Thursday, April 13, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part IX (The Ship: Avalon Myanmar)

Avalon Myanmar
Avalon Waterways’ Myanmar (Burma) river cruise is, in my opinion, the best overall Irrawaddy River cruise product today.  There is no question, as the only river cruise that sails north of Mandalay, that its itinerary – especially if you are truly interested in seeing what Myanmar is truly like – is the strongest.  And its ship, Avalon Myanmar, launched in 2015, is extremely well designed and clearly purpose built.  Add to that extremely knowledgeable guides and cruise director, a diverse and well executed culinary experience, along with a warm, friendly, and competent crew, and you have an excellent experience waiting for you.  (And, folks, let’s face it, you know I would never say it if I didn’t believe it.)

While I will back up the foregoing in my last article, this article is focused on Avalon Waterways’ ship:  The Avalon Myanmar.

Avalon Myanmar
The Avalon Myanmar is an 18 “all suite” ship.  The ship is designed with an extremely shallow draft and shorter length and height (so that it can go places the other river cruise ships cannot).  That is not to say the ship’s design compromises in other ways, because it really does not (unless you want multiple dining and indoor lounge venues). 

Avalon Myanmar with sampans
The Avalon Myanmar has a large, very comfortable aptly named Panorama Lounge on Deck 2 that is a study in bringing the outside in – with full window walls forward, port and starboard.  Filled with extremely comfortable chairs and sofas, as well as card tables and a small bar, the lounge provides a visually very appealing effect as it looks out onto the outdoor covered Observation Lounge. This makes both spaces appear even larger than they are; and both can easily handle the maximum of 36 guests.  It is, alas, the social hub of the ship and where the Happy Hour and Daily Briefings happen.

Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge

Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge
All the glass brings the outside inside
Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge
Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge Bar
The Observation Lounge with its many lounges and all-weather wicker sofas and chairs is a great semi-protected space overlooking the bow.  While lounging or sitting and reading a book as the Avalon Myanmar cruises down the Irrawaddy River is great, I found that enjoying an early morning coffee or even an evening cocktail while tied up to the shore (with ceiling fans and recessed lighting giving ambiance and comfort) a daily ritual.

Avalon Myanmar Outdoor Observation Lounge

Avalon Myanmar Outdoor Observation Lounge
There is also an open outdoor lounge on Deck 3 with similar furnishings which is a great space in the cooler evenings and for an occasional performance.  I especially like the architectural aspects of the boardwalk.  Note:  There is no spa or plunge pool.  This was explained to be as a concern for too much weight increasing the draft of the ship.  Honestly, having one available on a Mekong River cruise I took a few years ago, I don’t know that most guests would miss it at all.

Avalon Myanmar Deck 3 Lounge

All meals are served in the Dining Room also located aft on Deck 2.  It also has floor to ceiling windows port and starboard so you dine with a great view.  Breakfast and Lunch are a combination of buffet and cook to order items.  Waiters pour juices and coffees, bring you items you later desire and any cook-to-order items if you don’t want to wait.  Dinner is full waiter service.  There is no room service offered. 

When you consider that service is for only 36 people the quality and variety of offerings on the Avalon Myanmar is very impressive.

Breakfast consists of a robust variety of Western offerings (with breads, cereals, fruits, cook to order eggs/omelets, smoked salmon, bacon, potatoes, sausages and more offered every day) plus some Myanmar culinary offerings (usually a hot soup or congee).  The coffee is excellent and is served via French Press.

Avalon Myanmar's Cook to Order and Buffet Breakfast

Lunch is even more diverse in its offerings with a variety of Western and Asian cold salads, a hot and cold Western soup, a Myanmar cuisine soup, cold cuts, finger sandwiches, at least three hot dishes (one being local) and one usually being fish, plus enough vegetables and non-meat offerings to please even strict vegetarians (Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes are large part of the local cuisine so Western friendly fresh veggies are plentiful.)  A cheese board with three types of cheese is also offered. (The blue cheese was a favorite on my cruise.)

Avalon Myanmar's Cook to Order and Buffet Lunch

Dinner is a more elaborate affair (though still casual) with a menu offering at least three starters, two soups, four or five main courses (plus Western standards of chicken breast, salmon and steak) and three different desserts; one being a different variety of ice cream.  The only little niggle (and it is little):  You have to order your dessert when ordering your meal, but the cheese board is always available as well.

