The raison d’être for booking this cruise was to visit Myanmar (Burma), a long held ambition, and once Aung San Suu Kyi indicated that tourists should come,” but be mindful of where they spent their money”, .i.e. travel independently and not do “government” operated tours, we felt that the time was ripe.
Unfortunately on doing further research, we discovered how vast the country of Burma is. By sailing into Yangon, it would necessitate flying to both Bagan (nearer) and Mandalay, and in the time available, it was not possible to see both. In the event, whilst Silversea originally offered these two itineraries, only Bagan was on sale as a shore excursion.
The title therefore, mirrors Rudyard Kipling, who ironically also never visited Mandalay, like us, only staying three days, and his famous poem is based on a pagoda he visited in Moulmein. Maybe next year?
Flying to Singapore March 15th 2015
Picked up by Emirates limousine service by virtue of flying business class, the driver said they always plan to arrive 15 minutes early, which is a nice touch and negates the need to worry, should they not turn up at the appointed booked time. The journey to the airport was uneventful with little traffic, being a Sunday. We stayed in the car whilst our driver went and procured a trolley for us and proceeded to load on our cases.
Check in was quick and we were soon negotiating the snake-like passage to the security. Here there was a considerable hold up. There was only one female security person, and the person in front of me had let off the alarm on several occasions, and was being re-checked with the security guard's magnetic wand. My husband and several men however had gone through without interruption, and my husband thought I had been kidnapped! Eventually it was my turn, and despite not setting off any alarms, she was obviously in full flood and ready to frisk me as well. Finally meeting up with my husband, I was horrified to see my hand case open and in a state of disarray with my husband helplessly watching. It transpired that I had my spare pair of contact lenses in a pocket in my hand case which I have done for many years without being questioned. This time however, the lenses had come out of their respective cases and had to go in the proverbial plastic bag to go back through the security x-Ray. I then had to spend a good ten minutes to try and repack the dishevelled mess into some sort of order. Finally arriving at the Emirates lounge, I recounted my sorry tale to the lady on the desk. It was only then that I realised how lucky I had been. The same thing had happened to her, but she watched as they opened the case and disposed of her lenses into the bin!! A lesson now for the future for me and all contact lens wearers!
Having eaten our breakfast not long before, we had a drink and a snack, although the food on offer was good. Our flight was called and we made our way down to the boarding gate - typical of what a good airport Manchester is not - the gate is at the extreme end and the last of the boarding gates, so it was quite a long walk to the plane.
First and Business class passengers are the last to be called and therefore there were few economy passengers waiting to board. The former board by a separate entrance and are all seated on the upper deck, so never co-exist with economy passengers. There are 14 first and 72 business class seats.
The business seating plan of the Emirates A380 is rather unusual and is geared to the solo traveller, in that there are very few adjacent seats, for example on the seating plan, seats 14A and 15B appear to be side by side on an angle, whereas 14a is a true window seat and 15B (there is no 15A) is an aisle seat. In the middle for example 11E and F are side by side, but the row behind, the equivalent seats are on the aisle and separated by personal stowage bins and the entertainment console, therefore a couple booking these seats and expecting to be seated together would actually be seated apart. Another point to note is that amenity bags are no longer given to Business class passengers who are on day time flights, so we were told. However three weeks later, departing early afternoon with an arrival in the UK of 19.15, we were given them. It therefore seems it is dependent on the flight crew onboard.
The bar is located to the rear of the business cabin, which may mean noisy passengers in the bar might disturb those in the rear rows of the business cabin. The first and business cabins are entirely segregated from the economy cabin by virtue of being on the upper deck.
Our departure was scheduled for 13.20 but was delayed slightly for some reason, and the flight itself was uneventful. We were however stacked over Dubai, turning a potential ten minute early arrival into one that was 20 minutes late. The flight deck gave neither apology nor reason for this, and did not advise that we had arrived at the B gates within Terminal 3.
Whilst all Emirates flights depart from Terminal 3, getting between gates lettered A, B and C may involve long walks, extensive use of escalators or lifts or even a train shuttle, so plenty of time needs to be allowed when changing planes in Dubai. There was a huge crowd attempting to pass through security for connecting flights but we had been given a priority card that enabled us to bypass this queue. Fortunately we had plenty of time before our 03.15 departure to Singapore and went into the Executive Lounge for the A gates, this is oval shaped with each of the 20+ gates feeding off the central lounge area. Due to this layout, the ambience is not good, and you feel you are sitting in a corridor.
Our onward flight was also an Emirates A380 but we had the same misfortune as on the first leg to Dubai, where neither the tablet console controlling the TV, nor the handset were operable in the same seat on both flights. This begs the question as to the way the planes are maintained, because for the situation to arise on two different planes consecutively suggests either poor fault reporting, or a lack of attention by repair staff. As both the planes were full in business class there was no opportunity to move. A friend who flew two days later also had the same problem with his entertainment console, so maintenance is obviously lacking.
On the first leg, lunch was served and we had an excellent tuna starter, and slow cooked lamb with rice for the main course. A generous portion of cheese followed, overall a highly enjoyable meal. On the second leg to Singapore, breakfast was served from two hours prior to arrival. The flight duration of seven hours twenty, was therefore disrupted after about five hours giving little time for sleep. Although the seats recline to provide a near flat bed, they are not completely flat, and mattresses were brought round for those that wanted extra padding. This however does not compensate for the angle of the beds.
Contrary to another report we have seen, that said the ambient temperature on both legs to Singapore were certainly chilly, we did not experience this, indeed on the Singapore leg, the cabin could fairly be described as stuffy.
For our breakfast main dish we opted for scrambled eggs with spinach and vegetables. The scrambled eggs were disgusting and did not give the appearance of being eggs at all, due to their greyish colour. They were overcooked and cold. On both flights there was a wait of between 30-40 minutes for the main dishes to arrive, so dining became quite protracted..
Arrival in Singapore was a little early into Terminal 1, and there was no problem in passing through immigration by which time our checked bags appeared quickly on the carousel and we made our way to the Emirates executive limousine service to take us to our hotel.
Crowne Plaza Changi Airport Singapore, 16-18 March
We have stayed at the Crowne Plaza Changi on two previous occasions and were allocated on request a runway facing room on the sixth of nine floors. By virtue of our IHG status we were entitled to this modest upgrade, (other guests have to pay a surcharge for runway facing rooms), together with a complimentary drink from the hotel bar and free Wi-Fi in the room during our stay.
Leaving our luggage in the room, we made our way to the MRT station which is accessible from both Terminal 3, (also the terminal for the Crowne Plaza), and also from Terminal 2. However to buy a tourist pass, it is necessary to go to the ticket office at the Terminal 2 end. This costs either SD$26 for two days, or 30 for three, which includes a ten dollar refundable deposit on the card, redeemable on expiry. The MRT system is very easy to use and the trains are air conditioned and very clean, and with excellent announcements for the next station call.
Over the three days we stayed in Singapore, we visited a number of shopping malls. Our first port of call was at Lucky Plaza adjacent to Orchard MRT. We first shopped here in 1996 and have returned several times subsequently, on each occasion finding it more and more down-market. Most of the retail outlets were selling clothes and shoes with hardly any offering electronic goods. As with all the malls we visited there were a number of fast food outlets.
From here we walked to the adjacent Tang Mall. Here the retailing was more up-market with fragrance counters on the ground floor, more designer label clothing and a large range of fast food outlets in the basement.
Further along Orchard Road is the Far East Plaza. In terms of merchandise, this sits between the first two malls already described with more electronic goods available, though with a fairly limited range. Here ttoo, were several bespoke tailoring shops for both men and women.
Bugis has several malls which can be accessed from this MRT station, though not all are signed at the multiple exit points. A previous post referred to an excellent Thai restaurant at Bugis, but did not give any directions which made it impossible to find. This means it is very important to ascertain exactly where you want to visit and then determine the correct exit from the MRT station.
Bugis Junction and Bugis + were again more high end in their retailing with the former having many fast food outlets. Bugis market by contrast is a cramped maze of small outlets where the merchandise is low end, with no electronic goods on offer, but with a large selection of hair and beauty salons and nail bars on the upper floors, though prices were not cheap by UK standards. At the main entrance to Bugis Market is a stall selling fresh iced fruit juices for only one Singapore dollar and these must rank as the best value purchase in Singapore.
