Thursday, March 30, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part III (Yangon - Day 2)

The first “official” day of my Avalon Waterways’ Myanmar journey started with breakfast at the Sule Shangri-la Hotel in Yangon.  It was a typical, high quality, breakfast with Western, Asian and Indian hot and cold offerings.  While nicely presented and prepared everything was definitely prepared to offend no one (also known as bland).  But, alas most of those who had breakfast enjoyed it.  (Note:  It is possible upgrade to the concierge level and have a similar breakfast served in its private lounge, as certain guests chose to do.)

Sule Pagoda, Bus Station and Yangon crosswalk
Our group of 14 finally became a group for our 8:30 a.m. departure on an 24 passenger, air conditioned, bus with our guide, Myo, as well as a driver and assistant.  As we drove the short distance Myo began his explaining various aspects of Myanmar government, culture, traditions, etc. which continued throughout the day and will during our trip.  He gives a good amount of information, in short sessions, and without the hated laundry list of dates and names, so you can actually understand and retain the relevant information.  This is especially important when trying to understand an exotic country with a troubled past that it is working (in varying degrees) to overcome.  This level of sophisticated delivery from a guide in a just recently emerging economy was not expected, but Avalon Waterways delivered.  Bravo!

Our walking tour started where I walked yesterday, so it was good to have some of the blanks filled in.  One thing that was emphasized was that no photos could be taken of government buildings, embassies or police.  

Betel Leaves are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia
and are used as a stimulant; especially wrapped around the
betel nut
The most interesting aspect of this morning’s tour is the amount of truly beautiful and well-located buildings that lie abandoned because of the former government’s decision to move the capital from Yangon and to move the “troublesome” students from university locations in the city to about 20 miles away to isolate them.  



There is a serious effort to rehabilitate a number of the buildings, but it will be a long process with an uncertain, but optimistic, future.

The Strand Hotel
During our walk we did get to see the famous Strand Hotel, which I would have liked the opportunity to visit.  I probably should have kept walking yesterday and I would have – If I had walked not 10 minutes from where I turned around at the river. 

There is no real train system in Yangon.  All that exists is an ancient narrow gauge train that is slow, unreliable and, I am told, torture to ride on.  Apparently, even with all the traffic, the buses are a far more efficient mode of transportation.

Myanmar's Narrow Gauge Rail System is
terribly antiquated and unreliable
Speaking of transportation, the former government banned all motorcycles and bicycles from Yangon, which adds significantly to the congestion.  So if you were expecting thousands of motor scooters as in Hanoi, you will be disappointed. The rationale is, like much of Myanmar, based upon power plays (it can be done, so it will be done) rather than logic.  Undoing so many of these seemingly illogical and frustrating things is difficult for a variety of reason. One must be patient…or as seems to be the phrase best suited for living in Myanmar’s biggest city:  “If You Find Patience You Will Find Enlightenment”…which I may copyright!

Lightening up things a bit, visited Lucky Seven, a truly local tea shop for green tea and sweet tea (lots of sugar and milk) accompanied by vegetable samosas, a flan-like custard and steamed buns.  It was fun to watch this well-oiled experience with teams of young boys with color-coded shirts provide an informal, but polished, delicious experience.


Next up was visit to a huge reclining Buddha.  OK, I  had to do it and I did it.


 Note:  You will be required to remove your shoes and socks at every religious site with pretty much no exceptions.  Don’t count on there being exceptions because I witnessed first hand that isn’t going to happen.  However, as a nice touch Avalon Waterways does provide you with moist towelettes to clean the bottoms of your feet before putting your shoes back on.  So plan your footwear accordingly!

We then made an “off the itinerary” stop:  The residence of San Sui Kyi’s home where she spent 26 years under house arrest.  We could only see the gate, but I think it is an important place to visit – making the theory more of a reality.  Adding to the moment was the fact that the following day marked the one year anniversary of the new Myanmar government.