The quality of the food ranged from excellent (most often) to very good.  This is not haute cuisine, but well prepared, flavorful and well presented dishes.  The chef was truly a chef with a lot of talent and a staff that cared about preparation and presentation.  That said when we first arrived there were some complaints that the food was too bland; Avalon (not the chef) focusing on most Western palates not wanting to venture too far into the spicy Asian cuisine.  So we did an experiment:  Avalon slightly kicked up the spices on most dishes and offered one that was authentically prepared.  It was a huge success.  (Plus the chef was happy – possibly thrilled – to be able to use his talents…and he graciously specially spice up my dishes at lunch and dinner.)

Wine and beer are “free flowing” during both lunch and dinner.  The included beer is Mandalay on tap and Myanmar in a can.  The included wines are a small selection of inoffensive chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, tempranillo and Cabernet wines.  I would like to see some better wines and definitely more variety in the complimentary pours.  There is actually a very well chosen premium wine list if you are so inclined.

During your cruise the bar is always open for local spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum), beer and soft drinks.  A solid selection of premium liquors is also available for a very reasonable charge.  And the bartender can actually make a good drink (something I have seen falling off on many of my recent cruises.)  There is a happy hour every evening at 6:00 p.m. where there is a creative drink of the day which many of the guests enjoyed.  One niggle:  Wine is not included as a complimentary beverage from the bar, even during happy hour. I think it should be.

Avalon Myanmar Suite
At approximately 245 square feet, I am not sure the identical accommodations – located on Decks 1 and 2 - qualify as suites, but they are quite large, well designed and beautiful.  Below the attractive headboard is either twin or king bedding, which is very comfortable with high quality bedding.  There are overhead, individual lights and table lamps on the night tables, plus USB charging points on either side of the bed.  There is also a multi-speed fan over the bed when used in combination with the impressive air conditioning will keep you cool even when the temperature climbs over 110 F (38 C) degrees. 

The suites have a good size desk with a small refrigerator wwith soft drinks, beer and water (restocked daily), a small comfortable sofa, table and chair.  A large hanging closet with automatic light and a cupboard with shelves and a larger safe are also provided as are bathrobes.

One of the nicest features is the suite-width floor to ceiling windows which easily slide open so that you have effectively a huge balcony.  But making that even better is the similarly disappearing screen system that allows you to have the doors open to let the sights, sounds and breeze in, but the insects out.

Slide open your doors in your Avalon Myanmar Suite
and enjoy the outdoors.
(A nifty sliding screen is available to keep the insects out.)
The bathrooms are extremely well designed with very large showers with rain fall and spray heads that received unsolicited raves from most of the guests.  L’Occitane shower amenities are provided, but in wall-mounted pump bottles (not my favorite way to provide same) and there is a thoughtful step for women to shave their legs.  The toilets are quiet and work.  There is a single lavatory with plenty of shelving behind and to the side of it along with a pull out lighted vanity mirror.  The bathroom lighting is very good, with lots of options (as with the bedroom).  A hair dryer is provided (located in a bag under the lavatory.) I would like the bath towels to be a bit more plush.

Avalon Myanmar has large showers

While you pretty much never see your room steward (at least in that function, as they are around during the excursions to provide assistance) they are trained to leave your stuff alone!  Yay!! To leave my papers as I left them and my toiletries in the order I like is a little, but appreciated, thing.

Avalon Myanmar's Fitness Center

 Located on Deck 3 is the Fitness Center.  The Fitness Center is small, but includes high quality equipment including a treadmill and an elliptical walking machine as well as free weights and yoga mats.  The Fitness Center is open 24 hours a day, but with a request that no running on the treadmill before 6:30 a.m. (walking is fine).

Across from the Fitness Center are two spa rooms.  A nice variety of massages are available and beside the two excellent massages I had the other guests also spoke positively.  The nail service did draw a few complaints.

What Makes the Avalon Myanmar the Best Irrawaddy River Cruise Option

Without question, the most luxurious ship physically speaking is The Strand.  However, it only sails on 3 or 4 day itineraries from Bagan to Mandalay or the reverse.  Let's face it, that is not an itinerary that really visits much of anything.  It is, more than not, a hotel stay on a river with a couple of day excursions.  Further, its staterooms (other than the largest suites) are thes same size or smaller than the Avalon Myanmar. There is butler service and in suite wifi (versus Avalon's wifi only in the lounge), but the wifi is limited to the relatively poor cellular service that exists in Myanmar.  And, while the dining and bar facilities are larger, there are almost double the guests onboard.

