From Jane’s Blog
A Scenic 11 Day Irrawaddy Cruise up River from Yangon to Mandalay
booked through Premier Cruise and Travel
On the 15th March 2017 my husband and I set out on our 11 Day Scenic Tour – “Irrawaddy Cruise up River from Yangon to Mandalay”.
It started with a fantastic Business Class flight to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. The seats were comfy, the blanket was soft and warm. Food was amazing and the drinks just kept coming. Alcohol aside, the lemon and ginger tea was delicious. The flight attendant took a shine to me, so she gave me some!! The staff were all so warm, friendly and helpful. Nothing was too much trouble.
No problem in finding airport transit hotel, which was in the same terminal, although we have to change terminals for our next flight. We only booked the room for 6 hrs, but managed 2 showers and 5 hours sleep. Plus a change of clothes. We followed this by relaxing in the business class lounge with an orange juice.
Most things are still closed as it’s not quite 4am. A little over 3 hours until our next flight. I know this is going to be a fabulous holiday. It’s partly what you make it, and we will have a ball!!
Safely in Yangon. Our first two nights were spent at our hotel the Park Royal which was recommended by Premier Cruise and Travel, and was not only much cheaper than the hotel recommended by Scenic, but when we met up with the rest of our group, it appeared much better – it was lovely.
Once at the airport it took a bit over an hour to get through immigration, then after that it was pretty quick. Filling out the customs forms took longer – and she didn’t even look at them!! Luckily our bags found their way from Brisbane, and while my husband was changing some money (you can’t do it outside the country) I found a new best friend taxi driver. He offered a pretty good price and we only had one very near miss driving here. He pointed out the sights and gave me Burmese language lessons, which came in very useful. It took about 45 minutes to get there.
We passed through areas of abject poverty. Shanty towns with open drains and just planks to walk across them. The usual scrawny chooks and skinny dogs. They had to shoo the chooks off the food stalls, yet in amongst all this they have sacred Buddhist temples of pure gold – worth millions. The women put a type of paste on their faces – a cross between makeup and sunscreen. It was very hot.
Once we had booked into our accommodation we then then decided to go exploring. Discovered huge markets. Bought a pretty fan and a fridge magnet to add to our collection. Had a couple of beers and chatted to the restaurant owner, who spoke good English. He said our country was rich and his very poor, so he had to charge what he did. (Which was a pittance anyway, to us).
It was like a big hall with lots of different restaurants and as soon as anyone walked in (especially a foreigner) they all pounced on you wanting your business. It was hilarious to watch.
Myanmar is definitely moving forward fast, with a lot of financial help from China & Singapore, but it has a LONG way to go to even reach the standards of Laos or Cambodia.
Love the way they are opening up Myanmar on their terms, so as not to lose their identity. There’s a cartoon book in the room telling you their customs and how to make them happy/avoid offending them. Then on the table in the restaurant tonight there was a sign requesting that you don’t use your mobile phones and upset other diners. Good on them. Meal was awesome and cocktails were only $7.
The breakfast spread was like nothing I have ever seen. Lollipop for brekky anyone??? It was truly awesome. Pancake? Freshly made for you. All the usual suspects were there plus plus. It was incredible. They must have a French pastry chef I think, my croissant was out of this world. Loved that they had a large plastic glove which was magnetically attached to the bread board, and you wore it to hold the loaf when you were slicing it. Ingenious. Nothing seems to start early, which is unusual for SE Asia. Even yesterday’s markets didn’t open until 8am.
We had an amazing day at the Shewedagon Pagoda. It was completely indescribable and quite overwhelming. So much gold, plus over 79 THOUSAND diamonds and other precious stones.
It was started over 2,600 years ago with 8 hairs pulled from the Buddha of the time’s head. The king erected the pagoda and enshrined the hairs, together with the relics of the previous 3 Buddha’s. Originally 66 feet high, from the 14th century onwards, successive monarchs added to it until it reached its present height of 326 feet. The hairs are still there. I prayed my usual prayers to Buddha in this amazing room full of all these huge Buddha’s looking at you. Quite eerie.