The Gate at San Suu Kyi's residence where she was under
house arrest for 26 years
This was followed by a truly unexpectedly delicious lunch at the Monsoon restaurant.  Aside from finally trying Myanmar beer (two beverages are included, but you can have additional if you wish), there was a fixed, but very good, menu of a variety of more local dishes but flavored more for Western palates; something most of the guests appreciated.  (When I was in southern Myanmar this past November I was, disappointingly, served Thai Tiger beer.  Both are drinkable…especially cold in the 905+ degree temperatures.)

We dined on vegetable spring rolls, glass noodles with seafood, fried beef with black pepper sauce, chicken with green curry, fried fish with ginger sauce and some outstanding spicy huge river prawns all served with rice and steamed vegetables.


 
Spicy Giant River Prawn with Garlic and Chilis
It was then time for a rest back at the hotel before heading to what truly was an exceptional late afternoon-evening experience.  We headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda which, honestly, photographs cannot fully capture.  



On the way, Myo gave a nice introduction to Buddhism, which continued at the pagoda gently interrelating the architecture with religion.  Just enough for most, but I wanted more…and am sure as this trip continues I will get it.  Perfect.  (And this is me talking!)

Myo
Avalon Waterways Burmese Guide 
The Shwedagon Pagoda is huge, gaudy, religious, historical, superstitious, architectural, and...and...It is 326 feet high with the complex covering 14 acres and covered with something like 65 tons of gold with the diamond orb at the top covered in 4,351 diamonds (the largest being 76 carats) and thousands of rubies and other precious gems.


After about 1.5 hours wandering this huge complex (and really only touching the very basics of it) it was time to head to dinner at Le Planteur.
Le Planteur Restaurant
Avalon Waterways' Fine Dining in a Yangon Garden

Avalon Waterways' dinner venue at Le Planteur
if it is cool or raining
Before I detail our dinner, I want to give you some perspective:  Our group includes some pretty sophisticated and luxury travelers who only stay in suites, stay at Oberoi hotels, and speak only of cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas and Silversea (Seabourn curiously being foreign to them, but they will be with me for a while so that will change!).  Every single guest raved about this dinner from the restaurant to the setting to the cuisine to the service.

Quite the romantic setting!

Our five course dinner included Shrimp and Vegetable Dim Sum, more of those Giant River Prawns (yum!), Daun Laska Seared Cod or Shalap Beef Cheeks followed by a mango ├ęclair (the only disappointment of the evening).  Served with it was a very good Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz; again two glasses per person (though a third glass was not an issue).

Shrimp and Vegetable Dim Sum
Giant River Prawns
Daun Laska Seared Cod
 It was a truly unexpected oasis, complete with refreshing gentle breezes, after a hot, traffic-laden, noisy day being introduced to Yangon.  It will be remembered as one of the best cruise provided group dining experiences I have enjoyed.


Dinner was over by 9:30 p.m. and we headed back to the hotel to pack and be ready for our luggage to be picked up outside of our rooms by 8:00 a.m. and our 8:30 a.m. departure to the airport to fly to Bhamo; where the portion of the trip that I am really excited about begins.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part II (Getting Here & Getting It On)

My trip to Myanmar on Avalon Waterways is a bucket list (I hate that term... as I see it as a To Do List without focus on some pre-death desires) item for many people...and it is so far more enriching, eye-opening and exotic than the over-hyped other newly opened country:  Cuba.

I say this not to denigrate Cuba, but to emphasize that you shouldn't necessarily follow the marketing. Cuba is most certainly interesting, but it is also a high profit/low effort destination for travel companies, especially cruise lines, looking to beef up the Caribbean market.  Myanmar is not marketed nearly as much, but the return on your investment in time and money will probably be far greater. (Hey, my blog is called Making Waves for a reason!)

Yangon, Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda
Traveling to Southeast Asia from the United States has been a significant issue for travelers because of the long flying times.  This is my third trip to this region in five months and I cannot stress enough that whatever discomfort you may think you may endure, it can be far less than you think (if at all)...and whatever it is, it is so well worth it.  

So I am going to take a moment to discuss getting here. You know the ONE thing that is keeping many of you from diving into this incredible and vital part of our world.  And, of course, because it is so worth it, you will long remember the incredible time you had and not even think about the flights; especially if you do it right!