Scenic Aura is another all-suite ship from a fine river cruise company carrying 44 guests.  However, not only do you not travel further north than Mingun (and, let's face it, north of Mandalay is where the real Myanmar is), you are facing a 7 hour bus ride from Yangon to Pyay to start your cruise (while Avalon Myanmar charters flights).  The suites are very well designed and do provide a true balcony with sizes the same or larger than those on the Avalon Myanmar.  The ship does have multiple dining venues and lounges, a pool and more in a true all-inclusive experience.  The personal balance to be made is whether missing out on 50% of the itinerary and facing a 7 hour bus ride is offset by a more shipside more luxurious experience and costing literally 50% more.  (For some this may be a good option if the Avalon Myanmar itinerary is thought to be too challenging.)

AmaWaterways has actually suspended its Irrawaddy River cruise because its prior ship, AmaPura - not so dissimilar to the two above are too large to fully deliver the best itinerary.

In summary, the Avalon Myanmar provides a fulfilling, enriching, and very comfortable experience that allows you to not only discover Myanmar, but to do so without long bus rides and missed ports.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part VIII (Sagaing to Bagan)

With our journey on Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Myanmar shortly coming to an end, our Day 10 started with a beautiful sail into Sagaing with the hillside filled with pagodas and temples. 

Sagaing, Myanmar
Then it was a taxi truck ride up the mountain to the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda.  While it is kind of becoming ABP…another bloody pagoda (as opposed to ABC - church and ABM - mosque) the views from high above the Irrawaddy River were nice…and many made it another shopping experience.

Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda

From there it was a taxi truck ride back down to meet our air-conditioned bus for a ride to an architecturally interesting Kaungmudaw Pagoda, which is an older dome shaped pagoda.  This is a more ancient shape for a pagoda. 

During our walk around the pagoda (always walking clockwise so that one’s right side is nearest the Buddha) I noticed a clock on the wall by a shrine; something I hadn’t seen before.  Being curious I asked our trusty Myo what the significance was.  With great insight, he replied:  So you know what time it is.  Sometimes things just don’t have a deeper meaning…but we did have a good laugh!

As is more common (ubiquitous?) this far down the Irrawaddy, this circular pagoda was literally ringed with shops selling pretty much any and everything.

Just to make sure there were enough shopping opportunities, we then stopped at a silversmith seeing how they produce some beautiful silver pieces by hand.  I did purchase a little something – and it was little - as my memento from this really enjoyable and enlightening trip.  This Avalon Myanmar cruise has been so good that it does deserve some sort of physical remembrance.

 It was then time for a lunch and then a lazy afternoon cruising south on the Irrawaddy River.  I used some of this time for another fantastic massage. (I did have to miss the cooking demonstration by Chef Saw who made a pickled tea leaf salad and a ginger salad, but the few minutes I saw with Myo explaining it all was quite engaging.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to enjoy the ensuing samples.)

Because we were making such good time Avalon Waterways added an additional stop at Semekon, a former British outpost for the cotton and tobacco farms nearby.  

While the idea was to see the wonderful examples of British Colonial architecture, a family of peanut farmers stole our day...or, at least, mine.  We had just started our informal stroll through this small village we noticed a picturesque cart with a woman loading it with straw.  

As I approached, an old man waived to me to come closer.  I walked into his yard and there were three lovely women tending to the just harvested peanut crop.  As I was teasing them about taking their photographs another woman rushed into the house and came out with a tray of fresh peanuts for us to sample.  Just another example of the friendly and kind people I have met on this trip.

I then continued my walk through the town, 

taking a moment to walk over part of another ancient bridge (also from about 1849) 

before walking back to the ship holding the hand of one of the village children.

We tied up here for the evening.  It was simply joyful watching the community coming down to the riverside to play, bath, socialize and do their wash as the sun set.

The Avalon Myanmar continued cruising down the river in the morning, heading toward Bagan, Myanmar but made a short stop in the afternoon at Shew Pyi Thar.  This local village is where we learned a bit about the toddy palm sugar production and the simpler village life integrated with some recent modern improvements including some brick buildings, purified water, electricity and toilets with septic tanks.  The confluence of cultures and the modern versus the ancient was most interesting.

It was then back on the Avalon Myanmar to continue our journey to our final stop:  Bagan, Myanmar.  After dinner there was a traditional puppet show; one of the few things on this cruise I found painful.