On our way to the Singapore Cruise Terminal our taxi driver pointed out the newest and largest mall connected to Harbourside MRT. We concluded that Singapore must have more malls per capita than anywhere else in the world because the above describes only a small sample of what is available.
Crowne Plaza's Azur restaurant, 17 March
Azur offers a buffet dinner for $SD39 plus GST and service charge, with a variety of different dishes, both Asian and Western and is open to non residents. There were a number of chicken dishes including soup, but the problem is the way the meat is butchered, meaning that even in a soup dish, there are often many tiny bones to negotiate. This also applied to the chili slipper lobster which I declined realising that this would also contain a large amount of shell. Remarkably fresh whole crayfish, mussels and even American oysters were on offer, which apparently are flown in daily.
On enquiring about the ingredients of an intriguing mix of items in little bowls, a member of staff told us it was a Singapore dish called Rojak. This consists of a variety of raw fruit, vegetables and nuts; all mixed up with a sweet sour and spicy sauce and was extremely tasty. We later learned that it is popular throughout South East Asia and this street food can be found at many hawker stalls. The recipe is not written in stone, and is very flexible dependent on ingredients available at the time.
There was a wide selection of desserts, which surprisingly included bread and butter pudding with crème anglaise to accompany it. Also on offer, was a bowl of M&M's and three different coloured marshmallows, as well as individual fresh fruit tarts, and several plates of gateaux. Finally there was also a variety of different cheeses.
Central Thai restaurant, 18 March
We decided to try this restaurant which is located on the viewing level of Terminal 2 at Changi Airport. This chain has various outlets supposedly serving authentic Thai food prepared by Thai chefs. The furnishings are not as fancy as some of the other restaurants, having bare tables with cutlery –a spoon and fork, already in a basket on the table with a sealed wet towel, but no serviettes.
An unusual feature is that diners are given a little pad, complete with pencil to write their own order. We speculated on the reason for this and guessed with the multiplicity of languages of the clientele, there would be no misunderstanding as to what dishes the patrons wanted. All the dishes on the menu were both displayed pictorially and also numbered. It also indicated against each dish, either one or two chillies, to denote the spiciness.
We chose Thai fish cakes with sweet chilli dip to start, followed by two sweet and sour chicken dishes and a green vegetable, resembling pak choy with sambal olek and spinach. The former were very rubbery but tasty and we both thought the main dish was one of the best we have ever had. Most unusual, at least to us, and extremely delicious was the drink we chose. Oddly it could be either hot or cold, the price being dearer for cold than hot. It came in what appeared to be a screw top jar complete with handle - lemongrass. Apparently this is cut into small pieces, crushed and then boiled. The bill came to around £20 per head, which included as always GST and service charge.
Embarking Silver Wind, 19 March
We got a taxi at 11.15 to the Singapore Cruise Centre, the original one situated near the cable car to Sentosa, which cost 27.60 Singapore dollars. There is now another cruise terminal at Marina Bay for larger cruise ships; so in future, embarking passengers will need to make certain from which dock they are sailing.
Porters were waiting to take our luggage and we joined a short line waiting to fill in the norovirus forms and for boarding to commence at 12 noon. Formalities completed we made the long covered walk to the ship, passing several crew members who greeted us by name and as long lost friends. Making our way to 804, we dropped off our hand cases and before we left, our cabin attendant popped her head round the door to introduce herself, someone we recognised, although she had not been our cabin steward previously.
Our butler was Mani, who we knew well, when we had enjoyed his service on the Shadow in 2012, so we had a great cabin team.
We started to unpack, broke off, for the safety drill, and then completed the remainder when our three checked bags arrived. That evening we dined with two friends in the Terrazza, where the menu is now changed after three days, rotating through seven different menus according to the Executive Chef.
The Master was Captain Palmieri on his last voyage on the Wind before transferring to the Cloud, Colin Barbiere-Brown, the Cruise Director and Hedi the Restaurant Manager, both well known to us from past cruises, and the Hotel Director Gianni Dotti who we hadn’t had the pleasure to sail with before.
As the cruise progressed, we saw many more faces among the crew whom we recognised, and several passengers who sailed on our Cape Town to Barcelona trip in February/March 2014.
The ship, Silver Wind 19 March to 5 April 2015
Silver Wind is now 20 years old. Generally, she carries her age well but in some respects needs upgrading but remains our favourite ship. A number of passengers said that the ship was “tired” and was past her sell-by date. Areas around the swimming pool needed attention and painting was required on the exterior of the ship. However, whilst the owners do need to spend money, it was particularly difficult to effect any of the above considering the waters in which we were sailing. A large proportion of our time was sailing through possible pirate areas, hence heightened security, together with difficult tidal waters, restrictions on what the ports would allow, the high heat and humidity, and finally the many days at sea. (Anybody sailing on the following voyage would have seen painters by the score!!)
To exacerbate the situation, a major hot water pipe burst on Deck 6 causing significant disruption but fortunately the ship was not full (214 out of a possible 298) so passengers could be relocated whilst cabins were dried out. The ship is scheduled for dry dock in 2016.
We were not provided with a breakdown of passengers’ nationality but were told Australians formed the majority, followed by British and then Americans some way behind. From our experience on SS over the last couple of years, cruising Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Europe, the former American pre-eminence by number has gone.
With the ship ¾ full, there was no pressure anywhere, be it during dining, in the theatre or on pool deck. Service was thus excellent and lacking the fraught air one can sense on cruise ships that sail habitually full and (not infrequently) under-staffed. The small size of the ship also means that on longer voyages, such as our 17-night sailing, the staff get to know you by name and remember your preferences.
The majority of waiters and bar staff, together with cabin stewards, are from the Philippines and they are well trained and work very hard on nine-month contracts. Many butlers are Indian males, though there are some Filipino women. Hedi from Tunisia, the highly-experienced extremely personable Restaurant Manager, balanced his staff between the various bars and dining venues to meet prevailing demand. It did not take long for most of the staff, and all the officers, to be calling us by our names, something for which we enjoy because it demonstrates people are taking the trouble to make you feel welcome, instead of the rather cold ‘sir’ or ‘madam’.
Depending on the Executive Chef, lunch and dinner menus can include dishes from the region being visited. This was the case on our current sailing and we enjoyed these as a change from standard SS fare, though one or two were perhaps a little lacking in authenticity. Overall, the food was up to standard, though towards the end of the cruise we, and others, commented that dishes were heavily salted, a point I raised with the hotel director. Earlier in the cruise I had complimented the Executive Chef in avoiding over-salting the lobster, which made a change from so many other lobster dishes I had eaten on other SS ships.
We were told that this was the Executive Chef’s first tour on the Wind. On formal nights, in particular, it is customary for him/her to make an appearance in the dining room at the end of service but, with one exception, we did not observe him ‘doing the rounds’.
A welcome change has come in the standard brand of coffee served, which we previously regarded as bitter (name supplied on request). We were told that SS’s owners asked what it would cost to stop passengers complaining about the coffee and the result was a switch to Illy, which is also Italian and far superior. Other SS regulars agreed with us.
We remain unhappy with the olive oil, however, which lacks the green hue one would expect, if it were good quality extra virgin oil, and definitely inferior to that previously supplied “as standard”, not necessarily only in La Terrazza.. The olive oil on pool deck is always harsh-tasting, possibly due to its quality, possibly due to being out in hot temperatures. Even the oil on the tables in La Terrazza seems sub-standard for a dining venue on an Italian-inspired ship. We have also ascertained that the fantastic Cicolella Extra Virgin Oil with Sicilian lemon, has given way to a galley-produced (and much inferior but immeasurably cheaper) alternative.
The other disappointment is the cheese board. Most waiters will always bring the cheese menu with the dessert menu, and having a savoury tooth rather than sweet, I will always go for the cheese. The variety of cheeses on offer is not good, and most are tasteless. Unfortunately SS seems to cater for American tastes this respect as their American brand Cheddar is not what UK residents would recognise, being very bland. Even the Stilton, has not got the “bite” one would expect.
The pay-for restaurant Le Champagne, was quiet, according to the Head Waiter. She said this was common on longer sailings but we suspect it also depends on passenger mix (Americans seem to patronise it more than others), whilst the need to spend onboard credit (if any) is another influence. A further factor on our sailing was having only 214 passengers aboard.