Getting to Southeast Asia

There are ways to make the journey bearable and the rewards are well worth it...and it starts with using the right airlines and gaining access to the airport lounges.

I have flown to Singapore four times in Premium Economy; twice each on United and Singapore Airlines (both being members of the Star Alliance) as well as in Business Class.  United has a non-stop 16 hour flight to Singapore out of San Francisco and Singapore Airlines has flights out of San Francisco and Los Angeles with a stop in Hong Kong or Seoul, respectively.  

     Lesson I:  Not all premium economy seating is the same.  
     Lesson II:  Taking a bit longer can be easier on the body and mind.

United's premium economy consists of more legroom. Period.  You get an economy seat, economy meals and basic economy beverages (box wine and beer).  On Singapore Airlines you get much better seating with real footrests, you can order a wide variety of meals in advance and a good variety of spirits, wines and beers at no additional cost, along with much larger tv screens.  For $100 more you get even better footrests and tons of space in front of you.  (It is well worth it.)  

Singapore Airlines Premium Economy seating

I had nobody sitting next to me for the second leg of my flight.
Not a bad setup: Movie and Flight Maps.
You just feel better looking forward to drinking champagne and good wines, dining on Lamb Biryani, Nasi lemak with sambal prawns and Kimchi fried rice with chicken bulgogi plus snacks...instead of "chicken or pasta"...and being able to put your feet up (if not lie flat).

With a stop in you get a chance to stretch your legs and get oxygen in your system.  In fact, what I would suggest is that you considering taking a day or two to explore, even briefly, that layover city; rather than an airport stop.  (I recommend a short stay in Hawaii on the way to French Polynesia and Iceland if flying from the West Coast to more distant parts of Europe.) 

   Lesson III:  Change your clothes.  

It is amazing what the simple act of changing one's shirt, underwear and socks has one's psyche.  I change my clothes on all flights over 12 hours and it makes a difference.  Better yet, if you have access to the airport lounges, take a shower.

    Lesson IV:  Use the Airline Lounges

I use the United and Star Alliance lounges whenever possible.  I am fortunate to have lifetime memberships in both.  While you may not be able to buy you way into every international lounge (sometimes you can), you can do it domestically before your flight and during connections.  It may be by way of the airline affiliated credit card program or just paying an annual or daily fee, but it is worth it. 

Think about the annual fee this way:  You paid how much for your holiday (even your airline ticket) and would rather endure the noise, discomfort and expensive of an airport meal for hours than pay x dollars for relative tranquility, a cocktail and a snack?

OK, now onto my flights to meet the Avalon Myanmar!

On this trip, after enduring another issue with American Airlines in Reno, Nevada,  I arrived in Los Angeles too early to check in with Singapore Airlines so I sat in a Planet Hollywood nursing a $16 Bloody Mary for two hours listening to bad music.  Suffice it to say I was relieved to arrive at the Star Alliance Lounge out of the noise, sipping champagne and having too much of a variety of hot and cold snacks for the remainder of my layover.

When I entered the lounge, I could feel my stress level drop, my blood pressure reduced and my eyes saw a nice variety of chilled wines and champagnes waiting for me.  Ahhhhh.

My 12 hour flight to Seoul, South Korea had a family of 7, including an infant, being a bit restless; not enough to overwhelm my headphones or keep me from sleeping, but enough to mention it to the flight attendants.  Singapore Airlines' solution:  Pour me as much of First Class's Dom Perignon and Johnny Walker Blue Label as I wanted.  The airline does make a difference!

With two hour layovers in Seoul and Singapore I had just enough time to chill, change clothes, have a breath of oxygen and a sip of something before the next flight.  It worked out perfectly.

So now, with Getting There completed, let's get onto this Avalon Waterways Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy - Southbound experience!

Getting It On!