The next morning, I started my time in Bagan, Myanmar – home to an estimated that approximately 2,300 of the original temples and pagodas still stand (though many have been damaged in recent earthquakes as recently as last year) - with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup by the Avalon Myanmar staff so that I, and a few others, could climb a temple and watch the sunrise.  Oh, it all sounded very romantic and awe-inspiring until I saw the steep stairs (that get markedly steeper and higher with each tier) and then the 4-foot ledge we were perched on for the next 1.5 hours.  So, while in my youth I would think nothing of it, now all I kept thinking was:  How the hell am I going to get down from here and, please, please, please don’t let me fall over the edge!

Climbing this before daybreak is far more daunting!
Over the next hour a few more people arrived:  A Japanese family, local Burmese folks and backpackers from various countries; about two dozen in all.   Their taking photos sitting on the edge wasn’t very comforting!  But then the sun rose, the view was spectacular...

and climbing down was nearly the ordeal we had been discussing.  Whew!

After returning to the Avalon Myanmar for breakfast and a short rest, our discovery of Bagan continued…but not exactly the way I would have liked.  We headed to the local market for some time shopping.  Ugh for me, Joy for many of the other guests. 

With the richness of its history, I expected the local market to be a bit charming.  However, Myo came to my rescue, pulling me aside and telling me I needed to take some special soy paste home to try (mixing it with onions, salt and a little cooking oil).  After my $1.25 purchase he said, “Oh, I like that brand better.  It is not a sweet.”, so I made another purchase for $1.50.  I am looking forward to doing more Burmese cooking…but now I must find a good Asian market somewhere near(ish) to Truckee, California!

And, let’s face it, you know I am going to find some fascinating things in any local market!

Ancient Herbalist
Antique sewing machines at work

Bagan, Myanmar Local Market
 From there it was to Shwezigon Pagoda. And, while it was close to my getting “pagoda’ed out”, the red and gold, as well as the structure of this particular pagoda made it my favorite.  (It is also the last of the three types of pagoda shapes we have been taught about by Myo; this being cone shaped…which is sort of a transitional form from my perspective.)

Yes, I am wearing a longyi
(My shorts were too short)
For the culmination of the Avalon Myanmar’s shopping experiences, we then went to a lacquer workshop where the “real deal” is made in a painstaking process.  It was fascinating. 

Carefully and slowly making lacquer
An incredibly steady hand and artistic talent etching designs
 And watching some of the other guests enthusiastically make some pretty exquisite purchases was nice to see.   (You could spend $3.00 or well over $10,000 on lacquer objects.)

With the temperature approaching 114 degrees Fahrenheit, it was time to return to the Avalon Myanmar for what our final lunch and well needed shower and a rest.

While the heat kept some of the guests contently back on the ship, we were finally going to explore the temples of Bagan.  Having the ability to walk right up and into some of these ancient structures, and also understanding that these brick buildings were originally stucco-covered, opened up a far better appreciation of the sophistication of the people that built them from the 9th to the 13th century.

It was also clear that Bagan, and its architecture and history is something Myo, our guide, is passionate about.  Myo explained just enough (for example, no names we would forget) about the history, the facts and legends surrounding various temples and even some of the engineering they did.

Sadly, Myo also explained by Bagan, Myanmar is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site which, when looking closer, becomes obvious.  As I mentioned previously many of the temples and pagodas have, over the centuries, been damaged by earthquakes.  When built originally, the bricks were specially formed to interlock and to not use any mortar.  However, in a simplistic and ill-advised effort to rebuilt many of the damaged structures, the former Myanmar government used more modern techniques…and lots of mortar.  So most of the structures are no longer considered original or restored…just modern reconstructions.

After visiting two of the best examples of two massive temples (one by a bad ruler that was poorly designed and ultimately was never finished and the other by a great ruler with many interesting architectural and artistic techniques), 

This Buddha seen from afar greets you with a smile
to bring you in

But the same Buddha, as you approach, reminds you of the
seriousness of your purpose.
it was time for an oxcart ride back to the temple where I had observed this sunrise; this time for the sunset.  (Taking the air-conditioned bus rather than the 30-minute cart ride was taken up by most.)

Sometimes ya just have to laugh and something touristic.
(Fortunately I was in the lead oxcart.  Others were a little dusty by the end!)
 And the sunset was a beautiful way to end my journey on the Avalon Waterways Avalon Myanmar before flying home on a local flight to Yangon and then internationally.  (Many guests are spending the included next night in Yangon and a few are headed to Inle Lake for a three-day extension).

 Next up:  My Reflections!