As is the norm on SS, both the Captain and Staff Captain were Italian. We dined with both during our cruise and saw Captain Palmieri en passant during the day, though some passengers commented that they never saw him. During much of the voyage he was, however, preoccupied with piracy issues as we sailed waters where this is a great risk. As previously mentioned, Gianni Dotti was the hotel director, this being his first posting to the Wind after several years on sister ship Silver Cloud.
Cruise Director Colin Barbiere-Brown was his customary sociable self and arranged a full programme of activities without the need to resort to evening parlour games. He did make himself visible during sea days, unlike some CDs who seem to eschew the public areas. Evening entertainment comprised a fresh collection of performances, ranging from a 1960s songbook production to Colin’s famed piano recitals, the latter being among the best attended. The talks by the enrichment lecturer, Patrick, dealt with the history from colonial times of the countries visited and were well received.
Prices in the Steiner-run spa seemed comparable to a year ago. A manicure with shellac coating offered a 14-day guarantee for the latter. However the shellac began to peel off after a week but unfortunately it was not feasible to re-join the ship in Aqaba to complain!
The shops on board have recently been revamped and are now run by Starboard Cruise Services, both Harding Bros and H Stern having gone. The shops were probably the quietest, most deserted parts of the ship, so much so, that the staff were regularly to be seen standing in the corridor, looking for custom. The merchandise appeared not to correspond to passengers’ taste or be way over-priced ($75 for a T shirt made in China) or both. Not every cruise passenger wishes to buy Armani products whilst on a cruise!! Also please note not to forget small toiletry items or medicine, as this is now locked away in a cupboard and the range is not as extensive as previously.
The ports visited
PORT KLANG MALAYSIA 20 MARCH
We docked at 8.00 am and we were fortunate to be "seaside", as we had ordered room service breakfast, and as usual with all the butlers who lay the table with linen and crockery, we asked him to do so, on the large balcony table. This is where the Medallion suite is brilliant, plenty of room with two sun loungers, three armchairs with cushions and two little tables apart from the big round tall one on which breakfast was laid. Having made the decision we were not going to find the train to take us into KL, we took the shuttle offered by Silversea to the Aeon Bukit Tinggi Shopping mall, about half an hour away. We had hoped this was situated in the town of Port Klang, but in the event it was some miles away, so we were unable to walk around the centre.
The Mall was reminiscent of so many, with a large supermarket type grocery shop on the ground floor. There were four levels, with the basement for a car park. We had not changed any money into Ringetts, although there was nothing that tempted us. We were surprised at the prices and decided this was a high-end shopping experience, selling shoes, clothes and electronic items including I-phones, and jewellery with some shops only selling watches; as well as several fast food outlets. Having checked a couple of floors, we decided to return to the ship via the shuttle. We sat on our veranda in the sun and recounted our adventures so far.
GEORGETOWN PENANG 21 MARCH
Again drawing the lucky straw, we were docked seaside, but chose to eat at the Terrazza and watched as the Superstar Virgo docked astern. After breakfast armed with our notes, we walked ashore to find the first stop for the CAT, not as you might imagine the seagoing variety, as this stands for the Central Area Transit bus, which as its name implies, is a free circular bus round the centre of Penang. Their website is so comprehensive that it lists things to see, both right and left from each bus stop. This is not a tourist bus at all, and is used by those not possessing a car to go shopping and to get to work. Consequently it was full, and initially we had to stand. I would highly recommend this bus to anyone visiting Penang, as it gives you an overview of the town, even if you do not get off, and should you wish to do so, it is so easy to catch another. The added advantage of course, is that English is widely spoken.
Penang was quite affluent, we expected it to be busy and bustling but were surprised at the number of new and prestige makes of car we saw. We had virtually done a complete circuit on the bus, but chose to get off to see the Time Tunnel.
This is a very good well organised display of the history of Penang from its origins to the present day, with models dressed in authentic costumes, items of household implements, beautiful hand painted cups to a great many pictures dating back to the 19th century and many contemporary photographs, some depicting World War II. Alongside each item there was written text in various languages explaining a bit more about what was on show. Finally at the end there was a chance for you to have your picture taken against a backdrop scene such as the quayside of Penang in the early 20th century. We declined this and made our way back to the bus stop to continue our journey.
Old Town White Coffee bar
We alighted in the middle of Penang Road, which extends for some distance, where colourful shops with a great many items of clothing were hanging up at the entrances. We found a little cafe called Ban Heang Café where we sat and purchased a coffee which is a Malay specialty - it was also sold in Port Klang and it is called "white coffee" - highly descriptive as it is not only the name of the producer, but it is also what it looked like. The coffee beans are roasted over wood fire roasters, the roasting and the resultant caramelising effect makes it quite bitter. The four main ingredients are instant coffee, castor sugar, non-dairy creamer, and natural flavour enhancers. The non-dairy creamer is extracted from palm oil. For people who do not take sugar in their coffee this sounds very sweet, but surprisingly enough, it is not overpoweringly so, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We also bought an iced pure fruit juice, one lemon and the other pineapple, which resembled a cross between a "lolly" and a frozen yogurt, which was really very refreshing.
Weld Quay Clan Jetties
Leaving Penang Street we retraced our steps back to catch the CAT to the main bus terminus at Weld Quay. Alighting here, virtually behind the bus station are the Chinese Clan jetties, a collection of dwellings built on wooden stilts on the seabed, inhabited by the descendants of the original Chinese who arrived in Penang over 200 years ago, who came to work as dock labourers, and never returned.
The decorations were still up celebrating Chinese New Year (a month before) and the red lanterns glistened in the sun and swayed in the breeze which was coming off the sea. The jetties are owned by individual clan members and are residential, and are no longer used for cargo trans-shipment. Walking down the first jetty, we were struck by the tidy condition, with many of these houses surrounded by smart aluminium railings. All however, had shoes neatly laid outside the front door, enabling one to know how many people were home. We walked to the end of the jetty and could see the other clan jetties extending out into the bay to the right of the Lim jetty, which we had been told is the least touristy. The area was very quiet and we attracted no attention from the occasional resident we saw.
Although it was only a half a mile to walk back to the cruise terminal, we spied a cycle rickshaw whose driver suddenly appeared at the prospect of custom. We negotiated an accepted price in Malaysian Ringetts and squeezed on board.
Bear in mind we were facing the wrong way and needed to do a U-turn in the midst of buses, trucks and cars, with us at the sharp end! The drive back to our destination was not for the faint hearted. Surprisingly vehicles were very polite and made way for the various manoeuvres needed by the driver including the U-turn and crossing a line of oncoming traffic to park outside the cruise terminal!
PHUKET THAILAND 22 MARCH
Phuket (the “h” is silent) is Thailand’s only island province connected to the mainland by a causeway, and has been called the “Pearl of Thailand”. Tourism is of course a big earner, but the province’s wealth is derived from tin production which started in the 1500s and still remains the centre of the tin production in the country along with rubber coconut and export of seafood.
Probably best known for its notorious Patong Town area, its biggest city, and a very crowded beach and now synonymous for its large gay scene, exotic nightlife and beloved of backpackers. However the island is large, over 215 square miles and there is much more to see. The best beaches are on the west coast Karon, and Kata which have superior hotels and restaurants.
Our stay here was too short, arriving at 7.00 am and sailing at 2 pm, did not give us enough time, particularly as we were docked at the deep water port of Phuket which is over 20 minutes drive to Phuket Town. Having been to the island in the early 1990’s we chose to visit Phang Nga Bay by speedboat. Leaving at 7.45 we were driven by coach to the speedboat jetty, a journey of nearly 45 minutes. Due to the tides, it was a “wet” embarkation, having to wade through ankle deep water to get on the boat. There were two coach loads and we had two boats, so it was not too crowded. The weather was glorious and we made our way out to sea en route to Phang Nga Bay National Park, .passed the large limestone karsts, many hued and towering huge above us as we got closer. Our first visit was to Khao Phing Kan Island, made famous by James Bond’s film Man with the Golden Gun, made in 1974, and now universally called James Bond Island. We expected it to be very touristy, and we were not disappointed, with many souvenir stalls selling tatty overpriced goods, but the biggest sorrow was the waters edge which was dirty and rubbish strewn.