You must have a visa to enter Myanmar.  There are plenty of services that offer to take care of this for you and Avalon even recommends one it its documents, but don't do it!  You can simply go online and obtain an e-Visa; skipping even having to get passport photos.  (I took a selfie and it was accepted...and I can't take a decent selfie!)  When you arrive just get in the passport control line with all the folks that paid extra for their visa and went through the hassle to sending in their passports and waiting weeks.  By the way, my e-visa was issued in less than 24 hours!


After collecting my bag, I was met by Myo, a very friendly and well-spoken man, who will be our guide for the next 14 days.  Myo is highly experienced not only guiding tours to visitors of Myanmar (from a variety of countries), but also guiding Burmese to other countries.  Myo has guided this southbound tour consistently for two years, so I am very confident that Avalon Waterways is using high quality guides.

During our drive from the airport to the Sule Shangri-la Hotel in downtown Yangon, Myo gives me some great background information on Yangon and Myanmar generally.  Some things he tells me he will further explain when our group (which apparently is only 14 people) gets together tomorrow.

Yangon, Myanmar is undergoing relatively rapid development
after years of drepression.
We had plenty to talk about since the 10 mile drive took about 45 minutes due to the traffic. Myanmar is a developing country and only recently opened its borders to freely purchasing automobiles.  So the infrastructure just doesn't exist for all the cars...even simply where to park them. And speaking of cars, Myo warned me that cars do not stop for people...but more on that later!  (Interestingly all of the street signs are in Burmese and English.)


After Myo checked me into my room, which has a magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which our group will visit tomorrow), it was time for me to explore a bit of Yangon.  

My room at the Sule Shangri-la is a bit nicer than I expected
and has a great view.
First stop is a bank to change money.  (There are ATMs, but many do not work with US banks, so be prepared.)  The exchange rate is 1,350 Kyat (pronounced "jet") to the US Dollar and pretty much anything you want to purchase is incredibly inexpensive.  (I bought a 30 GB data card for my hotspot for 21,500 K or about $16.)

It was then time to wander...and, knowing me, find street food. 

The first thing I noticed is that people do not openly smile (something I noticed on my last trip to southern Myanmar) but if engaged the smiles do come out.  I popped into a random store to purchase a data SIM card and two young girls were only too eager to assist.  With little usable English (it is taught in school, but not conversationally...think high school Spanish) they basically nonverbally said, "Hey nice old guy, you don't understand technology we will take care of this for you."  So with a few laughs:  Mission accomplished.  (Note:  Technically the SIM card has to be registered with the government.  I'm not so sure that is followed.)

Now it was time to really walk. 



I noticed the fear in people's eyes as they cross the busy streets. Coming from New York and driven around the world, traffic is not something I fear.  However, in Yangon there are literally no rules...other than don't hit another car.  Crosswalks should be considered targets for pedestrians...which is why jogging across streets with one's eyes never leaving the cars that come from whatever direction is the rule.  

For me, I simply got into a pack of people and stayed in the middle; figuring they knew what they were doing or would get hit first!  One time I was on my own and as I looked to the left I saw a woman with a panicked face telling me to look right even though the light was red for that car!  (An interesting side note:  Cars drive on the right, but there is no law about which side the steering wheel is to be one.  Most are on the right because the initial supplier of cars during the more restrictive period provided them that way.)

Sule Pagoda
I passed the Sule Pagoda and then found a Maha Bandula Park, across from Yangon City Hall, where many of the locals gathered in the afternoon heat...and it was hot (over 90 F and 32 C)...and which is also the location of a major bus hub. 

Yangon City Hall

Maha Bandula Park
Fortunately, a street lined with food stalls is right next to Maha Bandula Park. Actually it was less stalls and more of a system of tents and umbrellas covering everything from simple makeshift stoves to buffets. 


Most of what I saw was offal or noodles.  The volume of intestine and liver was, even for me, a bit overwhelming from a sense of cleanliness.  But the sights were fantastic!  Just what what I needed...almost.







So I kept walking, with a few young women and men trying to sell me postcards or give me tours. Very polite and very kind in their approach.  And, yes, Trump came up as a way to determine if I was OK to speak with.  Eventually I came to the river, but there was too much construction and traffic to warrant crossing over to see it.