Then there was a huge bell and sticks to bang it with. So using sign language I asked a man if I was allowed to ‘dong’ it, and he said ‘yes’. So of course I whacked it using the side of the stick. No, no, no, completely wrong, you use the END of the stick. Then this monk leapt down from a platform and put his arms around me to show me where to position my hands, and told me to hit it 5 times, which I duly did. But I was quite overcome, as monks are so revered, you are not allowed to touch them, or supposed to look at them or be higher (taller) than them. Mind you, it may be different here.
We came accross a huge procession with men carrying children in traditional Myanmar dress on their shoulders. I asked what was happening, and someone said a family group had made a donation to the temple. Well it was a huge family group.
A bit further I saw more, so I asked if I could take a photo, and a man smilingly agreed. He spoke amazing English and wanted to know where I was from etc. Gave me travel advice and was so friendly. All in all an amazing and positive experience
After the temple adventures, we looked at the map and decided that we should find the river. Bound to be good restaurants th ere we agreed, both having a picture of somewhere similar to Southbank in our head. How wrong can you be…….?? We got a taxi to another temple, because that was an easy landmark and a short walk from the river.
We could have caught a ferry over to an island where apparently there was a fishing village which had been rebuilt, having been destroyed in the Boxing Day tsunami. But we didn’t do that. We wandered, and……FOUND A RESTAURANT. We were very proud. It was Chinese, and sold delicacies such as ducks feet, pigs brain, heart, lungs and intestines, and of course lots of fishy things. So we were extremely adventurous and shared (portions here are huge)………sweet and sour chicken & rice. Delicious. And we shared a big Mandalay beer. Total cost, $8. Not much bargaining here at all, but prices are generally so low that you almost feel like you should be giving them more. We did tip them, and they were awestruck. Probably started a bad precedent!
This was so amazing for me. We were safely aboard our home for the next 10 days on the Scenic Aura boat. Apparently the river was the lowest it had been in 20 odd years, so we were to expect a little flexibility with our shore excursions.
What I wasn’t expecting was an 8 hr bus ride. But we did have plenty of stops. The first at a beautifully maintained war cemetery.
The rest ‘happy’ stops were mainly for the loo and drinks. Our tour guide Susan was awesome. The cruise director Chantel was the only non-Burmese person on staff, she was from the Caribbean. We had welcome champagne and a talk from her about everything, and also the mandatory safety briefing. We unpacked and explored the boat.
Our first Dinner was a buffet, but from then on was a-la-carte, with buffet breakfast and lunch. The drinks just flow.
The following day we visited a temple and a museum.
After breakfast one morning we went back on the previous days bus from where we boarded.
We went to another pagoda.
We saw a group of novice nuns, the youngest only 6 years old. Our guide asked if we could take their photo and we were allowed. I guess at least, little kids like that they are clothed, fed, and safe from people smuggling or prostitution. And the older girls seemed to look after the little ones.
The temple was most impressive. Then we went to an archeological museum in the town of Sri Ksetra, which is world heritage listed. They had discovered all these artefacts from thousands of years ago. Amazing! Then back to the boat, visited the bar…. no espresso martinis, (thought we will have to teach them that skill), but I did have a very nice Burmese iced coffee with rum in it.
I was now fluent in two words of Burmese, which are phonetically pronounced ‘mingalaba’, which covers most things from hello, hi, welcome etc. Especially when said with the hands in the prayer position. The other is ‘jesudemani’ which means ‘thank you’
We had a Horse and cart ride to the oldest golf course in Myanmar, built by the British. We had a putting competition which the men won!!
Then we went on to the market, where we played an amazing ‘game’. All (couples took one) took a piece of folded paper from a container, on which our guide Susan had written something in Burmese (phonetically so we could pronounce it) and she went through it with us anyway. Then we were given 1000 Kyat (pronounced chat) – about a dollar, and we had to find these things at the market (ours were snake beans) in the 15 minutes we had there.
Then we presented them to our horse cart driver as an extra gift to share with his family. Ours did particularly well as we also gave him an Aussie key ring!
We had the choice of visiting another temple or going on our own to the market – so we chose the latter!
Then at 3pm we had a tour of the wheel house.
Followed at 4pm with a presentation of a ‘Taste of Myanmar’ or traditional expo, where we saw all the products Myanmar produces, from traditional clothing, (even from all 135 ethnic minorities)whisky & rum, rice, chickpeas, corn, and handicrafts in general.