Koh Panyi is a water village with more than 200 houses built on stilts and about 1700 residents, who originally came from Indonesia some 200 years ago. There are wooden walkways to traverse many of which seem to be in a state of collapse, so one needs to walk carefully. It is incredible that these people live and die on the island, some never leave the island and there is a small cemetery at one end. There is a large mosque as well as a freshwater well, and children go to the floating school in the mornings. The village surprisingly, includes a floating football pitch which children built from old scraps of wood and fishing rafts. After making it to the Semi-final on an inland tournament, the whole village was inspired to take up the sport. They built a brand new pitch, although the wooden one still remains and is popular among tourists. There are many stalls selling a variety of goods, from clothes to food to electrical goods, not of course only for tourists, who can only visit during the dry season, and trade seemed to be brisk.. After a short visit we returned to the speed boat for the journey back to the jetty and thence to the ship.
In conclusion, whilst we were glad to have visited this area, the limestone karsts were not as spectacular as those of Halong Bay, and the area has now become far too touristy. The best part of the tour was the speedboat journey.
YANGON, MYANAMAR (FORMERLY BURMA), 24 TO 26 MARCH
The sail up the Irrawaddy and then the Yangon River took four hours after embarking the local pilot. Although the inbound transit was in the middle of the night, the outbound gave a good opportunity to observe riverside life. Departure after three days, two nights, had to be delayed for about 90 minutes to await the river level to rise on the incoming tide.
Pronounced ‘Yangoh’, ‘Yangoon’ or still referred to as ‘Rangoon’ by some, this is a large, bustling, and congested city. Our visit came towards the end of the dry season and daytime temperatures reached the low 90sF, coupled with high humidity.
Silver Wind’s length is 514 feet, and the maximum length a ship can be to use Yangon’s dock at Bo Aung Kyaw Street Wharf is 547 feet, so possible, but with little to spare! We were therefore so fortunate to be on the Wind, as ships bigger than 547 feet have to dock at Thilawa, some 25 kilometres south of Yangon, and at least an hour away from the centre of Yangon by road. Very fortunate for the passengers, but quite a nightmare for the Staff to navigate to this berth, with a tidal range of around 20 feet and the necessity to cross both the Inner and Outer Bar at near high tide to ensure sufficient depths, as well as contending with the velocity of the current, it was no easy sail, particularly as the pilot had boarded at around 2.00 am!
Whilst the Myanmar Port Authority appears to have fresh water facilities, there was none for us. Normally, ships in port take on fresh water through a blue pipe but none was available so we were asked to curb our water use. Equally, there was no facility to dispose of the ship’s ‘grey’ water. The port authorities told the ship to sluice it into the river but this would contravene Silversea protocols. Instead, road tankers were hired to accept the grey water, which they discharged into the river further round the dock! Mental note not to swim in the river in Yangon! So for our enjoyment, there were a great many hurdles to overcome!
Exiting the dock gates, you join the wide dock road, which runs parallel to, but segregated from, Strand Road. Turning left, a 10 minute walk brings you to the covered footbridge, which is used by foot passengers crossing both Strand Road and the dock road to reach the Dala Ferry terminal which is located on the left. Surprisingly, this footbridge has ‘up’ escalators. The Strand Hotel is close to the footbridge. Just beyond here, road vehicles can join Strand Road and so access the city centre, this being the road taken by our complimentary ship’s shuttle.
Bo Gyoke Market aka Scott Market
The centre of the city can be regarded as Scott Market or Bo Gyoke Market on Bo Gyoke Road. This is one of the principal thoroughfares in the city, with many small shops and pavement vendors on the opposite side of the road to the market, the former extending for some distance in both directions.
The market itself has at least two floors, though getting from the ground level involves quite a hunt for a narrow, steep staircase. Entering from Bo Gyoke Road, there are some seats which are popular with those wishing to use the free Wi-Fi in the market. Continuing inside, jewellery stalls dominate the wide, central walkway. Legal currency exchange facilities are also available hereabouts. Penetrating along the narrow side alleys, one finds stalls offering a variety of merchandise, notably clothes and clothing material. Some stalls even have on-site women sewing garments. There are also food stalls on one side of the site.
By contrast, the retail outlets on the opposite side of Bo Gyoke Road are generally more ‘budget’, with quite a few offering street food. For those in need, there is, though a pharmacy. Another curious phenomenon, whilst walking on this street, trying to find a particular building for which we knew the number, we enquired of the retail staff what was the number of their shop, and without exception, they had no idea and had to go to ask someone else!!
Yangon Circular Railway
Continuing on foot along Bo Gyoke Road, with the market on your left, brings you after about ten minutes to the left turn that leads to Yangon Central railway station. The station building is classically colonial but is not the entrance for those wishing to take a ride on the Yangon Circular Railway. Instead, continue along Bo Gyoke Road to the next intersection and climb the stairs to the covered walkway that leads over the railway tracks. About halfway along, a broad staircase on the right takes you down to the island platform 7 from which the Circular Railway trains depart. You cannot access this direct from the main station building.
There is a ticket booth at the bottom of the staircase on the platform. As other local trains also use this platform, ask for a ticket for the Circular Railway; the station staff are used to this, so language is not an issue. The cost at the time of our visit was 300 khats or USD1. We were not asked for our passport, neither did we have to put our name and address on the ticket.
Being a circular route, trains depart in both directions and one can travel either way round the loop, or alight at any intermediate stop and return to Central Station. Some of the trains comprise older, non-air conditioned coaches, whilst some are formed of more modern a/c vehicles. Observation suggested that departures are half-hourly in each direction and so there would not be a long wait if the first train did not have the sort of rolling stock you wanted. We wanted the older, non-a/c coaches because it is possible to lean out of the open windows to observe the activity at stations.
Our 11.30 clockwise departure was not full but emptied out as people alighted but then began to fill as we began to head back into the city. Vendors patrol the coaches, offering food, drink or newspapers. At several stops, locals pushed bags of vegetables as big as themselves through the open windows, using the train to get to or from market and home. There is no doubt that this rail service provides and excellent way of seeing local Yangon life at minimal cost.
For the train enthusiast, diesel locomotives of three types were seen, these being Classes DB, DD and DF. A shunting diesel was also noted preparing a short freight train at the back of the station.
Getting around central Yangon
Taxis are plentiful but not metered. Drivers will accept either khats or US dollars but negotiate and agree the fare first. As a tourist, expect to be quoted a high price and be prepared to negotiate; one’s negotiating skills will determine whether you get a good deal or are overcharged. This means that fares can be quite good value when compared to the alternative.
The alternative to taxis is foot power. This has the advantage at busy times of nearly being as quick as a taxi because Yangon’s traffic can choke the roads. A rough estimate would be a walk of about 30 minutes from ship to Scott Market but the heat and humidity will deter most from doing this.
We poked our nose inside this surprisingly-modest sized property, unable to eat as we were inappropriately dressed, but wanted to see it and possibly return another day. In the event, we ran out of time. It retains its colonial ambiance and appeared well maintained. The menu for afternoon tea looked interesting; though the restaurant was fully booked with fellow ship passengers on the day we visited. There did not appear to be any disability ramp for access to the hotel.
Just over the long, covered footbridge from close to the Strand Hotel is the terminal for the foot passenger ferry to Dala Island. The round-trip fare was US$4 and the crossing takes only a few minutes.
We did not go but a friend who did reported that a cycle rickshaw driver on the ferry propositioned him and they struck a deal on US$10 per hour. He found his island tour fascinating, visiting the driver’s home village, where the dwellings lacked piped water. Undoubtedly this is less prosperous than across the water. In fact there is a constant stream of passengers on the ferry who probably work in Yangon, and travel home each day.
Having spent our first day in Yangon, we and two friends organised a private tour to Bago, formerly Pegu. We booked this over the Internet prior to arrival with a taxi driver/guide called Tony Hlashwe, (email address firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can highly recommend him. He was informative, friendly and spoke good English and he followed the itinerary we set out at the beginning. Although only 45 miles as the crow flies between the two cities, we began our tour at 8.30am due to the heavy traffic we expected to experience. This proved to be a wise move. The road north-eastwards, until we left the environs of Yangon behind, were clogged with every conceivable form of transport, and often we came to a complete full stop. After driving through small dwelling houses on either side of the road, after about an hour we arrived at a slightly more substantial village and we stopped to get out and take a closer look. There were many people thronging around, and all were very friendly, small stalls abounded almost at the roadside, so it was difficult to negotiate with the steady stream of road traffic passing by. Looking at the merchandise there were several bottles labelled “Scotch”. On enquiring if it was indeed alcohol, I was assured that the bottles had been recycled and contained fruit juice!