Starting to head back I wandered a bit more and came across two young women with a food stall that looked a bit more elaborate and one of them was a bit more focused on things appearing clean than I had witnessed earlier.  And that was exactly what I needed!

It is fun picking out which street food to try.
BTW, frying in the wok is tofu - a very popular snack
So...with not a clue what she was saying I ordered what I later phonetically wrote down and then found out is Kaw Yay Khauk Swe, or Chicken Egg Noodles.

Kaw Yak Kahuk Swe
Served as is apparently typical in Myanmar with broth on the side and with some delicious really spicy pickled vegetables and garlic it was perfect to get me going.  The cost was 800 Kyat or about 60 cents!

Spicy Pickled Vegetables and Garlic- YUM!
It wasn't the best street food I've had, but it hit the spot...and the smile I got after I said it was good made it taste fantastic.

After a bit more of a walk, I figured it was time to head back to the hotel, get organized and take a nap.  

As I am really looking forward to the program starting tomorrow and it is going to be a busy hot day I decided to stay in for the night...but as you see I wound up writing!

If you have any questions or observations along the way...or if you would like to book this, or any other, Avalon Waterways river cruise (or a Globus land tour), email me at eric@goldringtravel.com while I am away or call me upon my return:

United States:       (877) 2GO-LUXURY
United Kingdom:  020 8133 3450
Australia:              (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530-562-9232

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part I

I depart today for a 14 day Avalon Waterways cruise down the Irrawaddy River on the purpose built Avalon Myanmar, a 18 suite shallow draft luxury river cruise ship.

Avalon Waterways' Avalon Myanmar
This ship and experience is different from the standard, premium, Avalon Waterways river cruise experience with its 245 square foot all suite and very inclusive onboard experience.  (I will describe the suites in detail once I am onboard.)

Cruising Myanmar's (formerly known as Burma) Irrawaddy River is far more challenging and limiting then the well maintained European rivers or even the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. The waters are, to my understanding, shallower, inconsistent in depth and not as well maintained. (AmaWaterways found that their ship required too much water to be practical and, even after adjusting itineraries, found it just needed to start over - so it has withdrawn from the Myanmar market until late 2018 as it's new ship is being built.)

You may recall that a few years ago I traveled through North and South Vietnam (one country, but still pretty much divided) and Cambodia on land and down the Mekong River.  It was a very moving experience not only from the standpoint of better understanding different perspectives of the Vietnam War, but how the local people have lived under a repressive government and slowly (if at all) adapt to the introduction of "modern" society while combining Hindu and Buddhist religions in a unique way.

So what exactly is the itinerary, you ask?

Avalon Myanmar Itinerary

There is an option of traveling upriver or downriver.  I chose downriver.  Why? Most of the development is at the mouth of the Irrawaddy (such as the city of Yangon).  When I was traveling down the Mekong River I found it fascinating to see how approaching more developed towns and the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh changed the local culture.  I am anticipating a similar affect here. Let's find out if there is the same impact or if it is different.

After arriving and being transferred to the Sule Shangri-La Hotel in Yangon the first day and night is on my own.  I'm hoping to have a good wander and find some street food; picking up where I left off during my brief time in Kawthaung, Myanmar while on the Silversea Silver Discoverer in November. As Yangon is more developed I may just be drawn into a restaurant.  Only a nice long walk will decide my fate!

My second day will be the true start of this adventure with a walking tour of the city, visiting the historic sites (including the Sule pagoda), stopping at a  local tea shop then visiting some pagodas - ending at the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset (hopefully).  Afterward is a dinner at "one of Yangon's best restaurants".

I pause here to mention that my 84 year old mother (who is incredibly active...as in crazy active) just told me that four of the women in her book club just happen to be on this same journey.  It will be very interesting to see how an older demographic copes with the numerous walking tours and other physical activities in this hot and humid climate.  (By the way, I'm not worried about them telling my mother any "tales out of school" about me.  What I put my mother through - especially in my younger years (or was that last week?) - has cemented a certain level of "That's just Eric being Eric".)

