on the right, who had ready-made ones in sizes to fit even looming foreigners.
We enjoyed chatting and bargaining with the vendors, most of whom spoke at least some English. At first you might think the market is just one large building -- but then you discover it goes on and on and on, through several buildings. If you're looking for the less-touristy sectors, keep exploring.
We walked back to the ship on our own to get a taste of Yangon's street life -- and to check out the street food. (Allow at least an hour to get from the market to the pier -- more if you want to take photos or wander down interesting side streets.) Vendors set up buffets of skewered foods along the sidewalks, and we passed a street-food maestro, dipping into 16 different bowls to compose a dish.
If you hear the tinkle of a little bell, it's likely a sugarcane press, used to squeeze out the sweet juice for drinking. Look for a blue wheel, with the bell attached, so it rings as the wheel goes around.
We didn't sample any of the street food, but we did eat at a delightful restaurant called Monsoon, in an old colonial house that was only a 10-minute walk from the ship. Here is a national dish called lahpet thohk, made from pickled tea leaves and an assortment of crisp fried beans and nuts with fresh tomatoes, dried shrimp, fish sauce, lime and garlic (plus these wicked little green peppers we mistook for green beans). It's delicious with a wonderful and unusual texture.
If you visit Monsoon, go up to the third floor to see the fair-trade crafts shop, which sells parasols, textiles, papier mache animals and many other interesting, fixed-price (no bargaining) items.
Spending 48 hours in Burma gave us a great taste of the country and culture -- and made us want to return as soon as possible. As we sailed off into the sunset (literally), we knew it wouldn't be long before change alters Yangon's skyline, its amenities and maybe its citizens' open, welcoming attitude toward tourists. Let's hope democracy can blossom without having too much impact on the country's charms.