The Market was awesome and very big.
A much better way is to just wander and interact with the locals. I don’t think they get many tourists here as we seemed like a bit of a novelty. We were invited to dine at the Teppanyaki table for dinner that night, although I don’t think the chef is as crazy as other Teppanyaki chefs. Still, something different.
The Myanmar expo was great, with staff all dressed up in ethnic minority’s clothing. They danced for us, it was fabulous. Then we got to try all the food products, except I had too many snacks and spoiled dinner.
For dinner that night we were invited to sit at the Teppanyaki table where we struggled through 7 courses. No fancy tricks though – just an awful lot of food.
The following day we appreciated a nice relaxing start with no early morning wake up. French toast & bacon & maple syrup for brekky.
It was then off to explore the charming village of Salay. Population 7,000. It was so clean and orderly, and the locals were a delight. One couple invited us into their home to look around. It was spotless. They were in their 60’s, and had 3 sons and a daughter. The sons are referred to as tigers, and the daughter as an umbrella, meaning they will be well cared for in their old age. We walked around, played football with some kids, and generally interacted with the locals, which was great fun.
Of course there was the obligatory temple visit, and we also went to an old teak monastery which is now a museum. There were a lot of British colonial buildings, but no-one is allowed to buy them, so they just decay quietly.
Our last stop was at a tea house, run by a Burmese doctor and his wife. So we had green tea and traditional Burmese tea made with condensed milk. Also local snacks – vegetable samosas and sort of crackers made from sesame seeds. They also sold souvenirs, some of the money does go towards the doctor who treats his patients for nothing.
That afternoon there was a lecture about ‘Myanmar Today’, and then at 5.30pm an ice-cream party, with entertainment by the crew, followed by a gala dinner. At 8.45pm there was a puppet show.
When you get back to the boat they clip your shoes together and clean them for you, as everywhere is very sandy. Then you are greeted with a cool towel and a delicious cold drink. The toiletries are L’Occitane….. what a life. They say when you get home you join weight watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous, although not necessarily in that order!!!!
We had an awesome afternoon. The talk on Myanmar was fascinating. The atrocities these beautiful people have been though is heartbreaking, yet they don’t want to follow the ‘Cambodia model’ and search the perpetrators down and punish them. The past is the past, and as a country they want to look forward to full democracy following the 2017 elections. At the moment it’s only partial. However – say the wrong thing and you will disappear…….. Big brother is watching !!
Dinner was awesome as always, then went to a puppet show, which was good, but nothing like the Vietnamese water puppets.
The ice cream party the day before was awesome. So much fun with the crew entertaining us. They were hilarious. Then we did the YMCA etc. No Macarena thankfully.
I would definitely recommend anyone to visit Myanmar now, while it is still relatively unspoilt.
Bagan has more temples than anywhere. Some old, some newer. We did see a magnificent procession where people were sending their children to be novice monks. Very elaborate, must cost the families heaps of money.
Myanmar and Mandalay are our favourites. We went back to the boat for lunch and a rest, then more temples.
We then went to a place called ‘Clay Pot Mountain’ to watch the sun set. ‘Mountain’ being a gross exaggeration – it was more of a mound. It was hotter here, 37 that day with a forecast of, 39 for the following day.
The following morning, the early-morning wake-up call was at 4.30 am, as I went to give alms to the monks. It was a very humbling experience. I actually cried. Luckily the remainder of the day was pretty quite after visiting a lacquer-ware factory. This was quite an amazing process. It takes about 3 months for one piece to be made. Got there by horse and cart which was fun.
Despite there being a lot of beautiful things about, you don’t know if they are genuine or not, but this way, we got to see them making it, and although it may be a bit more expensive, we know it’s the real thing.
Then we had a brief tour of the galley that afternoon. It was very small, but the food that comes out of it is amazing. Everything is home-made, from the ice cream to the caramel sauce. And there’s always a bottle of sparkling wine on the table at breakfast time. We stick to juice and coffee. More than enough alcohol available at other times. It was great not to have to pay for anything as we had already paid for it.
The following morning we visited the village of Yandabo, where they make the best pots in the country. It was really interesting watching them, and lots of interaction with the locals.