On Day 3 we fly north to Bhamo, closer to the source of the Irrawaddy and board the Avalon Myanmar. The rest of the day is relaxing, cruising and viewing what is supposed to be some spectacular scenery in what is called the Second Defile.

Next up is a visit the island village of Kyun Daw where there are over 7,000 stupas (dome shaped Buddhist shrines).  Here we will have another walking tour of the village, visiting a fisherman's home, a nunnery and a school.  The afternoon is spent sailing down river; something I truly enjoy.

Day 5 is, hopefully, a highlight for me as we visit a local market. Hopefully I can pick up a few goodies...or maybe even score some mohinga (a fish noodle soup that is the national dish); one of my favorite dishes!  After some historical touring we then visit a local Jingpo Village.  The Jingpo are one of the over 100 ethic minorities in Myanmar (Burmese is the major ethnicity who basically live in the central part of the country running from north to south).  As there remains great ethnic tensions and claims of continued ethnic cleansing even under the new government I am very interested to experience this.  (In the south, the government has set up a tourist village for the Mokan people (also known as Sea Gypsies) to live.  You can read about my experience and thoughts here.) That afternoon we visit the village of Tigyang for a walking tour,

Day 6 brings us to an interactive visit with the monks living in the village of Kya Hnynat.  When I asked my children what the best part of their Vietnam/Cambodia experience they both said it was the time they spent with the local monks; incredibly spiritual.  I am hoping for something similar; this time being able to focus on myself as I am traveling alone.

The following day we visit Kyauk Myauk, a village that specializes in pottery making.  Honestly I am not sure what else is planned for this day.  Not having a checklist is a good thing!  Remember that!

Day 8 is a busy day with another walking tour, this time through Mingun - which is home to the world's largest working bronze bell.  (It kind of reminds me of my time living in Australia where there are a number of towns with the biggest whatever...or is it the movie Vacation where they sought out the World's Largest Ball of Twine?)  Regardless, we are then off to the former capital of Burma, Amarapura; a place I have long wanted to visit.  Part of our experience will be sampan (wooden skiff) ride on Taungthaman Lake; another things I am truly looking forward to.

The next day is also a potential highlight day as we visit Mandalay (No, not the Las Vegas version!) visiting a number of craft workshops (hoping these are not actually little more than "shopping opportunities" because I do love learning about the craftsmanship), followed by some pagodas and the Shwenandaw Monastery - the last remaining remnant of the Golden City that was bombed out of existence during World War II. In the evening is a traditional dance performance; something that I have found in Southeast Asia are quite unique and engaging.

A visit to Sagaing, an important religious site, starts Day 10 followed by a visit to a silversmith workshop and another pagoda (which may be fascinating or cause the addition of ABP to the ABC (another bloody church) and ABM (another bloody mosque) to my alphabet soup.  This is part of what makes travel and my first hand experiencing these journeys so interesting...and helpful when guiding my clients to the right travel experience to fulfill their individual desires.)

As my trip begins to wind down, a lazy morning is followed by an afternoon walking tour of Shwe Pyi, a typical village on the Irrawaddy along with a visit to a local farmer's home with, apparently a focus on CANDY made from the sap of the toddy palm.

Our last destination is Bagan, the capital of Myanmar from the 9th to 13th century.  Visits to a local craft market, a lacquer shop and a pagoda are in the morning, but the afternoon is focused on the Architectural Zone -which I am excited about.  The day ends with an ox cart ride to a temple to enjoy a sunset; a bit of fun.  The ship apparently docks overnight in Bagan, so hopefully I can do a bit of exploring.

The next day we fly to Yangon.  While Avalon Waterways provides another night in Yangon, I am going to head straight to my flight home; not because I don't want another day in Yangon, but the flights work out much better.

So let's take this journey together.  If you have any questions or observations along the way...or if you would like to book this, or any other, Avalon Waterways river cruise (or a Globus land tour), email me at eric@goldringtravel.com while I am away or call me upon my return:

United States:       (877) 2GO-LUXURY
United Kingdom:  020 8133 3450
Australia:              (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530-562-9232