Continuing our journey we were aware that we were nearing Bago as once again the traffic snarled to a halt. We were surprised that it appeared to be quite large and prosperous town with a multiplicity of shops, a city of some 300,000 inhabitants.
Our first stop was to the Kyakhatwine Monastery, Myanmar’s largest. The visit is specifically timed to coincide with the resident 600 monks’ final meal of the day; they only eat twice a day – taking place before noon. They are called to dinner by one monk striking a wood sounding board several times followed by banging a gong a minute later. All the monks who ranged in age from young boys, to teenagers, to older men, file in single file in complete silence to accept the offerings proffered by the general public, obviously mainly Burmese, although I did see some Westerners giving money. As the monks carrying their little lacquer bowl, (about the size of a basketball, resembling an urn with a lid), file passed the people, they are given items as diverse as a bowl of cooked rice (presumably cold), bars of wrapped soap (Lux), packets of noodles, toothbrushes, bars of chocolate, and also money. All of these items go into their little pot and they continue to file past into a large dining area, where they sit on the floor and consume the contents.
I found this all rather bizarre and felt rather like an intruder watching people eat. Despite the offerings of the visitors as they file passed, they are also given a large plate of rice which is scooped out of a massive pot, and put into their alms bowls. Food that is not consumed on the day is not kept, and goes back into the community who donated it, or is given to the resident stray dogs that live in the temple grounds. Buddhist monasteries are completely dependent on the lay community outside their walls; they do not produce or purchase their own food. Therefore they get what they are given – whether by central collection, as is the case with large teaching monasteries like this one, or by way of daily alms rounds and monks are asked not to favour one food over another.
We didn’t stay to watch them finish eating, and along with many other tourists, we retraced our steps the way we had come, walking down the corridor, to the small road off the main highway to find Tony and continue our journey.
Most of the religious sites one visits in Bago are spread over a wide area, so it is necessary to have transport, as it would be too far to walk from one to the other.
Our next stop was to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. This is often referred to as the Golden God Temple. At 375 feet in height, the Shwemawdaw holds the record for the tallest pagoda in the country although the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is usually credited as the tallest pagoda in Myanmar at 98 metres. However this Myanmar Stupa dominates Bago Town, and it is said to be over 1000 years old. It has been repaired many times over the years, despite being damaged by a succession of earthquakes, until the one in 1930 completely levelled the Stupa. Reconstruction commenced in 1952 and was completed two years later, when it reached its present height. The glittering golden top of the Stupa supposedly reaches 14 metres higher than Shwedagon in Yangon. As in the latter, the Stupa here is reached by a covered walkway lined with stalls and “sales opportunities”. There is also a collection of faded paintings illustrating the terrible earthquake of 1930, and its subsequent rebuilding. Our day trip was all inclusive, covering entrance fees and camera charges, so we do not know whether or not the cost included the $US10 entrance fee. Other posters have said this can be avoided, by using the secondary entrances and not entering by the western gate, and to avoid passing by it when you're inside.
The Shwethar lyaung Pagoda has a Buddha, which at the length of 55 metres and a height of 16 metres, is the second largest Buddha in the world. It is placed inside a steel pavilion built in 1906 to preserve it from the weather and deterioration. Tradition says it was built in 994 during the reign of the Mon King Migadepa to commemorate his conversion to Buddhism. It eventually fell into ruin and was covered by jungle overgrowth. It was not found until the British era when an Indian contractor found it whilst constructing the railway line.
We also visited Kanbawzathadi Palace. The original palace, built for King Bayinnaung in 1556, consisted of 76 apartments and halls. It was burned down in 1599, reconstructed in 1990 and finished two years later. The very ornate golden palace gives a good impression of the splendour and wealth of the second Burmese empire and externally both the building and the grounds are very imposing, but the inside was a disappointment.
Feeling that we were “pagoded out” and having been on the go since very early morning, we stopped at what could be described as “a roadside restaurant” on the edge of Bago. This occupied quite a large area, with tables virtually at the edge of the carriageway, but extending quite a way back to the kitchens and the toilets. Apparently, the latter two were best seen after we had eaten!! Our guide/driver Tony also ate with us – initially we had said that we would not eat out and our butlers had given us packed lunches, consisting of sandwiches, drinks, biscuits and some fruit. However we decided to take the plunge and had a chicken and rice dish, which was very tasty and none of us had any ill effects. The price was only a few dollars and we ended up giving Tony some of our packed lunch.
Our penultimate stop was to see the Kyaik Pun Pagoda which has four gigantic Buddha images all of them in a sitting posture facing the four cardinal points of the compass. They are seated back to back against a massive brick pillar. This unusual pagoda, lies only a few hundred feet off the Yangon-Bago road and was built in 1476. This statue is 27 metres tall and is quite impressive and very highly coloured.. However our lasting memories of this place will be burning our feet. Needless to say you have to be bare footed, and the surrounds of this pagoda are bare concrete, and broken in places. There are no mats, it is open to the elements and the temperature that day was not far short of 100F!!
Our last stop was to the Taukkyan War Cemetery for Allied soldiers from the British Commonwealth who died in battle here in the Second World War. It contains the graves of some 6500 soldiers, as well as some 52 soldiers who died during the First World War. There are also memorial pillars, and many of the graves contain remains of unidentified soldiers. It is a very peaceful place, despite being on the main highway, only 25 kilometres north of Yangon, and is beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is certainly worth a visit and it is poignant to read the ages of so many of the fallen.
The journey back was uneventful, and Tony our guide managed to return to Yangon and our ship without hitting too much of the rush hour traffic. It had been a long day, but we were all pleased that we had been to Bago.
Our final day in Yangon, we left the best to last. Unable due to time constraints to see the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, the day previously, we determined to at least visit it in daylight hours. Really too far to walk, particularly in the heat and humidity, we got a cab from Scott Market to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The entrance fee is $US5, not as expensive as that charged in Bago. The area it encompasses is quite amazing, 114 acres, even the terrace is 14 acres. It stands on a hill that is 190 feet above sea level and the Pagoda itself is over 100 metres tall. To say it is imposing, is rather an understatement. It gleams in the sunlight, not surprising as so much is gold, either gold leaf or gold plates. One could spend hours in the complex, there is so much to see, with many Buddha images hidden away in nooks and crannies. There are of course a great many tourists, milling around, but due to the size, they are not overwhelming, and it never felt that there were too many people that it was not possible to photograph. The diamonds and precious stones are dazzling, and the number of diamonds in the Orb alone is over 4000.
There are several places similar in the world, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, for example,
But for sheer grandeur, the Shwedagon Pagoda has to be the “jewel in the crown”.
Some observations about the country in general.
Viewed in March 2015, what might Burma stand for?
It was a surprise to see so many cars in Yangon especially, but also in Bago. Though by no means to the extent seen in Singapore, smart phones were not uncommon in Yangon, so there is clearly a degree of affluence which media reports had not really led us to expect. Clearly the main cities are undergoing rapid change, though one did not have to travel far to find people enduring a third-world existence, without piped water into their homes.
An oddity concerns roads and road vehicles. Myanmar was of course a British colony until 1948. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right.
There are two commonly held beliefs for this, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight!. The anomaly, however, is that at least 90% of all vehicles continue to be right-hand drive, whereas they should be left-hand drive. When asked about this, we were told that RHD vehicles were cheaper. Even more odd is that the toll booths on the Yangon to Bago highway are set up for RHD vehicles, yet they should properly be positioned for drivers sitting on the left; weird and probably unique!
Observing the physique of the people, the indigenous Burmese appear bigger than the neighbouring Thai people but not as big as Indians, who of course have come across the Bay of Bengal for centuries. We saw a lot of Buddhist monks. Considering how their diet is supposed to be so frugal, they were among the fattest Burmese we saw!