The children sang to us and loved it when we sang back. Scenic are doing a lot of work there. Rather than give them money, they work out what the village needs and do it together with Scenic providing the money in stages. They are providing another well, showers and toilets and somewhere for the women to do their washing rather than in the river. Another company had given money for a kindergarten building at the school.
It was summer holidays when we were there, and the children are due to go back in June. We brought lots of exercise books, pens, erasers, crayons &textas etc. to give to the nunnery tomorrow for the school.
Archaeological evidence has shown that humans were present in Myanmar approximately 400,000 years ago, and were amongst the first to grow rice and domesticate poultry and pigs.
City-states appeared as early as the 2nd century BCE (before the common era). Empires in Burma rose and fell over the centuries, until British colonisation in the early 19th century.
Prior to that, Burma was a very wealthy country, and actually had taken over much of Thailand. The British were greatly resented, resulting in both peaceful demonstrations and violent riots.
During the 2nd world war, Burma was devastated, with as many as 250,000 civilians killed. When the war ended, General Aung San negotiated Burma’s independence, until he was assassinated by a military coup in 1947, which resulted in one of the world’s most closed societies, with an awful human rights records.
Since 2010’s “free” elections, the government has embarked on a number of reforms to direct the country towards a liberal democracy. But in reality not a lot has changed, although they are allowed Facebook now!! Myanmar still has a long way to go.
The next morning was good, although it was very hot. It’s always hot but usually the humidity is low.
Anyway, we went around a temple complex just for some variety in our lives!
Then we went to a nunnery which was awesome. We gave them food (donated by Scenic) and we also took pens which the nun was quite overwhelmed with. I was well and truly blessed. So my karma is right up there.
We watched the nuns saying a sort of grace and then eating.
Then we went to a monastic school and donated the rest of our goodies – colouring pencils, crayons, exercise books etc. The school is all free and they follow the government curriculum.
Sometimes 70 to 80 children are in a class with one teacher. They started in 2003 with 31 children and now have 2,256. Many of the children come from very remote areas, and many are orphans. Some become monks, but not all. And even as an ordained monk they can leave at any time. It was a very well resourced school, especially compared to some we saw in India and Africa.
Then we went back to the boat. Another big boat banged into us, apparently we were in its mooring spot!
After dinner we had an awesome group of local dancers and musicians come to entertain us. It was fabulous.
When we docked the previous day just outside Mandalay, we went for a walk. No other tourists. We wandered around. Everyone was so friendly. We stopped at a very busy local restaurant and had a big bottle of beer between us. Cost $1.80 approx.
Then my husband decided he also wanted to buy the glass which was quite fancy and had Myanmar Beer written on one side. Well, obviously no-one had ever asked for that before and they all went into hysterical laughter. Firstly they wanted to give it to us, but we insisted on paying, and I think we paid about a dollar. They probably get them for free from the brewery anyway, but that’s not the point. They already gave us peanuts and a bowl of soup-like stuff full of green leaves and broccoli.
No-one spoke English, luckily I knew how to say ‘thank you we have already eaten’, so we didn’t offend them. I had a ‘cheat sheet’ of Burmese words and phrases, and I added to it by asking the crew.
As Mandalay is our final stop before heading home, we were introduced to every crew member, who then walked around, while we were at dinner that night, and they were clapped and cheered. Then they sang and danced for us.
Our final day and breakfast started half an hour earlier – 6.30am, bags were outside by 7.15. Disembarked at 8am.
Good day. Did some shopping, went to a white temple, the Mingan bell, which used to be the biggest in the world, and an old temple complex which was unfinished due to earthquake damage. Quite amazing.
We had lunch and packed. That afternoon we went to the weaving factory which was pretty awful. So badly paid and labour intensive. ‘Exploitation’ I think we would call it. Young, uneducated country girls – lucky to get US$100 for a month’s work between two of them – AND they send money home. I did get a gorgeous silk outfit though.
Then we went to the Bein bridge. The longest teak bridge in the world.
We viewed it from a longboat with a couple of glasses of bubbly, while the sun set. It was very crowded with locals and tourists. The teak pillars holding it up looked decidedly precarious. Unfortunately not immune to termites.
Then we were taken to the airport for our flight to Singapore. Four hours there, then homeward bound.
We landed in Brisbane about 10.30 am Wednesday.
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