We should have sailed at 4.30, but due to the tides, we were unable to leave until they had risen sufficiently enough for us to leave our berth and retrace our steps down the Yangon River into the Irrawaddy. We finally left about 5.45 pm, and managed to see something of the land either side before darkness set in.
COLOMBO SRI LANKA, 30 MARCH
Four of us decided to hire a taxi for two hours touring the main sights/sites. Eventually, one driver quoted US$15. We wanted to see the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, a drive round the main city incorporating the Pettah area and Sea Street, home to three important Hindu Temples, the Ganeshan, the Old Kathiresan and the New Kathiresan. All have their intricately-carved and colourful gopurams (doorways). This road is now quite up-market with many jewellery shops. We also wanted to visit a supermarket to buy spices. The local hospitality rep here in Colombo was extremely informative and very helpful, suggesting that we visit a supermarket for the spices rather than the markets, as the former would be better quality. We were fortunate as in many of the other ports, these local reps who are brought on board by Silversea, often have limited understanding and spoken English, are often not well informed, and in some cases completely wrong in their advice .
Our first stop was to the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, built in the 1880s. It is not what it seems from the outside. It is not only a place for worship, but a bustling temple complex with a library, a museum and an extraordinarily eclectic array of bejewelled and gilded gifts presented by devotees and well-wishers over the years. Some of the objects look like implements from a bygone era. In the Image room is a huge gold Buddha decorated with ivory elephant tusks. Every temple in Sri Lanka has a sacred Bo tree, and this one is no exception. According to legend, it was the Bo tree under which Buddha sat whilst obtaining enlightenment. There are many plants and flowers which they were watering when we were there, so be careful as you are walking round in bare feet, should you try and walk where the mats are, they are completely saturated!. The museum houses a wide ranging collection of bric-a-brac and Buddhist memorabilia and gifts from other Buddhist nations, an old car, including a Japanese sandalwood cabinet which apparently is worth £1 million. Another object is the world’s tiniest Buddha, smaller than a thimble, which revealed extraordinary detail underneath a microscope. It is certainly less like a place of worship than a museum, apart from the clouds and smell of incense, a real dichotomy.
We then drove along clean well laid out roads with manicured trees and flowers to the other side of town. The Galle Face Hotel was a good spot to see the beach-front, as well as the exterior of this colonial hotel, which was undergoing refurbishment. Our driver had already pointed out the expanding number of 5* hotels which are being built in the city, and the Galle Face clearly now has to look to its laurels, although of course it does have a superb position with, at the moment, uninterrupted views along the ocean road.
The supermarket, Arpico Supercentre, apparently the leading supermarket chain in Sri Lanka, was quite large and well stocked with a wide range of merchandise, plus a café. As might be expected, there was an extensive array of spices, Sri Lanka being noted for black pepper and cinnamon amongst others. A local lady, with perfect English, guided us and explained the difference between roasted and un-roasted curry powders, a distinction about which we were unaware. We bought various items and the cost was not expensive.
On returning to the ship at an obvious slow pace, we had strayed over our agreed two hours. The driver claimed we had negotiated US$40, despite the four of us protesting. We had, however, had a great tour, the driver had been very obliging and we decided not to argue and paid him what he asked. The moral, however, is to write down the price at the start.
We were impressed with Colombo, not for the variety and quantity of things to see, but with the air of relative affluence when compared to, say, a large Indian city. There is so much more to see than just Colombo, and the time we had was nowhere near enough to get more than an inkling of this fascinating country.
COCHIN INDIA, 31 MARCH
Sadly, we were only scheduled for an afternoon in this fascinating city but fortunately we had spent two days here previously.
The city is sprawling, with much of it having a village-like feel by virtue of the general absence of any high-rise buildings and the main roads being modest, two-lane affairs.
We had two objectives. One was to go to Bazaar Road in Mattancheri and the other to visit the Jewish synagogue, which is less than a mile away from there. We had been denied entry to the latter during our last visit because of being dressed in shorts.
Both these locations were not too far from where our ship docked in the port on Willingdon Island, where an Aida ship had been docked for three days and Azamara Quest was also in port, though neither close to our berth. Willingdon Island is arguably the principal port area for Cochin, though the prestigious Taj Malabar is located here with a magnificent view of Cochin Harbour.
The local hospitality official advised that a tuk-tuk to do what we proposed, total time two hours, would cost US$30 and we laughed at him! Maybe in a Rolls Royce, but not an open-air tuk-tuk. As usual, the taxi drivers waiting on the quay wanted anything up to US$40, so we walked outside the port gates where plenty of others were waiting for custom. After a short negotiation, we agreed US$4 for two hours covering our two objectives. The enrichment lecturer on board admitted he had been guided by the local hospitality rep and paid US$30, showing his inexperience in world travel, even though he lectures for SS regularly. In most ports round the world, taxis et al, have to pay a bribe or premium to enter inside the port gates, so, not to be “ripped off”, it is always wise to walk the few extra yards to venture outside this area..
We set off and our driver said his tuk-tuk was a Ferrari, which was as close as he (or we) would come to owning one!. He did not drive like a Ferrari owner, however, which suited us, particularly over the heavily rutted roads in places!
Our first stop was at a warehouse-type complex that dated back 400 years, having been built by the Portuguese. In one building, women were shaking root ginger on a large grating to remove unwanted parts. The air was very dusty because of what they were doing and one fears for the health of their lungs.
Upstairs in an adjoining building, spices were on sale and several locals were buying. We also bought a packet of crystallised ginger and some masala tea.
We continued to the synagogue, located at the end of a street with tourist-targeted shops on both sides. The entrance fee is only 5 rupees, which our “Ferrari” driver gave me rather than me changing a high denomination note, which I thought was a very nice gesture. Unfortunately, the synagogue really only consists of one room with some old photographs on the walls, and outside in the grounds there were some haphazardly standing grave stones, which were roped off, so you could not get a closer look, all in all a big disappointment and not as interesting as the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Dubrovnik. .
At the junction where the street to the synagogue turns off the through road, is The Spice Shop, which we had patronised previously. This is also targeted at tourists and prices are fixed and not especially cheap but we had found previously the quality to be good. We bought a plastic screw top jar of spices for fish, which was bigger than we had bought previously. After some discussion about price, we were given a gift of a tablet of lemon grass soap, so a very good deal overall.
Our driver asked if we would agree to make two calls at tourist shops during our trip. He explained that bringing tourists meant each shop would stamp a card and, once he had five stamps, he could get free fuel for his vehicle. He showed us his card with three stamps already and agreed to his request, provided he did not charge extra when two hours had elapsed.
The two shops to which we were taken both sold the same array of bric a brac, jewellery, carpets and ladies apparel. Ironically, the one thing we would have bought – an incense burner – neither shop had, so we had shown legitimate interest but not bought. Our driver did, however, get his two stamps and was happy. On return to the port, he was even happier when we gave him US$10 instead of the agreed US$4, as indeed, were we because we had achieved our objectives for this too-brief a visit to a fascinating city.
MUMBAI INDIA, 2 APRIL
Having seen all the sights (and sites) in this fascinating city that we wanted to see during a previous visit, and opting not to toil up the steps on Elephanta Island to see the caves, we had a leisurely few hours at our own pace here.
A shuttle bus took us the short distance from Ballard Pier, where we (and later Seabourn Odyssey) were docked, to the port gates. Once outside the gates, there were taxis-a-plenty vying for our business and we negotiated a price of US$4 for the drive to Colaba Causeway, about two miles or so away and which is a shopping area a little way behind the famous Taj Mumbai hotel and the Gateway to India.
We browsed the shops, looking for silk bedding in particular but without finding what we wanted. Walking along Colaba Road, it was soon evident that someone Very Important was due. Soldiers stood on the pavement every ten yards and gradually all traffic ceased. We were told to stand away from the edge of the pavement. Eventually, a cavalcade of black cars, with police cars front and rear, swept past, the Prime Minister’s car (the latest largest BMW), being in the centre of four other cars, one at each corner. All very dramatic, but they have been known to assassinate their PMs in India!
We crossed Colaba Road and began retracing our steps, heading ultimately for the Taj Mumbai Hotel. The side streets also bustled with shops and we bought antibiotics from a pharmacy for under a £1 and some essential oils.
Wrought iron gates barred the entrance to alleyways that led to private gated communities but these were juxtaposed with hens running around on the pavement, whilst a tethered cow blocked our way at one point and we had to circumvent it by walking onto the road!
A short walk along the waterfront brought us to a side entrance of the Taj Mumbai hotel, an oasis of air-conditioned tranquillity, splendour and cleanliness after Colaba Road. To be fair, the central area of Mumbai has been tidied up since our last visit and we saw a street sweeper in action. We looked round the ground floor and swimming pool area before heading for the Sea Lounge Restaurant on the first floor.
By virtue of it being just 12.30, the restaurant wasn’t busy and we secured a table next to the window, with a beautiful uninterrupted view of the Gateway to India monument and the ferries plying from there to Elephanta Island. This is the restaurant that serves Mumbai street food dishes at lunch time, though the menu is naturally more extensive.
We ordered two dishes, the Bhel Puri and the Dhai Batata Puri. The former is the most commonly sold chaat on the streets of Mumbai and its ingredients consist of puffed rice, papadi (small crisp deep fried flour puris), sev, onions, potatoes, and raw mango. The latter consisted of potatoes, onions, tomatoes and coriander leaves with yogurt or lassi.
The dishes came with Green Mint Coriander Chutney, made from fresh mint, lemon juice and salt. Sweet Tamarind Jaggery Date chutney and finally red chutney which is hot and spicy made from garlic and dried red chillies, reminiscent of Malaysia’s Sambal Olek. The date and chilli chutney was something we had never seen or tasted before. Several days later whilst in Muscat, we bought a bottle of date syrup so we could make our own.
To accompany the food we chose two Aged Monsoon Malabar coffees, not strong on caffeine, but with flavours of clove, nutmeg, chocolate and cedar, which were delicious, as was the food. Including service, the bill came to GB£33, say US$50, which we judged to be good value, particularly as the portions were generous. Another couple from our ship had a beer and a glass of wine for not much less!
Exiting the hotel, a taxi was dropping off a fare and this situation is often the best way to get a good price for your journey. He quoted US$4 for the return to the port, the same as outward, so we jumped in and returned to Silver Wind.
MUSCAT SUNDAY 5TH APRIL
After a less bumpy night than the previous one, we arrived to the well remembered outskirts of the port of Muscat at around 7.30 am. Opting for breakfast in the Terrazza due to time constraints, it was decidedly less busy than expected. We were due to collect our passports at 8.45 for 9.00am disembarkation. At 8.45 we were told that only two immigration officers had arrived and there would be a delay. The arrangement was supposed to be that our passports would be checked on board, visas issued, returned to all passengers who would then need to have these stamped on exit at the port gates. Apparently one batch of passengers did manage to leave, those on a Silversea airport transfer or a stay at an hotel, leaving the rest of us to fume onboard. A further announcement from the cruise director told us that all passports had now been taken ashore and would be processed at the dock gates. We had previously asked reception to get the Hotel Director, who was ashore, if he could inform the waiting taxis and those others waiting to pick up passengers, that there had been a long delay, and passengers were unable to proceed ashore. Finally at 10.30 we were told that all passengers could finally disembark and to collect their passports ashore.
Since our last visit they have built a lovely small cruise terminal, which appeared not to be totally commissioned, as there was nothing inside apart from an operational scanner through which our carry-ones went. Walking out onto the quayside, we found our luggage, and our pre-arranged pick up car driver who had not been told about the delay and had been waiting since 9.00am for us to appear!! With our luggage duly stowed in the car, we sped off the few hundred yards to the dock gates, only to be told that he should have picked up a piece of paper from the immigration officers on the quayside! So turning around we drove back to some of the still waiting passengers, who presumably were also waiting for this elusive piece of paper! After sometime our driver got this piece of paper and once again we drove back to the dock entrance. Here we had to get out of the car and were met by this bizarre scene.
A melee of passengers were climbing up a steep set of about six steps to yell their cabin number through a little window into a small room filled with about six men, many of whom had fistfuls of passports. They seemed incapable of understanding the numbers they were being given, no doubt due to language difficulty. The scene became even more fraught as there were several, presumably other immigration men outside also with handfuls of passports vainly trying to answer the dozens of passengers who were not standing patiently with their heads poked through this little window! It was a complete and utter shambles and in any other circumstances it would have been laughable, but we paid the price for this, as the tour we had booked could not be completed in the time left available. We finally left the port of Muscat at around 11.20, en route to Nizwa!
Our vehicle, a Toyota Landcruiser, and our guide driver Sami together with the three of us and all our luggage drove out of town past familiar landmarks, including the Sultan Qaboos mosque, which stands large and imposing with its glittering golden dome sparkling in the sunlight, until we left habitation behind and the scenery became starker with towering granite and limestone rocks on either side of the road. The journey along straight wide dual carriageways was long and took just under two hours. At the first sight of habitation we realised we were on the outskirts of Nizwa, quite a large busy and thriving town, with multiple shops selling a wide variety of goods, from food, clothing to hardware items. Expecting Nizwa to be an isolated place, this was quite a surprise. There is a large car park adjacent to the Fort to cater for the large number of visitors this place attracts, and we stopped here, only yards from the entrance with the car's thermometer registering the outside temperature as 42 degrees C!! We later found out the official temperature here was a mere 39C!!
The heat hit us as we walked up the slight hill to enter the fort, which is a lot larger than it first appears. Built in the 12th century originally, it has been renovated, although only apparently on the facing of the walls. However the initial enclosure houses a variety of small shops mainly displaying tourist goods, including a very large number of big earthenware urns/jugs and one wonders how tourists would be able to transport them back to their respective countries, so maybe these items did cater for Omanis. Unfortunately the original souk has now been closed so the remaining area was a bit clinical with not as much atmosphere as the original dark narrow passages.
However the latter were about to appear as we started our ascent inside the fort, rather like walking up a very narrow dark stone spiral staircase which wound its way up higher and higher. At various intervals we came across huge wooden studded doors which now were open, but originally of course these would have been shut and barred. These are original so probably date back hundreds of years, and any vestige of paint had long since gone. After what seemed ages, we finally came out into a circular courtyard with two steep outside stairs taking you to the pinnacle of the fort with magnificent views of Nizwa and the surrounding countryside; unfortunately extremely hazy due to the dust storms ( which would persist the following day, delaying our flight out of Muscat to Dubai.). In this courtyard, on the perimeter were several small cannon, their guns facing through small apertures at unseen targets. Also in this area were several holes of varying sizes covered by grating through which the fort occupants poured boiling hot date syrup on the heads of their unsuspecting enemy as well as various other missiles. These little openings were also hidden on our climb up, by the opened wooden doors, as an extra deterrent, should enemies penetrate so far up to the heart of the fort.
With time now so short and of course no possibility of visiting Jabrin Castle and the Bahla Fort, we did not spend much time at the bibliography and history rooms, although we did see the jail and the date store, the latter used not only for food but also as a powerful weapon.
Reluctantly, wending our way out, we stopped to use the toilets which put to shame many a British toilet, for its cleanliness and its facilities, very hot water, soap, toilet paper as well as paper hand towels. So typical of the whole of Oman, the fort and its surrounds were clean and free of litter.
Al Tourath Al Arabi Restaurant, Nizwa
We were taken here for lunch by our driver/guide, after visiting the nearby fort.
We were told that the premises were formerly the home of the restaurant owner and comprise three floors, though we only saw two. The building appeared to be fairly old and built of stone and was quite spacious. Outside at the rear was a small seating area.
The ground floor was quite busy with locals and a number of visitors from the fort and we therefore went upstairs to secure a table for four. On this floor there were male and female toilets, which were very clean. Furniture and furnishings were in keeping, creating a pleasing ambiance.
There was a range of hot dishes already prepared, including shark rice and spicy chicken. Although our driver had the former, and a menu of other options was available, we asked if we could have hummus and the local Arabian bread. We were told that it was customary to have hot food at lunch time and cold dishes in the evening but the owner produced beautifully-presented plates of hummus, accompanied by warm bread, which was delicious. Our driver said he couldn’t eat all his dried shark and rice (the rice being cooked with spices) and so we tried this and enjoyed it. – and no – it didn’t taste of chicken!!.
We were offered several different varieties of freshly juiced fruit, two of us had a large glass of pineapple each, which was chilled and fantastic, and the other two had mango, which was equally delicious.
As the restaurant was only a minute’s drive from the fort, this little dining oasis was a great choice for a meal, and comes highly recommended. As this was included in our tour, we are unaware of the cost, but do not think it was very expensive.
Returning to our car we retraced our steps back to Muscat, with a stop to drop off our friend at the airport for his flight back to the UK, and us to the Holiday Inn Al Seeb.
Holiday Inn Al Seeb
This hotel as it name implies is situated within ten minutes of the airport and was chosen by us in view of our short time stay post cruise. The hotel was opened in December 2013 and still retains its "new" smell. In a nutshell so many hotels could take a leaf out of this hotel's attitude, where smiles and service are well to the fore.
Checking in was painless and we were given a 3rd floor room overlooking the swimming pool, reputedly an upgrade due to our IHG membership, the hotel only has four floors, with the top presumably the Executive rooms. The lobby area is decorated in shades of beige, with rugs and tiled floors and is light and airy, with some large aluminium floor lamp standards, a bank of three lifts, which are fast and silent. The corridors are wide and the lighting good.
Our room opened into a small entrance with the bathroom on the right, which comprised a shower enclosure, with detachable shower head, a hand-basin and a toilet with both seats being soft-closed, an innovation which we have not experienced in this sort of hotel. The room had two large floor to ceiling windows, both of which opened, and a settee seating three which could convert to another bed.
Facing this was a large glass topped table and an ergonomic chair with an angle poise light. As a reminder to where we were, and presumably as an aide memoire for visiting Muslims, a large arrow on this table pointed towards Mecca. The bed was a large King bed, very comfortable with two large pillows each, one of which had the word "soft" embroidered on the corner, and aptly named.
The usual tea and coffee, a small fridge with only soft drinks - the hotel still hasn't got its liquor license, but we were told - soon. Also a couple of packets of crisps, but our free two bottles of water were replenished daily. Finally slippers, but no robes. Housed in one of the two large wardrobes, was an ironing board and iron.
As of course this hotel is an airport one, it does not have extensive dining facilities as visitors normally only come for short stay. However they do have one self service restaurant serving breakfast lunch and dinner, on the lower ground floor. We decided not to check out eating possibilities locally, so opted to have the buffet. The cost was 15 OMR per person plus taxes. The selection was varied, consisting of not only local and Arabic food, but items as diverse as noodles with vegetables, pasta and a genuine pizza oven and hot western dishes. Other items ranged from fruit, cheese to yogurts, and cakes.
The head chef, a Sri Lankan, Prasanna Amarasinghe offered to cook a special meal for us the following night and was very obliging in his attentiveness to us during our buffet meal. On the lobby floor there is also a small snack-bar, where pizzas can be ordered
Breakfast the following morning was amusing. Whilst we partook of "local" dishes, i.e. hummus, labneh etc with Arabian bread, some visiting Arabs, were seen with a plate of fried egg and white bread, although eschewing the turkey bacon!
We needed to print our online boarding pass, so visited the Business Centre for which there was no charge to use. This had a number of terminals, some of which had no mouse attached. We had difficulty in trying to print these from the Emirates website, but fortunately another hotel patron was able to assist.
On the lower ground floor is a spacious well equipped gym, also free, and a reasonable sized outdoor swimming pool as well as a small children's pool, all clean and well maintained. There are toilets, showers and lockers adjacent to these facilities.
The area surrounding the swimming pool is relatively small with only three pairs of sun loungers with umbrellas. At the far end is a small bar area, which was also used in the evening as an exterior area from the dining area. The pool area does not get sun in the afternoon, as the sun goes behind the top of the building.
The hotel does provide an airport shuttle at a cost of 8 OMR one way, which is only about a ten minutes drive.
We were very pleased with our stay and would recommend it to anyone, particularly if you are flying in or out. It could also be used as a holiday hotel, the downsides, you are some distance from the Muttrah Souk, there is little in the environs of the hotel, and the pool area does not get afternoon sun.
Grand Fish Market – Al Mawaleh Muscat
We were staying at the Holiday Inn Al Seeb and our tour driver pointed out this restaurant as we approached our hotel, saying it was the best fish restaurant in Muscat.
Both the hotel and restaurant stand on several acres of land that is encompassed by the road network and which has only partially been developed, with a few shops and low-rise buildings. It was therefore easy to make the five-minute walk from hotel to restaurant along the grass verge that borders the main road.
The entrance area hall is filled with marine memorabilia, from a ship’s steering wheel, a display of different frozen fish and a large open shell water feature, the latter is also replicated on the first floor.
We were shown to a table upstairs, with bench seating and the juxtaposition of its height to the table was such that the nose of my seated wife was almost level with the table top! Luckily they also had some free standing chairs, which at least were higher off the ground, and enabled her to eat with relative ease.
The main feature of the interior decor comprises a number of aquariums dividing the areas between the tables, where the exotic fish are for decoration rather than eating. One tank had two artificial jellyfish, one pink and one blue, both translucent, extremely lifelike that ebbed and surged with the aerated water in the tank. It was only on closer inspection, that you could see the little tabs that were keeping them in position in the tank. Very ingenious and very effective.
With a relatively early start planned for the following morning, we had decided to eat early at around 18.30 and we were the only diners at that time. The menu is quite varied, with dishes other than fish. We were tempted by the tagines, but we opted for fish as our main course. For starters we chose the hummus plate which came with the usual Arabian bread. The hummus was attractively presented with some pomegranates and was very tasty. This was followed by Grilled Hamour (which is locally caught), which was cooked with Omani spices which really overpowered the flavour of the fish. The fish was well cooked and served complete apart from the head, and it was quite an effort to debone it. A dip of tomato, coriander, salt and pepper was provided as accompaniment, which was naturally quite bland, and could have done with more chilli.
As the restaurant does not have liquor licence, we opted for a large bottle of water which would have been nice if it had been ice cold.
The restaurant accepts credit card payment and the bill came to just under 13 OMR which we thought very reasonable. We then had a pleasant walk back to our hotel. Should we stay again at the Hilton, we would return to this restaurant.
Always an anticlimax, we used the hotel shuttle to take us to the airport for our flight to Dubai and then Manchester.
Muscat airport is small and alcoholically dry. All luggage and us were put through scanners immediately inside the terminal building. Having checked in, we went to the business class lounge, which was average, and quite small and regimented with their seating, which were in rows and very close together. Our departure gate was close by and we had to use a bus to get to the plane, business class passengers having a separate vehicle from economy. It was then the inevitable climb up mobile steps to reach the plane.
The plane was a Boeing 777 and the business class seating, whilst lacking the range of amenities on Emirates’ Airbus A380 planes, provided a much pleasanter ambiance. The seats were more comfortable and had an adjustable footrest.
Our flight had come from Dubai and was heavily delayed due to the latter airport being fog-bound earlier that morning. We took off over 90 minutes late and touched down with 35 minutes to change terminals before the gate closed for our Manchester flight. We asked for assistance to get us between terminals as quickly as possible and this was waiting for us at the exit to the plane.
We made it to our connecting flight, which was also delayed. Business class was again full and the meal service perfunctory. If one didn’t ask when the main course was cleared, one wasn’t offered a dessert or coffee. We were, however, given amenity bags. Most of the time was spent watching two of the Hobbit movies.
The head of the cabin staff said he was unable to say whether our check bags had been loaded, a worry because of the very tight connection at Dubai. Inside terminal 1 at Manchester, we ascertained that two had been loaded but one hadn’t and were told the fact that two bags had made it was because we were travelling business class!! So, if we had been travelling first class, would all three have made it or only one if we had been in economy?!
Before reaching the baggage hall, the downside to the A380 became clear, as hordes of economy class passengers were already ahead of us at passport control. The hordes multiplied around the baggage carousel.
By the time we had logged our missing bag, which turned up at home the next day, most passengers had gone but there was now a hiatus trying to get through the doors into the arrivals hall. There are three automatic doors but two were out of use and the third only worked intermittently. It took a further 15 minutes to clear this hurdle. An adjoining manual door was shut and, we were told, could only be opened by security staff, none of whom were available. Yet another reason, why Manchester is a dreadful airport.
The one bright spot was our limousine transfer home, and our driver who was waiting and this provided a stress-free end to our expedition, albeit arriving home an hour later than scheduled. Read Less